Brigham Young University’s law school admits first class with more women than men

( Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune ) Left to right: Kate Zurcher, Ellen Welch, Kristie Lam, Summer Crockett, McKinney Voss and Daniela Rosbach are first-year law students at Brigham Young University. For the first time in the school's history, BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School's incoming class has more women than men.

For the first time since Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School opened its doors in 1973, the incoming class has more women than men.

“I’m in a class right now that I’m the only woman in that class,” said third-year law student Luisa Gough. “This will change the dynamic for sure.”

“It’s historic,” said second-year law student Victoria Hilton. “Students are definitely talking about it. ... We’re really excited.”

The numbers this year don't show a big difference between the genders — there are 54 women and 50 men.

But a class that’s 52 percent female marks a considerable change at the Provo school that’s owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From 1995 to 2017, that number averaged 36 percent, peaking at 43 percent in 2014.

(Christopher Cherrington) | The Salt Lake Tribune

It’s a significant milestone at a law school that wasn’t always welcoming to women.

“My mom actually went to BYU Law School [in the 1970s], and definitely had professors who told her — how dare she be there and taking the place of a man who needed to put food on the table,” said Alexandra Sandvik, a 2016 graduate and former president of BYU Women in Law.

“All I can say is, it's not your mother's law school anymore,” BYU Law School Dean of Admissions Stacie Stewart said with a laugh.

BYU Law’s first class included just 10 women out of 147 students — 7 percent. When Stewart entered BYU’s law school in 2011, that number was 38 percent. She asked the then-dean about that and was told it was because the school didn’t receive applications from qualified women.

“I rolled my eyes and said, ‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever,’” she said. “And when I became the dean of admissions in January, and I looked at our historical numbers and, yeah, we don’t get enough qualified female applicants.

“And then we just had a surge this year.”

Applications from women were up 20.7 from 2017, and 28.5 percent from 2016 — for reasons that Stewart can't explain. The theories range from some sort of reaction to the Trump presidency to “a wave of women returned [LDS] missionaries,” because “a lot of them … wrote about their missionary experiences” in the applications.

“But if the reason why a lot of them were not applying before was because they looked at our stats online and said, ‘Maybe that’s not a female-friendly place’ — I hope that this year’s [stat] shows them that that is not true.”

( Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune ) Brigham Young University first-year law student Alizabeth Worley of Lindon sizes up her free T-shirt from the "Women in Law" club at a social mixer on campus, September 20, 2018. For the first time in the school's history, BYU's incoming law school class has more women than men.

The days of BYU professors questioning why women are in law school have long since passed. Gough said she received great encouragement from one professor when she approached him about applying after she’s been a stay-at-home mom for 14 years.

“He was very excited and said, ‘Oh, we need good women here,’” she said.

Victoria Chen, who graduated from BYU Law in 2016, said she “never felt like there was any negative bias against women, particularly because a lot of the faculty is female. I never felt like I was at any sort of disadvantage.”

(BYU Law’s full-time faculty is 29 percent female; the adjunct faculty is 23 percent female.)

“But I think there was definitely a lot of room for progress,” Sandvik said, recalling a criminal law class in which they spent “a whole week talking about rape. And it was just insane to me to hear the perspectives of many of the males.”

Leah Aston, another member of the class of 2016 who had a “very positive experience” at the school, said it was “fantastic” to hear that the incoming class is majority female.

“I think that it is heartening that BYU has gone in that direction and admitted more women than men,” she said. “I would hope that BYU takes that as an opportunity to revisit some of their programs and career services offerings to make them more female-friendly.”

Nationally, 51 percent of law students are women, according to the American Bar Association. The University of Utah admitted its first majority women class in 1992 — 51 percent, the same percentage as the most recent graduating class, according to associate dean Reyes Aguilar. Currently, 43 percent of its law students are female; the class of 2021 — admitted this fall — is 40 percent female.

Sandvik said the faculty has made “enormous strides” since her late mother attended BYU Law School. “I hope that’ll be reflected in the student body. I think it will be as women become a numerical majority.”

But current and former female BYU law students said some of their classmates still occasionally show 19th-century attitudes.

“I have to admit, there were still a lot of men there who kind of had that mentality,” Sandvik said. “There was one [male student] going around and literally asking every single woman why she was at BYU Law and not in hair school.”

Hilton, the current president of BYU Women in Law, said that still happens, but that she's been “pleasantly surprised” that it happens “a lot less than I expected.”

“But there are always a couple comments. ... I think we’d be lying if we said it doesn’t happen.”

Gough said, “It's usually some young male who doesn't have a lot of life experience.”

Will women remain a majority? Stewart isn’t making any predictions.

“People ask me if this is a fluke or something ongoing, and I don’t know,” she said. “But I sure hope it’s something ongoing.”