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January 6, 2010 5:51 PM

Study: Minority Law Student Numbers Dip as Law School Capacity Rises

Posted by Drew Combs

The percentage of African American and Mexican American students enrolled in law school dipped between 1993 and 2008, even as overall law school capacity rose across the country, according to a study released Tuesday by Columbia Law School's Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic.

Over the relevant 15-year period, the study--conducted in conjunction with the Society of American Law Teachers, found that the total number of African Americans and Mexican Americans entering law school dropped from 4,142 in 1993 to 4,060 in 2008. Combined with the increase in overall law school capacity (from 43,520 to 46,500), that translated into a 7.5 percent and 11.7 percent decrease of African American and Mexican American first-year law students, respectively.

"It's like imagining Carnegie Hall, which seats almost 3000 people, filled to capacity but no Mexican Americans or African Americans allowed in," says Conrad Johnson, the Columbia professor who oversees the clinic, regarding the additional spots created over the past 15 years. “For many African American and Mexican American students, law school is an elusive goal.”

How elusive? Between 2003 and 2008, 61 percent of African American and 46 Mexican American applicants were rejected by every law school to which they applied, according to Law School Admissions Council data reviewed by the clinic's researchers. The “shut-out” rate for white applicants was 34 percent.

Those figures are telling considering that in recent years the legal industry has embarked on well-publicized efforts to highlight the importance of diversity, with general counsel at some of the country’s largest corporations in particular calling attention to the issue. For their part, law firms have set up diversity task forces and local bar associations have embarked on initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in the legal profession. The Columbia study suggests that a significant increase in diversity within the legal trade will remain out of reach for the foreseeable future.

Also striking is the study's finding that the drops in the percentage of African American and Mexican American first-year law students came as the overall grade point and LSAT performance of students in these groups actually increased.

Academics and practitioners involved in efforts to increase diversity in the legal industry pointed, as they have in the past, to a "pipeline" problem, to explain the disappointing results.

“To get capable candidates for law school, you have to have capable candidates for college and it goes all the way back to elementary school,” says Edwin Reeser, a California-based attorney who has served on NALP and California state bar committees charged with addressing the issue. “A disproportionately smaller number of kids form minority communities get the support they need to succeed,” he adds.

But others familiar with this topic also cited the increasing cost of law school and poor performance of minorities on the LSAT.

Anthony Solana, an attorney who has written several books aimed at guiding minorities through the law school admissions process, says that while minority applicants' LSAT scores may have improved over the past 15 years, generally speaking, they do not match those of white applicants. This, he says, puts minorities at a distinct disadvantage.

“Law school administrators and admissions committees place a substantial weight on LSAT scores because they play an important part in law school rankings,” Solana says. At the same time, he adds, as the importance of the rankings has risen, so has the cost of attending law school--something else that has hurt minority students.

Rodney Fong, an assistant dean at Golden Gate University Law School, has studied diversity in the legal profession as a member of the California bar’s 25-member fairness committee. Fong says recent outreach efforts by the council have revealed hesitancy among some minorities to embark on a legal career because of hefty tuition. “The one thing that kept popping up was the cost of law school,” Fong says.

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The key data that you bury is that the LSAT scores of these two minority demographics did not compete with the LSAT scores of the non-minority, so-called "white" demographic. So the admissions are down because these demographis pools are less competitive applicants in 2008 than their counterparts were in 1993. Isn't this how the system is supposed to work? The article does not discuss law school graduation rates and bar passage rates among these two minority demographics either, something which is vastly more important than law school admission. Law school admission is primarily an issue for law schools - their admissions offices, their revenues- whereas to become a lawyer one needs to actually pass the bar. By ignoring the issues of graduation and bar passage, your article only presents 1/3 of the story.

While the results of the study are not surprising to those of us who have worked in law schools and in the legal profession focusing on diversity it is disconcerting that the conversation is still focused on the data and not on any concrete steps to change the tide. The legal community needs to focus wholistically on this issue because of the global ramifications for our communities and the businesses we serve. If we continue to do business as we have always done business then we will always get what we have got...leadership requires accountability for this problem on all fronts.

