Legal Education’s Diversity Deficit
Where does change begin?
Does it start with institutional structures, financial funding, the example set by leaders? Or is it fueled by a commitment that slowly grows, one person at a time?
That’s the question faced by law schools when it comes to diversity. Recently, The National Law Journal examined what it calls “the diversity deficit.” Like the “law school bubble,” the diversity deficit is a catchy tagline that heralds something more ominous: The current path is not sustainable – and the repercussions for failing to act far outweigh the comforts of complacency.
The numbers speak for themselves. In 2003, only 20.6% of law school enrollment consisted of minorities (African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, etc.). In 2012, that number had only risen to 25.8% (with minorities composing 37% of the overall population). While a 5% increase marks some progress, it only reflects part of the story. Latino enrollment did rise from 5.7% to 8.1% from 2003-2012. However, the percentage of African-Americans and Asian-Americans has remained stagnant, with each population holding steady at 7% over the past decade. The result? The law profession remains only slightly more diverse, even as the American population is shifting to a point where minorities will comprise the majority by 2043.
And that’s why law schools are ground zero for building a more diverse law community. But the solutions are neither simple nor painless. In fact, the issues are far broader than law school admissions. It starts in the communities, where economic and educational disparities mean minority populations have less opportunity to experience a college education. With only 12 percent of lawyers originating from minority populations according to the ABA, members of this segment are less likely to have attorneys in their families or social networks, giving them even less exposure to role models and career networking.
The dreaded LSAT also hampers minority enrollment in law schools. John Nussbaumer, an associate dean at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, studied LSAT scores and admissions data spanning a decade. He shared his findings with The National Law Journal:
“[Nussbaumer] concluded that African-American applicants had a ‘shutout’ rate of 60 percent — meaning that most applicants received no admission offer. Hispanics had a shutout rate of 45 percent and whites of 31 percent. Similarly, African-Americans had the lowest average LSAT score, at 142, followed by Hispanics at 146; Asians at 152; and whites at 153.”
In short, it was the traditional law school reliance on LSAT scores that prevented more minority students from enrolling. Despite identifying the cause, Nussbaumer has little faith that the system will change, as it’d expose law schools to criticism for potentially watering down their standards. “If schools are willing to sacrifice a little in the U.S. News and World Report rankings race and admit students with lower LSAT scores, we might see improvement. On the other hand, I don’t see a lot of motivation for schools to do that, since they face a lot of heat if they drop in the rankings.”
Even when minority students enroll, they don’t always find the law school environment welcoming. This point was publicized in a recent video produced by African-American UCLA Law students, who spoke out over being treated like outsiders. As a result, law schools must also face a second front in the fight to increase minority populations: Fostering an inclusive and accommodating administration and student body. Catherine Smith, associate dean of institutional diversity and inclusiveness at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, tells The National Law Journal that this is the “chicken-and-egg debate.” “If you are going to diversify the student body, you need an environment that’s supportive and recognizes people’s differences… Which issue do you tackle first — diversity in admissions or campus climate?”
As always, the first step is recognition. While the diversity lags behind the demographics, there is a recognition that law schools must change. “It’s a problem. Some people want to act like it doesn’t exist, but it does exist,” Patricia Rosier, president of the National Bar Association (the largest bar organization for African-American lawyers) tells The National Law Journal. “We’re not there yet. I don’t even know that we’re halfway there. But we’re making progress.”