Law Students, Particularly Women, Have Limited Contact With Faculty, Survey Finds

January 05, 2011

Although nearly half of American law students are women, they are less likely than their male classmates to ask questions in class or to discuss assignments with their professors, according to the findings of a national survey released today.

Female law students are also more likely to say they work hard out of a fear of failure or the desire to avoid being embarrassed in front of their peers.

The 2010 Law School Survey of Student Engagement was conducted by researchers at Indiana University at Bloomington's Center for Postsecondary Research and is based on feedback from nearly 25,000 students at 77 law schools in the United States and Canada. It is cosponsored by the Association of American Law Schools and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The annual survey, now in its seventh year, provides data that are intended to help law schools teach more effectively, better prepare students for their careers, and see how the learning climate at their schools stacks up against that of their peers.

The survey did not address the reasons women seemed more reluctant to speak out, but the authors hope the findings might stimulate further research.

"The gender findings were interesting and kind of disturbing," said Lindsay Watkins, project manager. "We hope this is an area that folks will find intriguing and want to follow up on."

The survey measures factors such as the amount of time students spend in educationally meaningful activities and how well they feel their schools are preparing them to handle ethical dilemmas and meet the needs of their future clients.

Judith Welch Wegner, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a former senior scholar with the Carnegie Foundation, said the findings should help schools explain "why students should enroll in law-school programs during an era of increasing debt and uncertainty regarding job prospects."

The report also found a disconnect between the important role students feel faculty members can play in their professional development and the amount of time most students actually spend talking with their professors.

Students reported that their interactions with faculty members had helped them gain professional skills and a personal code of ethics. However, less than a third of third-year law students—either men or women—had worked closely with their professors or frequently discussed class readings or career plans with them.

Ms. Wegner said those findings should help shape the debate over proposals, now being considered by the American Bar Association, that would allow law schools to hire more adjuncts and reduce their reliance on tenure. The ABA accredits law schools and is considering changes in its standards.

"If students want to form mentoring relationships with faculty," Ms. Wegner said, "they need people who aren't just there short-term and then are gone."

The report also says:

  • Just 53 percent of students felt prepared to deal with ethical dilemmas they might face in practice.
  • Younger students were more likely to say they were attending law school because they didn't know what else to do, while older students were more likely to say they wanted to contribute to the public good.