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Voice and Vocation

Kristi Jobson, HLS Class of 2012

By multiple measures, I attended a far different Harvard Law School than the one Professor Montoya describes in Mascaras, Trenzas, y Greñas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse. [1]  As we approach the close of the sixth decade of HLS women, we make up almost (but not quite) 50% of the student body, there are multiple female professors led by the school's second female dean, and the Women's Law Association is the largest student-led organization on campus.  The school itself has changed too—each 1L section has less than half the 175 students that Professor Montoya sat with on her first day of criminal law, and the new Wasserstein student center provides space for students to collaborate meaningfully and socialize.

These and other aspects of the school make it an arguably more hospitable place for women than the school Professor Montoya describes.  Yet, only nine of the forty-four incoming Harvard Law Review editors were female this year, and women made up only eighteen of the sixty magna cum laude graduates last May.[2]  According to a 2004 study, HLS women are far less likely to volunteer comments or questions in class, and make up a dismally small percentage of "repeat speakers" who speak three or more times per class.[3]  A recent report out of Yale Law School found that in 2012, men were still more likely to speak in class than women at YLS.[4]  Twenty years ago, Lani Guinier's landmark work Becoming Gentlemen found that women at University of Pennsylvania law school were less likely to participate in class, and were consequently underrepresented in prestigious activities like the law review and moot court, and less likely to achieve academic honors.[5]  I am concerned that this trend persists today, with very real consequences.  As Guinier observed, "[L]ow levels of class participation in the formal, structured pedagogy correlate with weak performance on the formal, structured evaluation system."[6]

I regret that my 1L year I did very little to correct these unbalanced numbers.  I didn't try out for law review, preferring to invest my energy in the Journal of Law & Gender.  Though I meticulously took notes on my reading, I hesitated to volunteer in class.  The notes were merely a life preserver in case "the worst" happened—getting called on and freezing up in front of my eighty classmates.  Before and after class I felt comfortable debating assigned cases, but in the vast classrooms of Austin Hall my voice, like Professor Montoya's, sounded "high-pitched and anxious"[7] when I dared to raise my hand.

Of all the narratives presented in Mascaras, Professor Montoya's description of speaking out in class during her first year most resonated with me.[8]  She describes how many classmates felt intimidated, and how impressed everyone seemed with the student who could handle a cold-call coolly and calmly:  "He had already achieved and was able to model for the rest of us the objectivity, clarity and mental acuity that we/I aspired to."[9]  I remember being similarly impressed by my section mates—and similarly doubtful that I could ever be that ideal law student.

In my doubt, I let many moments where I had an opinion, observation, question, or thought just pass by.  The worst is when you hear another student voice the very same thing you thought of earlier but were too intimidated to say.  See, I'd tell myself, that didn't sound so ridiculous coming out of her mouth!, and I would resolve to raise my hand next time around.  I decided to make myself volunteer, setting a personal quota for each week of class.  Eventually, speaking up came a little more naturally.  A little.

Silence and passivity are reassuring masks to wear in a traditional law school classroom.  Too many HLS women—and men—prefer to fade safely into the crowd in order to avoid the potential for . . . what?  What are we all so worried about?  What was Professor Montoya's 1L self so concerned would happen if she continued to speak up, as she had during the discussion about Josephine Chavez?

The turning point came for me when I complained to a non-law school friend that our classes rarely touched on the concerns that motivated me to come to law school.  "So why don't you bring them up?" she asked.  Good point.  Professor Montoya describes how a classroom discussion contextualizing an assigned legal reading in issues of gender, class, and ethnicity "would [] run counter to traditional legal discourse."[10]  Perhaps what's considered traditional can shift—but only if class participants eager to root the law in issues of sociology and identity raise their hands and insert their insights into the classroom.

I don't mean to imply that this is a simple matter of overcoming apprehension. Even with a reduced class size of eighty, those first-year classes hang heavy with the gravitas of performance.[11]  As Professor Montoya observes in Mascaras, performance demands a mask.[12]   Like any other art, "[s]peaking out takes practice."[13]  Your heart may still flutter when all eyes turn towards you as you turn on your microphone in Austin North, but the opportunity to practice is worth it.  Maybe at first the sound of your voice will ring with the artificiality of performance, but the more you practice, the more it will be your genuine, authentic self, shifting the conversation where you want it to go.

Take Professor Montoya's observation to heart—masking your opinions with silence provides protection from criticism, but it ensures your invisibility.

Raise your hand.


[1] I note also that despite my observations about gender disparity in class participation, my experience at Harvard Law School should be viewed through the prism of privilege, given my race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religious background, and many other factors.  In the spirit of Professor Montoya's personal narrative, I am only speaking to my own perception of law school.  I recognize that this response lacks her intersectional approach to and critique of the law school experience.

[2] I am grateful for the HLS Women's Law Association's "Shatter the Ceiling" initiative for compiling these and other sobering statistics.

[3] See generally Study on Women's Experiences at Harvard Law School (2004), available at http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/experiences/FullReport.pdf.

[4] See generally Yale Law School Faculty & Students Speak Up about Gender: Ten Years Later (2012), available at http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/Student_Organizations/YLW_SpeakUpStudy.pdf.

[5] Lani Guinier, et al., Becoming Gentlemen: Women's Experiences at One Ivy League Law School, 143 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1, 27 (1994).

[6] Id. at 61.

[7] Margaret E. Montoya, Mascaras, Trenzas, y Greñas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse, 17 Harv. Women's L.J. 185, 202 (1994).

[8] Id. at 201–09.

[9] Id. at 208.

[10] Id. at 204.

[11] I am grateful to Professor Jeannie Suk's class Performing Arts and the Law for elucidating for me the many ways in which law and especially legal practice intersect with performance theory.  In my current role as a judicial law clerk, I often recall our class discussions while observing oral argument.  I wonder if we've all signed up for a career as performers.  While Professor Montoya views narrative and storytelling as a “challenge . . . to traditional forms of legal discourse,” see id. at 214–15, perhaps legal work is inextricably infused with the practice of drama.

[12] Id. at 200.

[13] Id. at 209.

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