Six of One, a Half Dozen of Another: Why Taking the Road Less Travelled By Has Made All the Difference

FullSizeRender (1)Illustrated by Minji Reem

I was asked to write this article because some may call my path unconventional: I took only two lecture classes after 1L, didn’t apply for law review, didn’t apply for clerkships, and was cold-called less than 5 times in my last two years. I was also a teaching assistant for three professors, was a Bobbitt section head preceptor, went to Cuba with my seminar class, did 5,000 pages of extra reading for a certificate in Gender and Sexuality (which I never got because I didn’t schedule my oral exam), and started the Muckraker.

But as I started writing about the challenges and joys of going my own way, I realized that in one way I wasn’t so different after all. While researching for the Muckraker, I found an article in the Harvard Record about the status of women there and at other elite law schools: 9 out of 44 of last year’s incoming Harvard Law Review members were women; 29 percent of the Supreme Court clerks from Harvard over the past six years were women; and male students were 50 percent more likely than women to speak voluntarily at least once in class.

Suddenly, my declaration of independence was an illustrative example of the achievement gap. At Harvard, the results were in. Women continued to get worse grades than men despite blind assessment, and only 30 percent of magna cum laude recipients were women. In response to the news of women’s persisting inequality, the Harvard Women’s Law Association created a short documentary in which female students described feelings of alienation and self-doubt at an institution that failed to provide the conditions for women to succeed. One woman confessed: “The level of competition basically drowned my soul.”

Is that what happened to my soul, too? Is that why I didn’t take the classes I needed to apply for clerkships? Did I really have to take Gender Justice, Law and Literature, and Law and Education (along with an independent research and writing credit) all in one semester? Or did the thought of getting cold-called in front of 200 people sound too scary to me? And why didn’t I enter the law review write-in competition after my 1L year? Had I really been sure that legal writing “wasn’t for me”? Or was I too busy enjoying summer with the boy I had met on the first day of class? Just like a woman! Was I just a woman?

I experienced my share of self-doubt during the first year of law school. Teary confessions that I wanted to drop out to become an event planner seemed to confirm the warning I had received while visiting Columbia the year before: English majors who don’t know what to do with their lives and whose parents are lawyers shouldn’t come to law school. In the classroom, I prayed to be left alone in silence and volunteered to speak exactly twice. Once in Legal Methods after a glass of wine and reaching complete certainty that my answer was exactly right (the professor’s words, not mine) and once when I admonished as paternalistic the court’s sympathy for the old lady who tried to revive her zest for living in a dance hall.

Even though I chose not to take classes that felt like random interrogation (and even though I benefitted from surviving the ones that did), I also chose to take some timely guidance from Professor Moglen to buck expectations and seek out professors and passions. As a 2L, I wrote my best essay of law school on sexual contracting in Professor Franke’s Gender Justice, analyzed Scalia’s use of the Code of the Gentleman in U.S. v. Virginia in Professor Ferguson’s Law and Literature, and realized that while the questions in Professor Bulman-Pozen’s Antidiscrimination Law were the ones that would drive me, my work would be outside the courtroom. In my third year, I acted on the proposal I developed in Professor Sturm’s class that a magazine could facilitate social and institutional change in law school.

Before he ascends the auditorium stairs on the last day of class and declares, “Welcome to law school,” Professor Bobbitt has his Legal Methods students read W.H. Auden’s poem, “Law Like Love.” Who knows what I missed out on by avoiding the “traditional path,” but I know I felt more liberated than ousted, guided less by fear and more by the encouragement of mentors to turn law school into a place to figure out how law, like love, can become a source of creativity, joy, and satisfaction.

On my post-bar road trip across America with my best friend since seventh grade, we came to many forks in the road. After 4,500 miles of navigation dictation, we adopted a new approach to the recurring question: what road should we take? Battered by the road, three near-death experiences, and 26 days of constant companionship, my co-captain and I would look at each other and shrug. Six of one… half dozen of another, we would say.  Too bad in law school all roads are not given equal value.

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