Diversity: It Is Time for Every Law School to Walk the Talk

by ursavoice

Jennifer Elrod

Part one of an ongoing series on diversity

The legal profession, according to the American Bar Association, remains a predominantly white, male profession at large law firms, on the bench, among law school faculty and students. This is so even though many more women and people of color seek admission to law school. They have been doing so in significant numbers for the past thirty-plus years. And, despite the pronouncements of many law school deans claiming to embrace the idea of a diverse student body in order to create a diverse profession, the ABA’s facts tell a very different story. In this piece, my focus is on people of color and their small presence in the legal profession and, more significantly, in law school classrooms. If the numbers of people of color in the legal profession are to increase, then law schools must open their doors to many more students of color.

Here is the problem: talking the talk on diversity is important but walking that talk is really what is needed. It is not enough to say that a law school is committed to diversity. Although words speak, actions speak louder when it comes to diversity in law school admission and matriculation. Every law school needs to enroll classes of law students that more accurately reflect social reality.

It is not that law schools are not on the recruiting trail. Law schools energetically invite students of color to apply but when it comes to accepting members of these groups, denials are more common than acceptances. Why is this? First, applicants of color are often the first in their family to earn an undergraduate degree and to seek admission to graduate school. Frequently these students have little or no guidance on the “hows” and “whens” of the law school admission process. If these students attend an undergraduate institution (public or private) without the resources to hire sufficient numbers of career counselors skilled at navigating the law school application process, then these applicants will be at a great disadvantage in preparing and submitting their applications. Second, students of color often hold down full-time jobs (sometimes two jobs) while completing their undergraduate studies and, therefore, are hampered because their time and energy levels are drained by job obligations. Jobs are necessary because loans and scholarships are hard to secure, and tuition and fees nonetheless keep rising. Employment can negatively impact their GPAs. Add to this, the need for these students to come up with additional cash (more than $1,000) for an LSAT Prep Course and hours of time to study and prepare for the LSAT. So it is inevitable that many students of color are in the position of playing catch-up with their undergraduate colleagues who have ample time and money to get ready for the LSAT. In sum, many students of color do not score in the ranges of LSAT and GPAs that many law schools deem “acceptable.” Some argue that the LSAT is the best predictor for law school “success,” others contend that the test is biased and predicts little more than a strong skill at taking a standardized test but that is a subject for another piece.

Third, law schools are in fierce competition with one another to earn the highest possible ranking in US News & World Report. This mainly self-imposed pressure drives deans to direct their admissions departments to use certain ranges of numbers for LSAT scores and GPAs when admitting applicants. The higher the LSAT and GPA numbers of the admitted class, the more likely a law school will earn a high or higher ranking in US News. Fourth, there is an unstated but quite important factor that plays a role in admission to law school: the rank of an applicant’s undergraduate institution. Here is an example: ask Yale Law School how many graduates from CSU-Long Beach are current students. The bottom line is that the higher the status of an applicant’s undergraduate school’s US News ranking, the better position an applicant has in the law school admission process.

Not all law schools run their admissions strictly by a particular range of set numbers on an LSAT or an undergraduate GPA. A number of schools, including some in the top tier, have innovative and creative programs that ensure not only a candidate’s admission but also provide on-going academic and cultural support needed to complete law school successfully. These programs are worth a closer look, which I will discuss in a future piece. Such programs are models for a much needed shift in admissions practice in order “to ‘achieve that diversity which has the potential to enrich everyone’s education and thus make a law school class stronger than the sum of its parts.’”1

1. Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 315 (2003).