Whitney Montgomery always knew she wanted to be an attorney — a “young, female, black Matlock,” as she put it in her law school application.

But her road to law school was a bumpy one, navigated largely through trial and error rather than with the support of the pre-law counselor at Northeastern University, where she obtained a degree in criminal justice in 2006.

She had visited the pre-law counselor there, but stopped after finding that the advice focused more on her race than her attorney prospects — as when a counselor advised her to not wear bamboo earrings or bright nails to an interview for an internship at a law firm during her sophomore year. And when it came time to apply to law school her senior year, Montgomery was unsure of how to reconcile her stellar grade-point average with her low score on the Law School Admission Test.

“I wondered, “How can I get in front of these [admissions] people’s faces? I know if they see me, they will love me,” Montgomery said. “I had these long conversations with people about how to overcome my LSAT score, and that didn’t happen.”

If racial diversity in the legal profession is ever to climb above the 10% mark where it has hovered for the past decade, pre-law counselors and law school admissions officers need to do a better job of identifying promising minority applicants, guiding them through the often intimidating application process and ensuring that they graduate. That was the consensus among 80 law deans, admissions officers and pre-law counselors who gathered at St. John’s University School of Law on Nov. 11 for a conference on diversity in law school admissions.

The conference was organized by the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT), which hopes to replicate the presentation for pre-law counselors around the country.

“We want to create some best practices so that pre-law counselors and law school admission deans can effectively counsel students of color,” said SALT Executive Director Hazel Weiser. “Structurally, we have to change, and we have to figure out how to get to ­students of color earlier in their college careers.”

Those changes can’t come soon enough for diversity advocates, who point out that the legal profession as a whole will never reflect the larger demographics of the general population if law schools can’t find better ways to support minority applicants and fail to reduce their reliance on LSAT scores.

‘COMPLEX AND MULTIFACETED’

“The paucity of students of color in law school is very complex and multifaceted,” said Leonard Baynes, a law professor at St. John’s who oversees an intensive law school prep program for minority students. “Some of it is societal. Some of it is sociological or psychological. Some is institutions increasing LSAT scores and some is the lack of pre-law advising, or not the best pre-law advising.”

Columbia Law School professor Conrad Johnson’s research offers a stark assessment of diversity in legal education. The overall percentage of minorities in law schools has slowly increased during the past 15 years to 22 percent. However, much of that gain can be attributed to rising numbers of Asian and most categories of Latino law students. Their growth has helped to obscure declines in the percentage of black and Mexican-American students. Those percentages have dropped even as the number of law school seats increased by 8,500 between 2000 and 2010.

“What you see, in essence, is that Afri­can-Americans and Mexican-Americans are getting a smaller piece of a larger pie,” Johnson said. “If we maintain the status quo, we will likely move backwards, away from the goal of parity with the demographics of the general population.”

According to his research, black applicants had a shutout rate of 60 percent between 2000 and 2009, meaning that most black applicants were not accepted into any law school to which they applied. The shutout figure for Mexican Americans was 42 percent. For whites, it was 31 percent.

The “800-pound gorilla in the room” is U.S. News & World Report‘s annual law school rankings, which heavily weighs the median LSAT score and undergraduate grade-point average of each law school’s incoming class, Johnson said. Accepting students with lower scores risks a drop in the rankings.

As the influence of U.S. News has grown, so has the reliance of law school admissions officers on LSAT scores, said Seton Hall University School of Law professor Rachel Godsil. “The LSAT is creating a huge obstacle,” she said. “Our use of the LSAT has been deeply irresponsible.”

Minority test-takers on average score lower on the LSAT than do their white counterparts, according to the Law School Admission Council, which administers the test. The average score for whites is 153, compared with 142 for blacks and 146 for Hispanics.

Legal educators should look to social science research to better understand why minorities tend to score lower, Godsil said. For instance, researchers have looked at other standardized tests such as the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and determined that minority test takers tend to suffer from “stereotype threat,” which occurs when a person feels anxiety over the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about a group with which they are associated. In short, knowledge that minorities on average have lower LSAT scores may actually contribute to those lower scores.

One study showed that students performed better on the MCAT once the test was put in context and they were told that the results are not as indicative of their success as a doctor as they might believe, Godsil said. Studies have also shown that minorities on average score better when they are asked to declare their ethnic backgrounds at the end of a test rather than at the beginning — meaning that they don’t begin by focusing on their race and any associated stereotypes.

The first systematic study of the LSAT and stereotype threat is underway, Godsil said — she did not disclose the venue, as it might sway the results if the subjects knew they were being studied. But legal educators should be mindful that the effect lingers after minority students matriculate, she continued, noting that nearly 43 percent of black students who enter law school do not graduate and pass the bar — a much higher rate than for whites and other minority groups.

“This is not just a merit issue,” she said. “Something else is going on here and the question we all have to ask is, ‘Why do these disparities exist?’ ”

ADVISERS’ ROLE

Much of the discussion during the St. John’s conference centered on the role pre-law advisers play in helping minority students understand the application process and gauge their law school prospects. Minority students often enter the admission process at a later stage than do their white counterparts, the counselors said.

In a role-playing exercise meant to demonstrate what not to do, Seton Hall University pre-law adviser Robert Pallitto told a prospective law student played by Seton Hall 3L Chrishana White that she had few options because of her low LSAT score. In a second exercise, he acknowledged that her low score would be a hurdle but counseled that plenty of schools outside the top tier would like her high grade-point average and her extensive record of work and campus activities — and that being from a nontraditional background could help.

Emphasizing that students have more to offer than their LSAT scores alone, and counseling them not to focus squarely on a prospective school’s published median LSAT, can help students realize that there is some flexibility within admissions, the counselors agreed. It also can help to tell minority students how their LSAT score compares with those of their own minority group, rather then comparing themselves to national averages, Baynes said.

Similarly, prospective law students often fixate on gaining admission to the top schools as determined by U.S. News. Pre-law counselors should advise them to think about what type of law they want to practice and in what setting, then to choose a school that has a history of producing that type of lawyer, the pre-law counselors and admissions officials at the conference tended to agree.

Better pre-law advising is part of the solution to the racial gap at law schools, but it will take more than counseling to change the ethnic makeup of the legal profession, said several leaders of pipeline programs intended to identify minority students who might want to attend law school and support their efforts to gain admission. Those programs have grown in number during the past five years.

“My sense is that there are qualified students of color out there,” Baynes said. “We just need to develop them.”

As for Montgomery, after some initial discouragements and delays, she is now a 3L at Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center and has built a résumé that includes a summer clerkship at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and externships at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. She now is interning for U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the Southern District of New York.

“I always knew I was going to go to law school — I just didn’t know how I was going to get there,” Montgomery said. “I really didn’t have a person from my school giving me advice.”

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.