What a sad state of affairs. It is 2010 and the legal profession continues to exclude minorities due to its over reliance on the lsat. The median African-American LSAT score has hovered around 143, while the median cut-score for most ABA schools is 147. The culprit is the LSAT, isn't it time to scrap the test and look for another screening tool that does not have such a disparate impact on African-American and Latino law students? Let's not ignore the fact that the original intent of the LSAT was discriminatory. One documented purpose of the exam's creators was to limit the number of Jews admitted to law school. Although the group the exam was initially designed to discriminate against ended up succeeding despite the exam, the exam has systematically been a bar to admissions to most applicants of color. Abolish the LSAT and let law schools and state bar examiners be the gatekeepers of the profession. I bet the number of minority attorneys will skyrocket!!

Oh my God, you’re doing these minorities a disservice by imploring law schools to “lower” their standards, only to admit more minorities.

Diversity and Affirmative Action are all well and good, all noble ideals. But what these do-gooders don’t take into account is that, once law school ends, so too does the helping hand.

If/when these minorities get law firm jobs, they’re expected to do everything on their own. While their white counterparts are being mentored and tutored by their white partners, doing important, ladder-climbing work, the minority associates are left wondering, “Gee, why am I still doing doc review 2 years out of law school??”

Law firms don’t care about diversity or affirmative action. All they care about and all they should care about is the (green) bottom line.

The best thing that could have happened to these minorities is having their law school applications rejected so that they wouldn’t have to waste 3 years of their youth going deep into bankruptcy-proof, 6-figure debt, only to wind up making $50K temping or in a dead-end government job.

What are the concrete steps needed to change the current disparity? I am part of the People of Color, Inc., have attended their sessions. This to me is a step in the right direction. However, I understand that there may be institutional barriers with Admissions offices, or perhaps the result of the disbandment of Affirmative Action. I'm interested to learn other ways we can address this issue.

Also, there is no mention of the different Asian communities in this article. I am interested to know if we disaggregated the Asian community, what kind of information we will find.

I am a black man who discovered late that I had an interest in studying law. I majored in Applied Math and Comp Sci at a respected private univ, then embarked on a professional career as a software engineer for over 17 years. I was raising a family with 3 kids when I was laid off and decided to study law. My LSAT score was near 150, but difficult for me to prepare for given my circumstances. I hadn't taken such a test in over 25 years. My undergrad GPA was not competitive, but there too were complicating circumstances. I naively applied to 40 ABA law schools and was turned down by each one. Their focus seemed to be on the USNews and WR rankings. Their promises to consider the whole person in the application were absolute nonsense. Before them was a black man capable and articulate, mature and intelligent, a family man, an accomplished, unique man who would be of great benefit to the profession. I am an accomplished violinist and a martial artist. I later earned a Masters in Com Sci. Yet, most ABA law schools appeared strictly concerned with the numbers. No depth in their evaluations. No consideration for those intangible factors that make the road harder for every single black person who applies. It's quite a shame. I am now nearly completed with my legal studies at a non-ABA law school and feel quite certain that I will pass the CA bar. ABA law schools are quite a joke in their superficial evaluation of black applicants and it shows here. I don't advocate lowering standards but that some mechanism be put in place to recognize that all black applicants have a much more difficult road to travel simply because of the color of their skin. These complicating factors should serve to elevate their numbers, not be ignored like they are now. It's ridiculous. White applicants have it easy, and their numbers show this. Asian applicants shun everything else to study and this is extreme. Certainly not ideal.

I am astonished at the lack of concern to actively find solutions to this problem which gives the impression that many are not concerned with finding solutions. Is it easier for the unconcerned to find solace in believing that African Americans simply cannot achieve high enough LSAT scores and that’s just the way it is? The fact is, students (all races/ethnicities included) who have the means to, mostly due to their families’ assistance, sign up for LSAT Tutoring. This of course affects the scores they receive on the LSAT. Comparatively, many intelligent African American students are not able to boost their LSAT scores significantly with tutoring due to family financial constraints. Someone asked me how would the numbers play out if the students who couldn’t afford tutoring were able to receive it? Their only point was to flip things on their head a bit to show how scores of intelligent, low income African American LSAT takers are at a disadvantage due to their inability to afford LSAT tutoring and boost their scores!

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