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The percentage of African-American and Hispanic students enrolled in law school increased between 2010 and 2013, but those gains came almost exclusively at less prestigious law schools with lower admission standards, according to new research.

Aaron Taylor (left), an assistant professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law, examined application trends, Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores and enrollment figures for minority and white students in both 2010 and 2013. He hoped to better understand how the dramatic downturn in law school applications nationwide has affected diversity.

He found that law schools at the bottom of the prestige ladder—those with the lowest median LSAT scores for incoming students—have relied disproportionately on African-American and Hispanic students to fill their classes. That shift may have served as an economic lifeline for law schools during a difficult period, but bolstered the racial stratification that already existed. Elite law schools with higher median LSAT scores actually saw a proportional decrease in African-American and Hispanic students between 2010 and 2013, Taylor found.

“You’ve got more black and Hispanic students attending schools that are considered less prestigious in 2013,” he said of his paper, “Diversity As A Law School Survival Strategy,” which will appear in the Saint Louis University Law Review.

“That could have long-term implications on the career paths and trajectories of minority students. Bar passage rates are part of the issue. But even if all of those people pass the bar, they will still have different careers” than students who graduate from elite law schools.

Despite his concerns, Taylor credits lower-tier law schools with helping to improve the overall diversity of the legal profession, which remains significantly whiter than the population as a whole. Elite law schools should do their part by admitting a larger number of African-American and Hispanic students, he said.

“Schools that can ensure good career prospects aren’t making diversity a priority,” he said. “There seems to be much more of a focus on the [LSAT and grade-point average] numbers.”

Of the 36 elite law schools in Taylor’s analysis, 10 saw their proportion of minority students increase during the study period and 17 saw declines; the rest registered no statistically significant change. Contacted for comment, schools with declines, including the University of Virginia School of Law and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, did not respond.

Brad Smith, general counsel of Microsoft Corp. and chairman of the Leadership Council for Legal Diversity, said Wednesday that he worries the shrinking applicant pool and financial pressures are eroding law schools’ focus on diversity.

“The legal profession will never be more diverse than the population of law students,” Smith said. “We need to build a more diverse profession—and it needs to start with law schools across the board.”

Smith applauded Harvard Law School for it efforts in this area—particularly its optional admissions interviews, which allow students to present a fuller picture of themselves beyond their grade-point averages and LSAT scores. Harvard added eight diverse law students between 2010 and 2013, Taylor found.

Pluses, drawbacks

Gilberto Ruiz, a second-year student at Northern Illinois University College of Law and the director of public relations for the National Latina/o Law Student Association, professed mixed feelings about Taylor’s findings. “There are some pluses and some drawbacks. There is more diversity, which is good, but it’s only at the lower-tier schools. Not at the top 10, top 15 schools,” he said.

His own class has a relatively large proportion of Hispanics. “It’s good to have individuals who are from the same cultural background in law school. You can relate to them.”

Darnell Smith, an African-American student at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, said the interplay between racial diversity, law school admissions and school prestige is complex.

“The legal profession can benefit from more diversity,” Smith said. “Should those students only attend low-ranked law schools? Absolutely not. But I don’t think low-ranked law schools should be blamed for giving students an opportunity.”

Taylor focused on 2010 and 2013 because they defined “feast or famine” periods for legal education. The incoming class in 2010 was largest on record, but by 2013 enrollment had declined by nearly a quarter, representing the smallest cohort of new law students in 40 years.

LSAT scores overall fell during those three years. The median score for all law schools in 2010 was 157 but by 2013 had fallen to 155. Law schools that started out with higher median LSAT scores had more success in maintaining their numbers, while lower-tier schools in general saw their median LSAT scores drop even lower.

Competition between schools for students was fierce in 2013, Taylor wrote, and overall admission rates rose to 51 percent from 36 percent in 2010. Theoretically, relaxed admissions standards should help African-American and Hispanic students get in the door, since those groups on average score lower on the LSAT. (The average LSAT score for African-Americans is 142; Hispanics come in at 146; and white and Asian test takers average 153.)

The actual number of minority law students fell between 2010 and 2013, but that decline was smaller than the overall decrease in students. Consequently, the proportion of minority students in the law school population rose from 25.5 percent to nearly 30 percent during that period.

Taylor divided American Bar Association-accredited law schools into five tiers based on their median LSAT scores (meaning each tier contained about 20 percent of law schools). Only in the tier with the lowest median LSAT scores was there an increase both in the actual number of minority students and in their proportion of students overall.

Private and for-profit law schools at the bottom of the prestige pile played an outsized role in the increased representation of African-American and Hispanic students, Taylor said.

“The Charlotte School of Law enrolled over 100 more black students in their first-year class in 2013 than in 2010,” he said, citing one example. “The for-profit schools were really drivers of the rising numbers of black and Hispanic students. These schools lost large numbers of whites and Asians, and it appears they replaced some of them with black and Hispanic students.”

That’s not necessarily a problem as long as schools have support programs to ensure that the students it admits succeed, Taylor said.

Charlotte dean Jay Conison viewed the increased diversity among his school’s student body as positive. “Insofar as the school was established to be a place that creates a pathway into the profession for underrepresented minorities, I’m having difficulty understanding how anyone could think that’s a problem,” he said.

Charlotte’s median LSAT score fell from 150 to 148 during the three-year period, but Conison said the school has robust academic support and bar-preparation programs. It has launched a conditional admission program in which students with academic credentials that are not high enough to merit admission outright can take two law school classes to demonstrate their abilities.

In contrast to the rise in African-American and Hispanic students, Asian-American law students saw enrollment declines across all categories, according to Taylor’s study. There were 30 percent fewer Asian-American first-year students overall in 2013 compared with 2010. However, those declines were smaller at more elite schools.

Plenty of white and Asian-American prospective law students simply pursued other options in 2013, Taylor said. And many of the Asian-Americans who did attend ended up in higher-ranking law schools than they might have gotten into in 2010. That left a dearth of Asian-American students at the lower-ranking law schools, he said.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. For more of The National Law Journal’s law school coverage, visit: http://www.facebook.com/NLJLawSchools.