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Law is one of the least integrated professions in the United States. According to census reports, minorities account for approximately 25% of the country’s population, yet fewer than 11% of U.S. lawyers are minorities. The underrepresentation of minorities in the legal profession will continue � and probably worsen � if the minority population increases as projected. Many in the legal profession, including bar associations and law firms, recognize this disparity and have implemented various diversity programs. Many large law firms have programs in place that focus heavily on recruiting and hiring minority attorneys. These programs may also include a component by which firms attempt to retain their minority employees. However, there is an underlying problem that these existing diversity programs have not adequately addressed: the decrease in the number of minority students applying to and attending law school. This trend directly affects the future of the legal profession and law firms and the success � or failure � of their diversity initiatives as the pool of minority candidates continues to shrink. Law professionals in general � and top law firms in particular � could lead the charge in reversing this downward trend by showing minority students that law school is realistically and financially attainable and by expanding the so-called “pipeline” for minority students to enter the legal profession. The number of minorities applying for admission to law school has consistently declined over the past several years. Law school applications by African-American students fell by more than 6% in 2005 and again in 2006, while Asian/Pacific Islander applications decreased by 7.3% and 9.2%, respectively, during the same period. Several factors contribute to this declining trend, including lack of interest and inspiration to become a lawyer, inadequate information and insufficient financial resources. To some extent, the low interest is based on mistrust: Research data show that Americans do not like or trust lawyers or other professionals in the justice system. This negative perception of the justice system, including the legal profession, resounds with many minorities who have encountered, witnessed or otherwise experienced injustice at the hand of the police, the courts or the penal system. Further, some minority youth do not know or have never seen any lawyers of color. Therefore, many minority students, particularly those from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, may not have considered a career in law or been inspired to pursue such a career. Minority students who are interested in law need adequate information and resources to navigate the process of entering the legal profession. This includes guidance in selecting appropriate undergraduate courses that will develop analytical skills and prepare the students for the rigors of law school; assistance with LSAT registration, preparation and testing; help with completing law school applications and understanding the selection process; and direction in conquering the bar exam and other bar admission requirements. This information is critical so that minority students who aspire to pursue a career in law will know each step that is required in order to achieve that goal. Financial assistance Many minority students who are interested in a legal career and armed with the necessary information also need financial assistance to meet all the obligations associated with the law school admission process. These include the cost of the LSAT exam and preparation courses, law school application fees, tuition and books. The cost of attending and completing law school is another significant deterrent to many aspiring lawyers. The average annual cost of tuition and fees for in-state students at public law schools in 2006 was $14,245. The average tuition and fees for nonresident students at public institutions and students at private schools is approximately twice this amount. In addition to tuition and fees, students must cover their basic living expenses, which may be another burden since law schools strongly recommend against first-year full-time students having outside employment. Financial aid in the form of loans is readily available for law students; however, many minority students are saddled with debt from undergraduate student loans, making the option of borrowing additional money for law school less appealing. A lack of financial resources to pay for and support oneself during law school prevents many motivated and prepared minority students from pursuing a legal degree. The number of minority students entering the legal profession is significantly reduced when the students are not inspired to attend law school, do not know how to prepare for and gain admission to law school or simply cannot afford to attend law school. These obstacles contribute to the disproportionately small number of minority lawyers compared to the general minority population. Again, as the minority population grows, this disparity will only worsen if the number of minority lawyers remains at current levels or continues to decline. The severity of this problem indicates that there is a disconnect between the legal profession and minorities that will continue until the profession, especially top law firms, commits to addressing the underlying issues. Top law firms tend to be regarded as the epitome of greatness in the legal profession. As such, they could do more to ensure that the profession more accurately reflects society as a whole. This goes beyond recruiting and hiring minority applicants. Rather, it starts with addressing the issue of declining minority applications to, and enrollment in, law schools with a view to increasing the pool of minority attorneys from which to recruit, hire and retain. Law firms would do well to take the lead in addressing the factors that contribute to declining enrollment by establishing initiatives designed to spark students’ interest in the law, prepare students to meet the requirements of law school and provide financial and other support to these future attorneys. Law firms could enter partnerships with local high schools and universities to implement these pipeline initiatives. For example, law firms can institute an outreach and mentoring program by which minority students can gain exposure to various careers in law and other options available to individuals with a law degree. They can establish relationships with practicing attorneys, particularly minority attorneys. This experience can help minority students realize that a career in law is a realistic and attainable goal. A program like this can supplement law firms’ existing diversity programs by building a base of students from which to recruit and hire in the future and by offering fulfilling opportunities for existing minority attorneys that may assist in retaining those employees. Internships Firms also can offer internship opportunities to minority students. This type of program provides multiple benefits for minority students. First, it gives the students an opportunity to be exposed to the law and various career paths available to someone with a law degree, which in turn may spark or stoke the students’ interest in the legal profession. Second, it establishes a relationship between the students and the law firm that will boost its future recruiting efforts with those students. Third, if the program is a paid internship, the law firm will provide financial assistance and ease the financial burden associated with law school. Scholarships or other financial assistance to offset the economic burden facing many future minority attorneys are other options law firms can offer. These programs can be designed to cover various expenses associated with the law school experience, from LSAT preparation course fees to law school application fees, law school tuition and books. Further, law firms can contribute to other organizations or pipeline initiatives that support and assist minority students in their efforts to pursue a legal career. Eliminating the disparity The legal profession has recognized the need for, and value of, diversity in the profession. Many top law firms have diversity programs in place to bolster the presence of minority attorneys in the firms through recruiting, hiring and retention initiatives. However, before law firms deal with the increasing difficulty of retaining minority lawyers, they must get involved with encouraging minorities to enter the legal field. This can be accomplished by implementing programs that target some of the obstacles that hinder minority students in pursuing legal careers, such as lack of exposure, interest, information and resources. Initiatives that bolster interest in law, provide guidance in preparing for law school and minimize the financial burden will show minority students that law school is financially and realistically attainable, increase the number of minorities entering law school and reduce the disparate representation of minorities in the legal profession. To put it idealistically, the legal profession is the steward of the justice system. As such, legal professionals are obligated to ensure fairness in the justice system. One is hard-pressed to find such fairness when the minority population, which generally does not trust the justice system and often feels victimized by that system, is so woefully underrepresented within the legal profession. Increasing the number of minority lawyers and eliminating the disparity will help foster greater trust and confidence in the justice system and will help achieve and ensure fairness in it. Aasia Mustakeem leads the real estate finance and development practice group at Atlanta-based Powell Goldstein. She chairs the United States Law Firm Group’s Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity and is vice chairwoman of the Atlanta Large Law Firm Diversity Alliance. In addition, she leads Project Pipeline, a Powell Goldstein initiative aimed at boosting the interest of undergraduate minority students in the legal profession.

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