Women in Law. A Journey Through Legal Education: Law Students, Diversity and Women in Law

March 7, 2019

academic law, Author Articles

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“As I watch these women develop their own understanding of, and relationship with, law, to me they embody the multi-faceted nature of law, its richness and its breadth”

Emma Jones is a Lecturer in Law at The Open University, UK

What do you see if I ask you to close your eyes and conjure up an image of the “typical” law student?  Perhaps someone fairly studious, straitlaced even, dare I say it, dull? Perhaps someone ultra-competitive, jousting for position, even sporting a suit and briefcase?

If I look back on my time as a female law student, those are two stereotypes that stand out, perhaps unfairly, but it felt like there was a sense of uniformity about my cohort.  Everyone was striving to be a part of the legal profession (if you weren’t, what was wrong with you?). Everyone was applying for summer placement schemes, Legal Practice Course places, training contracts, all the next stages that you needed to tick off to succeed.

Perhaps more than anything, although not as explicitly vocalised as the endless discussions on interviews and offers, there was a sense of law students as somehow elite, apart, having a particular status.  They posed a certain knowledge, a way to decipher complex, even archaic rules, to create order out of jumbled circumstances by applying the correct principle in the right way. There was a sense of law providing us with a superior, even elite, way of knowing and being.

Looking back, the uniformity and sense of status led to a form of culture often associated with forms of masculinity – competitive, adversarial and prizing rigid forms of legal reasoning.  This isn’t to say that any of the women complained or felt disadvantaged – we were part of the race to the next step, to be part of the legal profession, to achieve new goals.

Fast forward twenty-odd years and I am (still somewhat to my surprise) a legal academic.  In my 18 year old eyes, I suspect that would be something of a failure, but to my 40-something year old eyes it is a huge privilege and reward.  I work for The Open University, supporting students through the law degree. We don’t demand A-level grades or a sparkling CV. In fact, we have no entry requirements; anyone who wants to study with us is welcome.

So, what do I see if I close my eyes and visualise my law students at The Open University?  Perhaps strangely, I don’t actually see pictures in my mind. Much of our law degree is distance learning, so often I am dealing with names, emails, online classrooms, all without physically meeting my students.  However, I also see stories behind these names. Stories of incredible, awe-inspiring students who each have their own story, their own journey, and their own relationship with law.

This post is about women in law, so I will focus on the women students.  Not that they are a homogenous group or even easy to describe. In fact, the female students I have worked with have been hugely diverse – in terms of age, culture, family and employment situations and many other aspects.  Sometimes these students come because of a programme on the television that has sparked their interest, sometimes because of a life-long ambition. Occasionally, it is because of their own experience of the law – family, employment, crime.  Perhaps they are seeking a new career or to improve their circumstances in some way. Sometimes, it is simply to prove to themselves that they can do it – that they’re more than just an employee or a mum or the person who dropped out of school early.

Whatever their motivation, for those students who persevere (and, sadly, not all do) what I love to see is the way they begin to view the law differently.    They go beyond the television programme or the promise of a “good” job.  They explore how the law interacts with society, how it shapes their everyday life, the way it influences (and is influenced by) people, policy and politics.  As they progress in their studies, I hope they also start to consider how the law intersects with them as women – their roles, their rights and responsibilities, the expectations upon them and the gendered nature that legal rules, procedures and processes can all embody.

As I watch these women develop their own understanding of, and relationship with, law, to me they embody the multi-faceted nature of law, its richness and its breadth.  They constantly challenge the stereotypes I had in my mind from my own law degree and the type of culture and attitudes that can still, unfortunately, be found in so many areas of law.  That is not to say that there isn’t competition and a sense of status, but it is mediated by the diversity and variety of our cohort in a way which shatters so many legal pre-conceptions and norms.

When I began writing this post, I was thinking about the notion of “what makes a law student?”  The idea that this had changed and shifted over time. I am sure it has, but on reflection my post isn’t just about that.  What it is actually about is the way the incredibly diverse range of women law students I now meet have shaped my own understanding of law.  They have blurred the clear lines I saw the law as imposing as an aspiring lawyer and demonstrated that law intersects with so many things in so many ways.  To close your eyes and conjure up an image of these students may be far more challenging, even different, but they embody the best of law as a living and evolving discipline.

Emma_Jones

Emma Jones is a co-author on the forthcoming Elgar title ‘Creating a Therapeutic Legal Pedagogy: Lessons and Practices for Legal Education”.

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