Kim Kardashian was Vogue’s May 2019 cover star. It was her first solo shoot for the fashion magazine, and she was decked out in Chanel and Valentino. But rather than obsessing about her outfit or eyebrows or impossibly small waist, readers obsessed over the announcement she made in her interview (...progress?); following her recent advocacy work to combat mass incarceration, the reality TV star is studying law by apprenticeship in the state of California.
Almost immediately after Kardashian’s announcement was publicized, readers — especially lawyers — shared their crass opinions. The star was told to “stay in her lane,” that she was too unintelligent to become a lawyer, or that she is using her wealth and privilege to study law. (The average cost of attending a private law school is $43,020 a year, while attending a public law school costs an average of $26,264 a year for in-state residents and $39,612 a year for out-of-state students. Studying law is only manageable if one is wealthy, receives scholarships or is willing to take on sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.)
The story of a traditionally attractive woman who’s widely perceived as ditzy becoming a lawyer — and catching major flack for it — isn’t new. In the 2001 film “Legally Blonde,” Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods attends Harvard Law School after scoring a 179 on her LSAT. While there, Woods is discredited as a beautiful woman who stumbled into law school; she’s written off, mocked and sexually harassed. But she comes out on top, defending her first client with special knowledge and experience (in this case, regarding hair products) that only she has. By the end of the film, Woods is graduating as valedictorian of her class.
Kardashian fans are hoping that Kim will come out on top, too. And Kardashian’s first response to public ridicule for her intellectual aspirations is a good sign she’s headed in that direction. Kardashian says she aced her first exam. She wrote on an Instagram post that she wants “people to understand that there is nothing that should limit your pursuit of your dreams, and the accomplishment of new goals. You can create your own lanes, just as I am.”
What strikes me as important about these stories — one entirely fictional and one somewhat fictional, as it exists on the plane of reality television, mega-riches and super stardom — is that at their core, they are not imagined. “Normal” women experience this kind of misogyny as they pursue their career ambitions every day, especially in industries like law that are guarded by misogyny, racism and classism. Even the most qualified, talented, intelligent women are told that their qualifications do not equal those of our society’s perception of a lawyer — a white man. This bias begins before women enter school, and then continues through their education and careers.
According to a survey conducted by the American Bar Association, female lawyers are more likely than men to spend their time doing office housework, to be mistaken for non-lawyers and to have less access to desirable job assignments. The 2018 Law360 Glass Ceiling Report found that while women made up more than 50 percent of law school graduates in 2017, they still comprised less than 36 percent of lawyers at law firms — one of the best compensated jobs in the field. As in most fields, even if women become attorneys, they are less likely to be promoted. In 2018, only 24 percent of law firm partners were women.
This inequality in opportunity results in the legal industry having some of the highest wage gaps not controlled by education or experience, reaching 38.6 percent in some cases. A report by legal invoicing company Sky Analytics says that women can have more years of experience and work more hours but still earn less money than their male colleagues, largely because they are often billed at significantly lower rates than men are.
This wage gap does not lessen for the 24 percent of women who make partner; in fact, the wage gap of equity partners is widening. One 2018 study found that male partners are earning $959,000 per year, on average, at large U.S. firms, compared to $627,000 per year on average for female partners—a 53 percent difference.
While these barriers certainly help gate-keep the most prestigious jobs in law for those who typically benefit from the patriarchy, the surest way to keep women out of the highest-paying jobs in the legal field — more than paying them less and offering them less opportunity – is discouraging them from studying in the first place. That’s what Woods faced on television, and it’s what Kardashian is facing on social media. But it’s also what the women we interviewed faced in everyday life.
Alexis Moore says that, shortly after beginning her 1L year, she was told that she would “never make it through law school” by a dean at her institution. Moore adds she was told that she “no chance in hell of her graduating, much less passing the bar.” She says the dean thought her LSAT score was too low and assumed that she was pregnant. Moore says she was “overweight at the time” and had “difficulties with mobility” after sustaining injuries from an abusive relationship.
While Moore believes most people would’ve been discouraged by these comments, she continued to pursue her dream. She left that school and graduated from an online program. While only 43 percent of people passed the California bar in 2016 — when Moore took the test — she passed on her first attempt.
Like Kardashian, Moore found power in pursuing law in an unconventional way and beating the odds.
“My goal is to encourage all people to pursue their goals… anything is possible if you set your mind to it,” she said.
Jessica T. Ornsby also hopes that women who are told they aren’t the right kind of person to pursue law will do it anyway. Ornsby studied music in undergrad and says she was told by professors and family members that she wouldn’t score high enough on the LSAT to get into a decent school.
She went on to earn her J.D. and LL.M. in taxation from Georgetown.
Women will keep being told they can’t do something and they will keep doing it — whether that’s on reality TV, actual TV or in everyday life, where the small indecencies women face unfortunately aren’t captured by anyone but perhaps a diary or the ear of a close friend. But women shouldn’t have to. We shouldn’t need to “build our own lanes.”
In a field like law that’s focused on justice, opportunity should be like an open highway, not a toll road.