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One law student's quandary: a profile

Standing in the lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel in downtown New Haven, Denise Roy surveys the scene of Yale Law School's fall job fair. As classmates in gray-flannel suits file in and out behind her, the third-year law student reads down a long list of law firms that have canceled their visits. Her assumption is that most of these firms encountered indifference because of their location in apparently undesirable provincial cities.

''They're going straight for New York,'' she says of her classmates, with the implication that ''New York'' is as much a symbol for money and power as it is a geographic location.

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The observer might be tempted to draw the conclusion that the 175 members of Yale Law School's Class of '85 - an elite group entering an elite profession - know exactly what they want in life. But such an assumption would be wrong. Many of them will indeed choose ''New York'' - and the long hours and unquestioning commitment, as well as money and power which that choice often implies - but few will do so without trepidations.

For some, that choice will be the realization of a dream. For others, it will simply be the inevitable result of a successful academic career. As Denise says, ''Most of us here were always at the top of our classes; we're used to coming out on top.'' But for the uninitiated, it remains utterly stupefying to hear a first-year job paying $50,000 described, as it is by one of Denise's classmates, as ''the path of least resistance.''

Today Denise is not in gray flannel. She wears blue jeans and a black tee shirt emblazoned with the first article of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. For adornment, she sports buttons proclaiming her political preferences for this fall - and her support of Yale's striking clerical workers - rather than a silk tie. In the place of a leather attache case, she carries a backpack.

Except for the political messages it projects, this outfit is typical of the law student's everyday attire, even at a conservative Ivy League law school such as Yale. But its casualness nevertheless belies concerns about the profession she has chosen and the choices she will be making.

Denise has scheduled a few interviews at the job fair, although she already knows she will spend her first year after law school clerking for a federal appellate court judge in Atlanta. (Federal or high state-level clerkships are ''plums'' that about one-third of the class will choose). But after that, her course becomes less certain.

As a firm supporter of Yale's predominantly female clerical workers and their demand for ''comparable worth'' (equal pay for equal work), Denise makes an effort to join the picket lines in front of Yale's neo-Gothic law school. With chants of ''Arbitrate, Negotiate!'' as a backdrop, Denise describes her ''troublesome'' sense of indecision when she considers her career goals.

''I'd like to think I wouldn't be working for a firm,'' says the 1982 graduate of the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities), ''but I know I may very well be.'' She says she enjoyed her work last summer with a firm in Atlanta, but that her first choice would probably be to teach law. This is perhaps a reflection of the fact that her mother and father are teachers - at a nursery school and high school, respectively.

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''For many of us here,'' says Denise, ''I think there's a real tension caused by the attraction of working for a large law firm on the one hand and, on the other hand, a feeling of being co-opted, or that working for a large firm is morally weak.''

The uncertainty Denise feels about her career direction has not developed only as her academic years draw to a close. Asked why she chose to go to law school, she answers, ''I couldn't think of anything else to do.'' Her mother wanted her to become a doctor, but Denise decided that, based on her interest in politics, ''law fit me better than anything else.''

She decided this, she says, based on her interest in political science, which was her major in college. But she has found the case-study method used in law school much less stimulating than the study of theory and the use of varied readings in her college courses.

''It really doesn't go deep enough,'' she says of law school. ''I think we should be encouraged to look more at how laws work, and if structural changes are in order.'' Her concern is that law students who are never encouraged to analyze will only perpetuate a much-criticized profession.

Despite this assessment, Denise says she spends ''much more time'' studying in law school than she did as an undergraduate: reading for class, writing papers, and doing library research for a professor she is assisting. Weekends are almost always devoted to study, since non-class hours during the week are often taken up by extracurricular activities - helping edit the school's law and policy review, working with women's shelters on temporary restraining orders for battered women, even a weekly session with friends watching ''Dynasty.''

In fact, the Minnesota native says the friends she has made at Yale - ''consistently bright, intelligent people'' - are perhaps the best part of law school. During lunch at a classmate's home, it becomes clear that Denise is not alone in her disappointment over law school.

A young man from Los Angeles says he has been disappointed by the lack of intellectual stimulation at the law school. But when he suggests that the brightest students might think twice about coming here if ''the word gets out'' about the school, his friends demur. They all agree that law students at other schools report much the same experience.

At Yale Law School, where a 40 percent female enrollment reflects the national average for law schools, Denise says she has encountered little discrimination or ''special treatment'' because she is a woman. Still, she is careful to point out a few hurdles she says women law students continue to face.

She notes that ''a lot more women than men'' lack the self-confidence to ''ask questions in class. And speaking up and getting to know professors is very important here.'' In addition, a reluctance among women to secure a background in such areas as economics or statistics translates into a situation where, for example, Denise finds only four women in a ''very interesting'' course she's taking on corporate finance.

''Another problem is that we have so few role models to go to with our questions and doubts,'' says Denise, pointing out that Yale has one tenured female law professor. She guesses that the women faculty members ''must spend half their time'' in consultation with their women students.

Considering her summer experience and the word she hears from the profession, Denise says she believes the high hurdles women once faced in the legal profession are falling. But she adds a caveat: ''A woman here who is interested in labor law was told flatly by an interviewer that women are not tough enough negotiators - that was this year!'' And whatever difficulty women face is multiplied for black and other minority students, she says.

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