The First Degree

Jennifer Bennett Shinall, J.D./Ph.D '12, is the first graduate of Vanderbilt's Ph.D. Program in Law and Economics.

By David L. Hudson Jr.
Jennifer Bennett Shinall

Jennifer Bennett Shinall did not originally set out to pursue a Ph.D. in law and economics. After earning her undergraduate degree in economics and history from Harvard, she entered Vanderbilt Law School in 2006 planning to follow the same career path as her mother, Memphis-based attorney Kathleen N. Gomes. "I grew up in her law office," she said. "Her cases always interested me, so it seemed natural that I would follow in her footsteps and attend law school as well."

Shinall excelled during her first semester of law school, booking several classes. But she wanted something more. "My law professors were great at teaching the fundamentals of contracts, civil procedure and property," she said. "But often in class, I found myself more curious about their specific research interests—the topics about which they were researching and writing."

Shortly before Thanksgiving break that fall, Shinall attended an introductory meeting for Vanderbilt's new Ph.D. Program in Law and Economics, which W. Kip Viscusi, University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics and Management, and Professor of Law and Economics Joni Hersch would launch the following year. After listening to Hersch and Viscusi explain their vision for the program, in which students would earn both a J.D. and a Ph.D., "I immediately knew that this program would be a good fit for me," Shinall said. "I went home from the meeting and registered for the GRE that night."

Ph.D. Program in
Law & Economics

  • Launched in 2007
  • Co-directed by University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics and Management W. Kip Viscusi and Professor of Law and Economics Joni Hersch
  • Students may earn both a J.D. and a Ph.D. or enter the Ph.D. program with a J.D.

Shinall joined the program's first class, and rather than taking her first year of upper-level law electives in fall 2007, she launched into graduate-level economics courses. "The courses were very challenging," she recalled. "My first year of Ph.D. coursework was a huge wake-up call for me. It was unquestionably the most difficult academic year of my life."

Joni Hersch, co-director of the Ph.D. Program in Law and Economics and chair of Shinall's dissertation committee, notes that Shinall's reaction is normal for all students entering an economics Ph.D. program. "The difficulty of the coursework can be a serious shock for students who are not prepared for this type of work," Hersch said. "In many such programs, the attrition rate is 50 percent. But Jennifer was well-prepared for the program, and I knew she would succeed." That year, Shinall found solace from her demanding doctoral coursework in the practice of yoga. Its centering and mental/physical benefits provided an essential counterpoint to her academic workload. Shinall continues to practice yoga to maintain a healthy work/life balance, and has taught classes at Hot Yoga Nashville for years. "It is great stress relief and has become an integral part of my life," she said.

Hersch and Viscusi select the program's students carefully. Confident in Shinall's academic abilities, they encouraged her to persevere. "During that first year of Ph.D. coursework, there were times that I wanted to quit and go back to the regular J.D. program," she admitted. "Professor Viscusi and Professor Hersch promised me that if I could survive the first year of Ph.D. coursework, that the more interesting, exciting work was on the horizon."

The more exciting work Shinall discovered culminated in her dissertation, a cutting-edge research project exploring employment discrimination due to obesity. "For her dissertation, Jennifer carved out a new area of law and economics research dealing with the role of obesity in the labor market," said Viscusi. "Obesity is a major health policy issue today, but we know little about how obese workers fare in the labor market and whether current laws protect them. Jennifer's dissertation nailed both of these questions."

In her dissertation, "Obesity in the Labor Market: Implications for the Legal System," Shinall examines the impact of obesity on women's employment. Her research uses the standard medical definitions of obesity, which rely on body mass index (BMI). An obese person has a BMI of 30 or higher, a morbidly obese person a BMI of 40 or higher. She discovered that, although it seems counterintuitive, heavier women are more likely to work in jobs requiring physical labor, but less likely to work in positions requiring them to interact with customers. "As a woman's BMI increases, and certainly once she hits the morbidly obese mark, she is more likely to work in jobs requiring high levels of physical activity and less likely to work in jobs requiring high levels of communication and customer contact," she said. "My results are strongest and most robust for morbidly obese women."

Shinall discovered that, although it seems counterintuitive, heavier women are more likely to work in jobs requiring physical labor, but less likely to work in positions requiring them to interact with customers. She also determined that when heavier women do work in jobs requiring high levels of communication and customer contact, they are paid less than women of normal weight.

Shinall also determined that when heavier women do work in jobs requiring high levels of communication and customer contact, they are paid less than women of normal weight. "My results indicate that the sorting and wage penalties come from the demand side and not the supply side," Shinall said. "In other words, employers are keeping morbidly obese women out of certain types of jobs—not the women themselves. Jobs requiring high levels of communication generally pay more, while jobs requiring high levels of physical activity generally pay less. So not only are obese women less likely to work in jobs that require communication and thus earn less, but when they do work in communication jobs, they are paid less than normal-weight women for the same type of job."

Shinall points to psychology studies indicating that "weight stigma" exists. "People hold preconceived notions about the characteristics of obese people," she said. "Over 30 years of psychology research has documented that being obese is associated with a wide range of negative characteristics about an individual's ability, personality and work ethic." She cites studies demonstrating that people associate the words "unmotivated, lethargic, unfit, lazy, inactive, sluggish, idle, weak, sickly [and] loaf" with obese people, and that people believe obese people are "lacking self-discipline, lazy, less conscientious, less competent, sloppy and more likely to have a personal problem." One goal of her research was to determine the actual impact of these negative associations on the earnings and employment prospects of obese women.

Her dissertation capitalized on her background in history as well as her coursework in economics and law. In the course of her research, Shinall discovered that only one state (Michigan) and six cities provide protection for the obese in what she terms "Title VII-esque" laws. In addition, only two of these jurisdictions—Madison, Wisconsin, and Urbana, Illinois—"have succeeded in improving employment outcomes for obese workers."

Based on her findings, Shinall argues that weight should be added as a protected class to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the major federal anti-discrimination law. The current protected classes under Title VII include race, color, sex, religion and national origin. Shinall contends that "weight should be the sixth protected class."

Shinall (center) with professors Joni Hersch (left) and Kip Viscusi.

Shinall (center) with professors Joni Hersch (left) and Kip Viscusi.

In addition to successfully completing her work in graduate economics, Shinall also excelled in her law classes. She joined the Vanderbilt Law Review (VLR) staff in 2008 and served as its Senior Articles Editor in 2009-10. Her Note, "Slipping Away From Justice: The Effect of Attorney Skill on Trial Outcomes," was published in the VLR in 2010 and also won the 2010 Myron Penn Laughlin Award for excellence in writing. One of her VLR colleagues, 2009-10 Editor-in-Chief Ryan Holt, is not at all surprised by Shinall's accomplishments. "Jennifer was a great teammate with a terrific work ethic who truly excelled in selecting the best pieces of scholarship for publication," he said.

Shinall married another dual degree student, Ricky Shinall, whom she met while both were undergraduates at Harvard, in 2009. Ricky Shinall earned an M.D. and a Masters of Divinity at Vanderbilt and is a general surgery resident at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

Shinall will clerk for Judge John Tinder on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Indianapolis next year, after which Hersch and Viscusi have high expectations for her academic career. "I think she is going to be one of the leading lights in employment law in the academic world," Hersch said. "I believe she will be extraordinarily successful and publish extensively, and I'm also confident that she'll be an outstanding teacher!"

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