Cause for Action
Advocates for a more inclusive legal profession are worried about the decline in Black law student enrollment
By Ronald Roach
As a Black, first-generation college student contemplating law school, Jomaire Crawford has grown determined this summer to learn as much as she can about the legal profession. A rising junior at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., Crawford has interned over the past several weeks in a program that has allowed her to observe judges, prosecutors and other court officials at work in the Queens courts.
“It’s helped me to see that the legal profession is not beyond my reach,” she says.
Crawford is one of 35 rising juniors participating in the Ronald H. Brown Pre-Law Summer Program at St. John’s University School of Law. The program is open to rising juniors and seniors who are either underrepresented minorities or considered members of socially disadvantaged groups. Participants must attend either St. John’s or a public New York City college.
Next year, Crawford says she plans to return to the law school to participate in the intensive, eight-week Law School Admissions Test preparation course offered to seniors in the program.
“I’ve known that I would need to take a LSAT prep course, and the pre-law program makes it convenient for me,” she says.
Advocates for a more inclusive legal profession are worried about the recent decline in enrollment of Black students in law school. According to the American Bar Association, Blacks were 7.4 percent of all law students in 1994. By 2005, that percentage had fallen to just 6.6.
Several law journal articles have suggested that the schools themselves are one driving force behind the slumping enrollment. As the schools seek to improve their rankings by admitting students with higher LSAT scores, more Blacks are missing the cut. The ABA has also been named as a culprit. Many diversity advocates say the ABA, which is sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Education to handle the accreditation of law schools, has unduly pressured schools to raise minimum LSAT scores.
One influential article, last year’s “Misuse of the Law School Admissions Test: Racial Discrimination and the De Facto Quota System for Restricting African-American Access to the Legal Profession,” by John Nussbaumer, suggests that ABA officials pressure law schools to limit the number of students they accept with LSAT scores of less than 141. The maximum LSAT score is 180, but the mean score for Black test-takers in 2004 was 142. ABA officials maintain that there is no minimum LSAT requirement.
Last year, the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce asked the Government Accountability Office to look into the causes of the declining admission and graduation rates.
“One test should not be the primary factor in considering an applicant’s admission to law school and in accrediting law schools,” said U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, during the announcement of the investigation.
Tubbs Jones and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus spent much of 2006 working with the National Bar Association, the country’s leading Black legal association, to bring attention to the slumping admissions numbers.
Hulett H. Askew, an ABA consultant on legal education, pointed out in March in a response to the GAO that “6.8 percent of all students enrolled in an ABA-approved law school in 2006-07 [were] African-American, an increase of 0.6 percent over the 2005-2006 academic year.”
ABA officials say a series of diversity initiatives, including a law school diversity standard approved last year, proves their commitment to inclusion. But those initiatives are facing attacks of their own from anti-affirmative action organizations.
The opponents of race-conscious affirmative action have argued that the new standard will pressure law schools to employ illegal “racial preferences” in admissions.
Finding A PathEven with the slight increase in the number of admitted Black students between 2005-2006 and 2006-2007, organizations like the National Bar Association continue to seek concrete remedies to ensure progress in minority admission and graduation rates. Leonard M. Baynes, a law professor at St. John’s and the director of the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development, has played an instrumental role in examining law school admissions practices.
Baynes launched the Ronald H. Brown Summer Pre-Law Program in 2005 with the aim of increasing the number of underrepresented minorities and socially disadvantaged students entering the legal profession or studying law. He has also helped publish several scholarly articles about law school admissions practices and the schools’ reliance on LSAT scores.
Baynes describes the pre-law program as almost a “boot camp” for undergraduates. He says the program is crucial for socially disadvantaged students because it provides assistance and opportunities that may be otherwise closed to them.
“These are students who can’t afford to take expensive LSAT prep courses,” he says. “Many of them come from impoverished backgrounds; they are the first in their families to attend college.”
Recently, Baynes examined law school enrollment trends for minorities in New York State. He says the results of the five-year study of Black and Hispanic enrollment in the state’s 15 law schools paints a similar picture. “Between 2000 and 2005, African-American enrollment in the 15 New York State law schools dropped approximately 20 percent, from 7.7 percent of all New York State law students in 2000 to 6.2 percent of law students in 2005,” he writes in the as-yet unpublished study. “Latino/a enrollment dropped approximately 6 percent during this same period, from 6.4 percent of New York State law students in 2000 to 6 percent in 2005.”
Nussbaumer, the associate dean of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Oakland, Mich., says it was the activism of Baynes and former NBA president Reginald Turner that spurred him to write “Misuse of the Law School Admission Test.” In the article, he suggests that law schools that raise their minimum LSAT scores face an increasing likelihood of lawsuits from Blacks claiming the test is discriminatory.
“By giving undue weight to the LSAT, or by using cut-off scores for consideration of applicants in violation of the [Law School Admissions Council] guidelines, law schools are denying admission to students whose LSAT scores previously qualified them for admission to those same schools just a few years ago,” Nussbaumer wrote. “Schools that engage in these practices with knowledge of the disparate impact these practices have on African-American student enrollment are at risk of discrimination lawsuits.”
Nussbaumer, who has worked at Cooley since 1985, has seen Black enrollment at his school fall from 20 percent of the student body in 1998 to 10 percent today. He says the drop resulted from pressure to reject students with lower-tier LSAT scores even though more than 70 percent of those students have historically graduated from Cooley. At the urging of Turner, Nussbaumer joined the NBA’s Law Professors division in 2005 to spread awareness about the ABA’s role in the declining Black student population.
His subsequent research efforts found support from Baynes.
“I showed Leonard some of the preliminary work I had done looking at the law school enrollment data, and he encouraged me to do a more rigorous analysis,” Nussbaumer says.
Retention EffortsDavid E. Bernstein, a George Mason University law professor, contends that if the ABA has been pressuring law schools for having “too low standards for admission,” then “that might disproportionately affect African-American students with low LSAT scores.” Bernstein is a conservative-leaning scholar who criticized the ABA for pushing a diversity standard that promotes “racial preferences.”
“If the reason the ABA was going after these schools was because the students they were admitting weren’t passing the bar, then I would question [Nussbaumer’s] contention that this is a problem of ‘discrimination,’” Bernstein says.
An expert on labor law and Black labor history, Bernstein says law schools have an obligation to improve their retention rates. He notes that 42 percent of Black law students either never graduate or fail to pass the Bar.
“Everybody focuses on the inputs. There has to be more emphasis on what happens to students while they’re in law school,” Bernstein says.
The concern over Black law school admissions has prompted attorneys in Missouri to conduct their own analysis. Last year, members of the Mound City Bar Association, an association of Black attorneys in the St. Louis area, published “Educational Inclusion or Illusion: The Examination of a Fact or a Fiction.” The report found declining Black admission numbers at some of the state’s law schools and stagnant numbers at others. The organization’s report also strongly urged the schools to expand retention efforts that could help improve Black graduation rates.
“We’re looking to collaborate with the law schools and help provide some guidance on retention efforts,” says association education chairperson William E. Dailey Jr.
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