Study finds class affects Law School experience

When Yale Law School sends out its coveted admission letters, the nation’s top-ranked law school may not be guaranteeing an equal shot at success for all members of its future classes, a new report has found.

According to a study compiled by 12 Law School students this academic year, a majority of J.D. candidates who responded to a survey the team distributed last fall believe that their class background and socio-economic status have influenced their experiences at the school. Based on 243 student responses to the survey, the report highlights student concerns related to class differences — such as access to informal networks that are only available to upper-class students — and recommends strategies for addressing them.

Most students and professors interviewed said they are glad that the report has spurred discussion about class issues within the school, because class is a factor in student life that members of the Law School community often neglect.

Roughly one-fifth of respondents said they think the faculty is understanding of the experiences of people from all socio-economic backgrounds. Many said they think professors assume all students come from comparatively privileged backgrounds, which leads them to assign expensive textbooks and make comments that can intimidate or alienate students. Just 30 percent said they think their peers are sensitive to the experiences of students from all socio-economic backgrounds, and many respondents said they think the Law School student body is ignorant about issues of class.

Project chairs Chase Sackett LAW ’14 and Grant Damon LAW ’14 said they hope the report will bring about a combination of immediate improvements and more long-term, structural changes within the school. Sackett said he thinks the report is particularly effective in raising awareness about class issues among students who may not have acknowledged them prior to the report’s release on March 12.

“We don’t just want to fix things in the short term — the aim of this report is to foster a long-term policy change that becomes part of the school’s culture,” Sackett said. “At many universities nationwide, the issue of class is under the surface, even at universities with open cultures regarding issues such as race, gender and sexual preference. But social class comes through [here], even in everyday conversations, such as when students talk among each other about where they went on vacation.”

Sackett identified several quick measures the school could adopt to lessen class imbalances among students, including offering an orientation program that addresses class alongside issues such as race, gender and prior education. The report also recommends that the school rethink courses that students can only take after obtaining permission from the instructor, given the different comfort levels students have interacting with professors outside of the classroom. The speed and scope of the proposed changes will depend on the extent of faculty cooperation, Sackett said, adding that faculty support will be crucial for a long-term shift in the school’s culture because of the dominant role of faculty governance in the Law School community.

Some professors said they think the faculty is aware of socio-economic diversity and questioned the report’s definition of class. Law professor Peter Schuck said class is an opaque social category, adding that he thinks professors should treat students as individuals rather than as “exemplars of larger, constructed and often misleading social categories.” The survey did not provide respondents with a definition of social class, but the report states that the project team acknowledged the many factors that contribute to class distinctions.

“Judging from the summary, the report seems more confident than I am that there is a standard way in which students experience their own class backgrounds and that professors can know enough about that standard experience to adapt their behavior to it,” Schuck said. “I suspect that the more faculty are asked to focus on class, even for benign purposes, the more awkward and artificial faculty-student relationships will be.”

Associate professor David Grewal LAW ’02, whom respondents identified as particularly sensitive to socio-economic issues, said he thinks class is an important and relatively neglected part of conversations about inclusivity at the Law School, adding that he is pleased students are discussing the issue.

At the beginning of each semester, Grewal tells students to approach his assistant anonymously if they cannot afford to buy the textbook for his class, and he purchases books for these students with funds out of his own pocket. He said this practice may have caused students to single him out as more sensitive to class issues than his colleagues.

“I know that coughing up a couple hundred dollars at the beginning of every semester is not easy for every student,” Grewal said. “I don’t want to be insensitive to the fact that people have different budgets that they are working within.”

Visiting professor Abraham Wickelgren said he has not noticed class issues affecting the atmosphere in his courses, but said his perception of the issue might be affected by his limited experience teaching at the school.

Five professors said they have not heard of the report, and Law School spokeswoman Janet Conroy said the administration looks forward to receiving and discussing it. The project team and several students met Wednesday to discuss the next steps in spreading the report’s analyses and recommendations among the school’s faculty and administration. Sackett said the team is preparing a handbook for faculty members that will compile the most effective strategies for addressing student concerns.

Students at Yale Law School could access the survey for the report from Oct. 31, 2012, to Nov. 8, 2012.

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