PROVO — Brigham Young University’s law school just admitted its first predominantly female class, and both religion and politics may have something to do with it.
The first incoming class at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School in the 1970s was 7 percent female, according to Stacie Stewart, dean of admissions at the law school. In recent years, women have made up about 30 to 40 percent of incoming classes.
This year, the incoming class of 2021 is 52 percent women.
“We’ve never broken out of the lower 40s. ... This is a fairly significant increase,” said Marie Kulbeth, assistant dean of communications at the law school. “The hope is that it reflects a number of different trends, that it’s something that will continue.”
Though Stewart and Kulbeth both said there’s no quantitative data to back up the trends, they believe may have lead to an increase, they do have a few guesses.
According to Stewart, many of the new female applicants served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and, of those that had, a large percentage said their missions were a significant factor in their decision to go to law school.
In 2012, the church changed the age young women could serve a mission from 21 to 19, spurring thousands of more women to leave home to teach others about the church’s doctrine. Stewart believes the law school is now seeing the fruits of those women who spent 18 months away abroad witnessing injustice in the world.
“They thought that pursuing a law degree would be a way to contribute to solutions to some of those problems,” she added.
BYU’s focus on refugee and immigration law may have also attracted more women, who Stewart said have become increasingly interested in immigration law as it’s become a prevalent topic in today’s politics.
Applications for BYU’s law school were up 6.7 percent this year, and the school saw a 20.7 percent increase in applications from women. Women currently account for 51 percent of law school students, according to a 2018 report from the American Bar Association.
“It’s very important in law school that you can get as many different viewpoints as possible, because law impacts every aspect of society," Stewart said. "To be able to really understand and tackle complex problems, you need to be able to see the world from a variety of viewpoints.”
“If you consider that generally half of the population are women, … it sure seems like women’s voices in the legal academy would be very, very valuable.”
The University of Utah’s first predominantly female class entered the S.J. Quinney College of Law in 1992 with 51 percent women. The school’s most recent class with a female majority just recently graduated in 2018 with 51 percent women.
“It's become more of a trend in the larger population for women to pursue higher ed,” Kulbeth said. “It’s been a slower process for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — I think for a lot of cultural reasons — but we’ve really seen a focus within the community … (for) a lot more women entering the workplace.”
Kulbeth, who is a graduate of BYU’s law school, herself, also believes many are now realizing that going to law school doesn’t mean you have to enter a law firm when you graduate. In fact, there’s a whole world out there.
“People come here because they want to lead, and it can be in so many different ways,” she said.