Kevin Woodson

Law affects real people

September 24, 2023

Faculty Brief

It’s a classic Tort 101 scenario: You spill your coffee on a park bench, which stains the next person’s pants, which makes them late for work. Unintended consequences are part and parcel of both life and working with the law, something Professor Kevin Woodson emphasizes with his students. A late arrival might result in a grumpy colleague or unexpectedly escalate into a blown court case.

“We need to remember that law affects real people,” Woodson says. A decision made in court could radically alter a client’s life, which can then ripple out to affect the lives of many others. “It can also have an impact on the inequality between groups of people in ways that are quite tangible. It’s important that we all keep that in mind when we think about the law and read about it or argue about it.”

Woodson, who has a doctorate in sociology and social policy from Princeton University in addition to his law degree from Yale, casts a critical eye on the effects of law throughout society. He covers the do’s and don’ts of lawyering in his courses to ensure his students understand the broader social context in which the law is developed and applied. “The ways law appears on the books might be very different than how it actually affects people’s lives in the real world, especially when you factor in different types of inequality,” he says.

Inequality is also a primary subject of his scholarly work, including his forthcoming book. The Black Ceiling: How Race Still Matters in the Elite Workplace will be released by University of Chicago Press in November. It looks beyond overt bias to a more subtle struggle experienced by Black professionals in prestigious firms: racial discomfort.

Woodson describes racial discomfort as the unease Black employees feel in predominantly white workplaces, an experience he divides into two categories: social alienation and stigma anxiety. “These can undermine people’s career development and progress, even if they’re not actually mistreated because of bias,” he says.

“I’ve had many working professionals approach me to say they appreciate somebody actually naming these issues and assuring them that it’s not just them, or just paranoia, or some kind of personal failing,” he says. “And by bringing this to the attention of the leaders of law firms, they can understand the impact this has. And hopefully it inspires them to do something about it.”