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Women Increasingly Pursue Law Degrees; UNC Ahead of Trend

And some law students and professors say the demographic shift is creating noticeable changes in the classroom and in the courts.

The number of women admitted to UNC's law school has been more than 50 percent during three of the last four years, said law school Dean Gene Nichol. Women first became the majority of admitted students in 1997.

"It indicates that a lot of talented women are interested in becoming lawyers, and I think it will change the culture of the workplace," Nichol said. "Women are just a little smarter than men."

According to The New York Times, the proportion of female law students nationwide has been steadily increasing from 10 percent in 1970. This year, 49.4 percent of law students are women, and next year that proportion is expected to break the 50 percent mark.

But UNC's law school is slightly ahead of the trend.

Victoria Taylor-Carter, assistant dean of admissions at UNC's law school, said the entering class of 2000 was 52 percent female. Taylor-Carter said it was difficult to predict next fall's female-to-male ratio but that it would likely remain constant or increase slightly.

Both students and faculty said they are cognizant of the growing female presence at the UNC School of Law.

Law Professor Elizabeth Gibson graduated from the UNC School of Law in 1976 and has been teaching at the school since 1983. Gibson said she has noticed an increasing female presence in law and the effects of that presence.

"There's been an interest in areas of the law that wouldn't have received as much attention -- domestic violence, feminist approaches, children and the law," Gibson said.

Doug Rosenzweig, a first-year law student, has also noticed the recognition of women's issues in his classes.

"We had a long discussion about pantsuits and whether women should wear them to interviews instead of skirts," he said. "I think it's an interesting issue, but it doesn't affect men."

But many students at the law school said they don't expect the female majority to necessarily lessen competition and foster a more cooperative atmosphere in the classroom.

"I think (the increase in female students) makes it more cooperative, but this law school isn't very competitive in comparison to other law schools," Rosenzweig said.

For some, male and female proportions can change the feel of the class in other ways. Samantha Cabe, a second-year law student and an officer of the Women in Law program, said certain classes, like "Sex Equality," do tend to be mostly female. "I took a course that was predominantly female, and there was very open discussion about different ways that women are treated in the legal profession," Cabe said.

In other courses, the dynamic changes. "In classes such as 'Business Associations,' the voice of the class seems to be predominantly male," she said.

Gibson recalled the 1970s, when her classes were predominantly male. She said her graduating class was 20 percent female -- a large percentage of women graduates for the time.

Regarding the atmosphere in the classroom, Gibson said the increase in female students has not caused a dramatic shift but that the trend has made women feel more comfortable.

"We felt more like pioneers -- that we had the courage to come into this male-dominated profession," Gibson said of her law school class.

But students and faculty said there are still obstacles specific to women. "It's not women that limit themselves but people with preconceived notions that limit them," Taylor-Carter said.

Rosenzweig expressed a similar sentiment, saying the law profession is probably more difficult for women because they have to fight stereotypes.

Students and professors said the other major burden women face in law careers is the potential responsibility of balancing motherhood with professional considerations.

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"As more women get in decision-making positions in the profession, my guess and my hope is there is going to be greater emphasis given to outside life, such as family," Gibson said.

Taylor-Carter also noted how women have impacted the law profession. "(The increasing number of women) should hopefully open people's eyes to different issues and concerns they haven't thought about before," she said. "And it only makes the profession better."

Rosenzweig also touted the benefits of women in law and summed up his views with a positive statement.

"In general, I have to say that I like women in law school -- it seems like the smartest people are girls."

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