Voices and Ideas

New Wave of Women Legal Editors Includes ΦBK Members

By Clare Lefebure and Courtni Foster

During a year that marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, women achieved another major milestone in law. In January, all 16 major American law journals elected women as editors-in-chief including five members of Phi Beta Kappa.  

As the announcements rolled in from across the country, Farrah Bara, newly-elected editor-in-chief of the Duke Law Journal, wanted to commemorate the historic occasion. The probability of an all-female led editorship is 1 in 100,000. Last May, she reached out to the group with a proposal: that the class come together and release a special joint publication, titled “Women & Law.” The final result is a 180-page document containing 14 essays written by prominent women in the legal community. The essays address topics like motherhood, working in law as a woman of color, and the 19th Amendment. 

A celebration of these two events – the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment and the election of an all-women class of editors-in-chief – came together at a gathering in Washington, D.C. for the release of “Women & Law.” At that event, Phi Beta Kappa member and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg addressed the remarkable group. “It’s such a contrast to the ancient days when I was in law school,” Bader said. “There really is no better time for women to enter the legal profession.” Of course, the new editors are positioned well to address these challenges and potentially spark change in the gender dynamics of the legal field. 

According to the American Bar Association, the number of women enrolled in accredited law schools now exceeds the number of men. Despite this progress, women make up only a quarter of tenured and tenure-track law professors, and less than a quarter of law firm equity partners. Only a third of all active federal district and appeals court judges are women. As Duke Law Professor Marin Levy told the crowd at the event, “there is still plenty of glass left to be shattered.”

The skills emphasized by the kind of liberal arts education that Phi Beta Kappa champions – critical thinking and reasoning, creative problem-solving, and effective communication – align well with the legal field. Many Phi Beta Kappa members have enjoyed successful careers in the law, including 41 Supreme Court Justices

The Society is represented well in the new class of editors-in-chief. Among the 16 women, 5 are Phi Beta Kappa members, including Grace Paras, editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Law Journal; Laura Toulme, editor-in-chief of the Virginia Law Review at the University of Virginia; Lauren Kloss, editor-in-chief of the Cornell Law Review; Emily A. Vernon, editor-in-chief of The University of Chicago Law Review; and Sarah McDonald, editor-in-chief of the Michigan Law Review. The Society reached out to them for comment on how their liberal arts educations helped prepare them for their careers in the law. Here’s what they had to say:

Emily A. Vernon (ΦBK, Northwestern University), editor-in-chief at The University of Chicago Law Review         

"I'm so grateful for the wide-ranging liberal arts education that I received at Northwestern. There's obviously no set curriculum for 'pre-law' students, but the critical thinking and writing skills that I gained in undergrad helped me to become a thoughtful editor of legal scholarship in my role on the Law Review."

Laura E. Toulme (ΦBK, University of Georgia), editor-in-chief at the Virginia Law Review

“I believe a liberal arts education emphasizes experience both inside and outside the classroom. As a biology major inside the classroom, I learned how to evaluate and clearly articulate arguments, which prepared me well both as a law student and editor-in-chief. Outside the classroom, I was heavily involved in the Sierra Student Coalition: UGA Beyond Coal Campaign. I engaged with my community and gained public speaking, fundraising, and advocacy skills—all which were vital in my role as editor-in-chief.”

Lauren Kloss (ΦBK, Villanova University), editor-in-chief at the Cornell Law Review

“I find it particularly fitting to discuss the impact of my liberal arts education on my time as editor-in-chief, because it was my undergraduate liberal arts studies that influenced my decision to run for the position. While working as an associate for the Cornell Law Review, I worked on a piece titled "Property, Dignity, and Human Flourishing" and was thrilled to discover such a clear connection between my undergraduate humanities studies and my legal education at Cornell. The Law Review offers a unique opportunity to guide legal scholarship while exploring themes not always addressed in typical legal discourse. I decided to run for editor-in-chief with the desire to interact further with such pieces, and those themes guided me while curating works for Volume 105. I'm not sure where my legal career will lead me, but so far I've taken my liberal arts education with me every step of the way.”

Grace Paras (ΦBK, New York University), editor-in-chief at the Georgetown Law Journal

“My liberal arts education helped prepare me to dive into pieces on legal topics that I hadn't yet studied or gained professional exposure to with an open mind. The benefit of a liberal arts education is learning about different ways to approach one's studies and professional challenges. The flexibility of a liberal arts education also allowed me the freedom to chart my own professional path. At NYU, I double majored in both a quantitative discipline—politics—and a humanities discipline—Spanish. After college, I combined both of these interests and began my career working on immigrants' rights issues. My passion for serving the public interest brought me to law school. My dream is to pursue impact litigation cases, which require both problem-solving and creative thinking—and I have faith my liberal arts education will serve me well in helping me think outside the box on ways to push the law forward to achieve large-scale, social justice.”

Sarah McDonald (ΦBK, Smith College), editor-in-chief at the Michigan Law Review

“One of the biggest gifts I gained from my college experience was the chance, as a graduate of a women's college, to have many models of strong and brilliant women in leadership positions. My liberal arts education at Smith College not only taught me to trust myself as a leader and a thinker; it also helped me learn to challenge my assumptions and to consider what's been left out of the stories we're told. I've found these lessons invaluable as I go through law school and as I think about the kind of lawyer I want to be.”

Clare Lefebure is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland-College Park, where she studied English language and literature. She is currently the Communications and Member Engagement intern with the Phi Beta Kappa national office, and was previously an intern with the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Courtni Foster is a senior biology major and Phi Beta Kappa member at Howard University. She is currently the National Arts & Sciences Initiative Intern and conducted additional research for this article.

(Posted on 2/27/2020 )