How The Legal Education Fails Minority Students

Law schools are failing minority students.

That’s what Erin Thompson, an assistant professor of art crime and pre-law adviser at CUNY’s John Jay College, argues in her latest article for TomDispatch – a commentary blog.

“On average, minority students end up in lower-ranked law schools, which they pay more to attend than white students, resulting in higher debt burdens,” Thompson writes. “Minority law graduates have lower bar exam passage rates, employment rates, and income levels. Given the intense competition for paid social justice positions, few of them will end up in careers where they can support themselves while fighting for the ideals that brought them to law school in the first place.”

Minorities made up almost 27% of graduates in the class of 2014, according to the National Association for Law Placement. Yet, they only represent 13.97% of lawyers as a whole at large law firms. NALP found that African-Americans go into private practice at a lower rate than any other group. And for those who do find themselves at a law firm, the career outlook isn’t promising. Only 7.52% of partners at major law firms are minorities.

Keeping Minorities Out of the Law Profession

Thompson argues that the system of legal education places minorities at a disadvantage from the start. For one, she claims, the attack on night schools put legal education out of reach for many minorities.

“There was widespread horror at the prospect of night schools allowing a horde of undesirables to become lawyers who might charge cheaper fees and so undercut mainstream attorneys,” Thompson argues. “As a result, the Association of American Law Schools, representing the more expensive, university-affiliated institutions, banded together with the American Bar Association (ABA) to campaign for states to raise the requirements for aspiring lawyers. The target: keeping minorities out of the profession.”

As a result, new regulations required that those who were interested in pursuing a law degree must have a college degree to do so.

John Jay’s Erin Thompson

“Meanwhile, the ABA would be appointed the accrediting body for law schools in almost all jurisdictions and the cheaper, more accessible night schools would either close up shop or transform themselves into elite clones as best they could – and raise their tuitions to match,” Thompson writes.

The LSAT Score Gap

Thompson cites the LSAT as one of the main reasons that law schools are failing minority students. She pinpoints the LSAT’s score gap, one that highlights unfair advantages that white, privileged students have over minorities.

“The expense of the preparation courses that teach LSAT-taking skills is certainly one reason,” Thompson writes. “Others suggest that the test itself has hidden racial biases, since it calls for analyses that might be performed differently by those with different backgrounds.”

A study of admissions by non-profit education research group Testing for the Public shows that minority applicants from competitive undergraduate institutions lag behind their white counterparts on LSAT scores, even though they match undergraduate GPAs. The study further highlights how the LSAT score is a poor predictor of law school graduation and bar passage rates.

In short, says Thompson, the LSAT unfairly places minorities at a disadvantage in access to legal education.

“The LSAT score gap means that American law schools have developed a kind of educational apartheid: minorities disproportionately end up at lesser law schools,” Thompson writes. “In 2017, for instance, Arizona Summit Law School topped the charts as America’s most diverse law school, while also earning another record: worst bar passage rate.”

As a result, minorities interested in pursuing law only have the choice in attending law schools, such as Arizona Summit, that tend to put them in debt. Meanwhile, wealthy students who can afford LSAT test prep tend to gain access to higher quality education and prized scholarship funds.

“Schools offer merit scholarships to students with high scores in order to increase their rankings,” Thompson writes. “Lower-scoring students pay full sticker price and so, in essence, fund those scholarships, which tend to go to a wealthier, less diverse group of students in what some critics have dubbed a reverse Robin Hood effect.”

Low Ranked Law Schools Disguise Opportunity

In March, az central reported how Arizona Summit Law School was placed on ABA probation for having the lowest bar passage rate in the country for its 2015 graduates.

Law professor Riaz Tejani argues how low-ranked law schools tend to market themselves to students with low LSAT scores by promising to provide “access to justice.” In return, students who enroll in these schools largely fail to get legal jobs and are bound with high amounts of debt.

“The profits to be made from marginal students are significant, since tuition hardly varies between law schools regardless of their quality,” Thompson writes. “Indeed, in 2011, New York Law School, which ranked in the lowest tier of such institutions, was charging more than Harvard Law School.”

At bottom tier institution Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, the 2010 graduating class had a total debt of more than $87 million, according to Law School Tuition Bubble.

“Such a debt is a far heavier burden for minorities, since the lists of schools with the highest proportion of them and of those with the lowest percentage of graduates employed in full-time legal jobs show considerable overlap,” Thompson argues.

There have been proposals as to how to address these issues in the legal world. For one, Thompson says, some experts have offered the idea of lowering the cost of becoming a lawyer by making law school shorter, returning to apprenticeship model, or introducing programs to train “legal technicians.” While Thompson agrees these solutions may help, they don’t allow access to the highest positions of power in law – a place that is disproportionately catered towards wealthy, privileged individuals.

“Solutions are not simple, but change is clearly needed in areas ranging from admissions standards and law school coursework to the nature of the bar exam itself — and that undoubtedly only begins to touch on the deeper biases embedded in the system,” Thompson writes.

Sources: TomDispatch, National Association for Law Placement, Testing for the Public, azcentral, Riaz Tejani, Law School Tuition Bubble