Perspectives: Desegregating the Legal Community

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by Sarah Redfield

Much was made a couple of years ago of then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s contention that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [as a judge] than a White male who hasn’t lived that life.” Her critics claimed that it showed a less-than-judicial temperament.

In fact, Justice Sotomayor was merely stating what many in the legal community have been saying for decades: the legal community’s lack of diversity has a serious impact on access to justice in America. This impact is seen in the disparate criminal arrest and sentencing rates. It is also seen in the common perception of unfairness felt by minorities working and appearing within the justice system. While numerous historical and community factors lead to these trends and concerns, the sustained and seemingly intransigent lack of diversity throughout all levels of the legal system plays a fundamental role. Unfortunately, this lack of diversity is grounded within America’s law schools.

Why is the legal community’s lack of diversity such a big deal today? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 89 percent of attorneys in the United States are White. So too are the majority of prosecutors and judges. This number has remained essentially the same since the 2000 Census, notwithstanding dramatic changes in the nation’s racial and ethnic composition. Indeed, America is predicted to be 54 percent minority by 2050. With this growing imbalance, it is not surprising that research shows that underrepresented minorities often perceive their access to the legal system as neither fair nor just.

An important part of the solution lies with America’s law schools. The schools often say the pool of qualified minorities is simply not large enough. This is only half right. The pool is certainly deep enough to meet current diversity standards, but it is nowhere near large enough for admissions levels to approach parity with the population at large.

But even if the argument were completely true, does that mean that we can’t do more to increase the pool of diverse students interested in and qualified for admission to law school? Certainly not. It is incumbent on us to do more to support underrepresented students as they journey through high school and college. By doing so, we can deepen the pool that is ready to be successful once they reach the law school gates.

To these ends, law schools should revisit their admissions philosophies. I am not suggesting lowering admissions standards. Rather, we should revisit whether the current requirements, with their heavy reliance on LSAT scores, truly reflect applicants’ ability to thrive in law school and succeed in the practice of law. Granted, LSAT scores for Blacks and Hispanics are significantly lower than scores for White candidates, but there is nothing to suggest that minorities are actually less qualified than their White counterparts. The LSAT, then, measures only some of test-takers’ capacity for success in a legal career. Schools therefore need to find better ways of determining whether applicants have the skills and experience to succeed. University of California, Berkeley law professor Marjorie Shultz has developed a new set of criteria that measure what it means to be a successful lawyer. These criteria include some of the same factors that LSAT measures but don’t share the LSAT’s racial and ethnic deficiencies.

Another alternative is for law schools to increase their support for minority access through tailored financial aid and other focused efforts. The State Bar of California Council on Access and Fairness is calling on U.S. News & World Report to change its rankings to reflect such commitments to diversity. All law schools should support this tailored approach, both generally and in their own communities.

Expanding student recruitment is yet another avenue to increasing diversity in the nation’s law schools. The University of Texas’ law school, for example, has had great success working with colleges to identify promising minority students and encourage them to consider and prepare for legal careers. The University of Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law and the University of California, Irvine have taken this approach a step further, partnering with high schools to implement pipeline programs that foster an interest in law school before students ever set foot on a college campus.

Through focused initiatives like these we stop just talking and start walking. Each segment of our community at each point of the pipeline — elementary school to the profession — can make diversity a focus. Each of us can partner with others to increase the number of minorities who are both interested in and qualified for a career in the law. The face of the nation is changing. We must start working now to ensure that the face of the legal profession reflects those changes. If the legal education community commits to serious work, with documented results, the academy and the profession will benefit greatly. So will the people we serve. D

— Sarah Redfield is a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. She is the author of Diversity Realized: Putting The Walk With The Talk For Diversity In The Legal Profession.

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