The paucity of minority students in law schools has been the source of hand-wringing for decades, not only by legal educators but also by advocates who recognize that the larger legal profession can’t diversify unless law schools do so first. Countless pipeline programs attempt to interest underrepresented students as young as elementary school in legal careers; law schools go to great lengths to attract minority and low-income students.
Still, national minority enrollment made only modest gains during the past decade. Minorities constituted slightly more than one-fifth of all J.D. students in 2003 and just more than one-quarter in 2012, according to the American Bar Association. That means legal education still has a long way to go before it reflects the diversity of the country as a whole, considering that minorities made up 37 percent of the population in 2012. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that whites will lose their majority status by 2043.
“It’s a problem. Some people want to act like it doesn’t exist, but it does exist,” says Patricia Rosier, president of the National Bar Association, the largest bar organization for African-American lawyers. “We’re not there yet. I don’t even know that we’re halfway there. But we’re making progress.”
Perhaps nothing illustrates the problem as sharply as an eight-minute video a group of African-American students at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law produced in February, called “33.” The title refers to the fact that of the 1,100 law students at UCLA this year, just 33 are African-American. On the video, students describe the pressures they feel to represent the entire black community inside the classroom, while also feeling isolated within the student body.
“I am so tired of being on this campus every day and having to plead my humanity, essentially, to other students,” one female student says in the video. “I feel like an outsider constantly. I don’t feel at my own school that I can solely focus on being a student.”
The video drives home that it’s not enough for law schools to admit minority students in larger numbers—they also need to foster environments in which diverse students feel comfortable and included. “If you are going to diversify the student body, you need an environment that’s supportive and recognizes people’s differences,” says Catherine Smith, associate dean of institutional diversity and inclusiveness at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. “There’s a whole chicken-and-egg debate about that. Which issue do you tackle first—diversity in admissions or campus climate?”
Although the percentage of minorities overall has increased, that doesn’t tell the full story, says John Nussbaumer, an associate dean at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which has five campuses in Michigan and Florida. “Disaggregate the data, and you will find that some groups are doing much better than others,” he says.
For example, Hispanics have seen the most growth within the law student ranks. They accounted for 5.7 percent of all J.D. students in 2003 but 8.1 percent by 2012—an overall increase of 2,640 students. That trend makes sense, given the rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the United States and the fact that far more Hispanic students enter the college system today, Nussbaumer says.
But the percentage of African-American law students has stagnated during the past decade, hovering around the 7 percent mark. Of the 203 ABA-accredited law schools, 89 conferred degrees on 10 or fewer African-American students in 2013, Nussbaumer says.
The percentage of Asian-American law students has also held steady at around 7 percent in recent years, though a change in the way the ABA collects data about Asian-American students makes a longer-term analysis difficult.
A host of factors are at play, stemming from disparities in K-12 education and the relatively smaller pool of minority students entering and graduating from college. Additionally, nonwhites are less likely to count an attorney among their family or acquaintances, given that minorities make up just 12 percent of lawyers, according to the ABA.
The reliance of schools on Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores creates yet another barrier to minority students, who on average score lower than their white counterparts, Nussbaumer says.
He analyzed a decade of LSAT scores and admission trends in 2011 and found a close correlation between higher scores and acceptance rates. He 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; Hispanics scored 146; Asian-Americans, 152; and whites, 153.
“It really all boils down to the LSAT and how a school treats those scores,” Nussbaumer says. “If schools are willing to sacrifice a little in the U.S. News & 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.”
State laws—such as those in California and Michigan—prohibiting the consideration of race in admissions at public universities create another obstacle to law school diversity. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld Michigan’s affirmative action ban, and admissions officials need to exercise caution in how they bring in diverse classes.
Many law school administrators recognize that fostering an inclusive campus environment is as important as admitting diverse classes. Denver’s Smith was one of the first high-ranking administrators to launch a diversity initiative, but additional schools have followed suit since her 2010 appointment. The job is to recruit from underrepresented groups and make sure those who enroll feel truly welcome.
Smith lately has been working with high schools and undergraduate programs. For example, the Denver Urban Debate League, which teaches public high school students the forensic arts, is headquartered at the law school. The debaters practice in the moot courtroom and receive coaching from law faculty. Denver also offers a low-cost, nine-week LSAT prep course to undergraduates.
“We can’t solve our public education crisis, but we can tackle a small slice of it and do what we can in our own backyard. This isn’t a five-year project. It’s a lifetime project,” Smith says.
Small gains won’t solve the larger problem, Nussbaumer says. “We need to move the needle much more than a nudge here and there,” he says. “The legal profession is so far behind that little improvements aren’t going to be enough.”
Karen Sloan is reporter for American Lawyer sibling publication The National Law Journal, in which this article originally appeared.