It is ironic that the legal profession, which helped open doors to people
of color in many areas of civic life, has a lower percentage of
African-Americans than comparable professions like dentistry, medicine,
accounting and university faculty. It is even more alarming that the
prospects for the future are dim as the number of African-American and
Latino law students has experienced a sharp decline.
Corporate law firms will continue to face criticism if they don't take
deliberate steps to expand the pool of qualified African-American and
Latino students for the profession. I find that many law firms (and law
schools) want an easy way to achieve racial diversity. They often pursue
the same candidates those few African-Americans and Latinos who
have superior credentials.
These talented students get accepted into the top law schools, they serve
on law reviews at those schools, they get prestigious clerkships, and get
great law firm jobs. They often receive multiple offers, even from law
schools, judges and law firms that have no chance of hiring them. The
result is that most law schools and employers end up with few
African-Americans or Latinos in their ranks since the chosen few can only
accept one job that they were offered.
For major law firms to increase the number of African-American and Latino
lawyers, they need to do two things. First, lawyers need to realize that
lack of opportunity still exists for many racial minorities, that numerous
structural, cultural, societal and institutional barriers hamper minority
academic progress, that racial minorities still constitute a small
percentage of the profession, and that African-Americans and Latinos
constitute a small and declining percentage of law school student bodies.
Second, lawyers also need to take concrete long-term steps to increase
minority representation by mentoring college and high school students to
encourage them to join the legal profession.
St. John's University School of Law's Ronald H. Brown Summer Prep Program
for College Students may serve as a useful model. Through the program,
disadvantaged college students get an early exposure to the study and
practice of law that helps to demystify the legal profession and the
Knowledge of the lack of diversity is an important first step toward
solving the problem. Of the 1 million lawyers in the United States, only
3.9 percent are African-American, 3.3 percent are Latino, 3.9 percent are
Asian-American, and 0.3 percent are American Indian. African-American
enrollment in law schools peaked in 1994 and has since declined.
At least one-third of ABA-accredited law schools have very few minority
students. Dayton Professor Vernellia Randall compiles an annual Web-based
report called The Whitest Law School Report
. For 2004, the
report found that 26 out of 186 ABA-accredited law schools have student
bodies in which minority group members comprise 10 percent or less of the
student body. For some of these schools, there is no excuse. For instance,
the University of Richmond, University of Alabama and University of
Mississippi are located in states that have a large percentage of people of
color in their population. Sixty-six of 186 law schools have student bodies
in which minorities comprise 15 percent or less of the student body. At
one-third of ABA-accredited law schools, the percentage of students of
color is below their percentage in the general population.
At other law schools, there has been a sharp reduction in the number of
African-American students. The ABA "Miles to Go" study
highlighted that most of the decline in minority enrollment has been in
black admissions. Over the past two years, African-American enrollment has
declined from 7.4 percent to 6.6 percent of all law students.
Associate Dean John Nussbaumer of Thomas Cooley Law School prepared a study
for the Law Professors' Division of the National Bar Association that
showed a strong correlation between law schools increasing their minimum
LSAT scores to compete in the U.S. News'
ranking-frenzy race and
declining African-American enrollment. These increases have a particularly
adverse effect on African-American and Latino admissions because of the
average 10-point LSAT gap between these racial minority groups and whites.
These LSAT increases shrink the size of the pool of African-Americans and
Latinos deemed qualified for admission to law schools.
Between 2002 and 2004, Nussbaumer's study found that law schools in New
York, Florida, Illinois, California, Virginia, Ohio, Maryland,
Massachusetts and Washington D.C. increased their minimum LSAT scores, and
black enrollment plunged. For instance, only three law schools in New York
state that raised their minimum LSAT scores simultaneously increased their
black enrollment. Of these three law schools, St. John's did the best by
increasing minimum LSAT scores by three points with a concomitant 5 percent
increase in African-American enrollment.
You may ask, what about affirmative action programs? Aren't
African-Americans and other racial minorities getting
"preferences" in law school admissions? First, in some states,
consideration of race in admissions is now illegal. Because of adverse
referenda, gubernatorial order or case law, schools located in California,
Washington state, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida do not
use race as a factor in admissions. African-American and Latino admissions
declined in those states.
The Supreme Court in 2003 in Grutter v. Bollinger
upheld, in a
5-to-4 decision, the University of Michigan Law School's consideration of
race as one factor in the admissions process. However, law schools cannot
use quotas or set aside slots for minorities. Grutter
the law schools to make an "individualized determination" of
whether the student should be admitted to law school. This
"individualized determination" does not guarantee any student's
admission to law school. The "individualized determination" has
not led to a huge percentage of students of color in Michigan's law school
class. In fact, during the 1990s, Michigan's percentage of students of
color (African-American, Latino and American Indian) ranged from a paltry
13 percent to 20 percent of the student body.
Finally, we don't know how long race can be used as a consideration in
admissions. In Grutter
, Justice O'Connor, writing for the majority,
hoped that, in 25 years, race would no longer need to be considered in
admissions decisions. Since the Grutter
action forces have made a concerted effort to challenge race-based
educational policies across the country. For example, they are placing a
referendum on the Michigan ballot, similar to Proposition 209 in
California, that would bar governments and public institutions from using
race in all decisions, including admissions.
The sad reality is that affirmative action programs alone fail to
sufficiently increase the critical mass of African-American and Latino
students at law schools who ultimately are available to work in corporate
law firms. However, the elimination of these programs would cause the small
number of African-American and Latino students to plummet as we
saw in California after the passage of Proposition 209.
The profession can't rely solely on law school affirmative action programs
to increase the ranks of minority lawyers. In order to increase racial
diversity, law schools must expand the pool of people who are in the
pipeline. St. John's Summer Prep Program is an old-fashioned boot-strap
type program that allowed our school of law to do just that. The New
recently ran a series about economic class in the United
States. These articles indicated that economic mobility has stagnated and
The indicia of economic class revolve around four elements: education,
income, occupation and wealth. Receiving a higher education can foster
class mobility. Income and wealth are often byproducts of one's birth.
Parents who are wealthy and have high incomes pass that bounty on to their
children. Unlike income and wealth, education is one of the factors over
which an individual has some control.
Our public school systems, however, often fail disadvantaged students of
color. Although more individuals are graduating with a four-year bachelor's
degree than in the past, economic class and race unfortunately still
dictate who receives a bachelor's degree, and ultimately a law degree. Only
41 percent of low-income students entering a four-year college graduate
within five years, as compared to 66 percent of high-income students. At
elite schools, the disparity is even more stark. Harvard President Lawrence
Summers noted that "There is a widening gap between the education of
the rich and the poor."
Berkeley Law Professor Goodwin Liu estimates that "as many as 300,000
students with apparent potential to achieve high SAT-equivalent scores do
not attend a four-year college" and that "fully 43 percent took
neither the SAT nor the ACT." As a consequence, the number of students
from these low-income backgrounds available in the law school applicant
pool is also limited.
Through a $5,000 seed grant, we created a pilot Summer Prep Program for
College Students. The program is designed to expand the pool by helping the
students help themselves. It is an intensive mentorship program. It is
designed to provide talented college sophomores from low-income and
under-represented backgrounds with early exposure to law school education.
The program helps demystify the law school experience and provide the
students with the information needed to complete more successful
The seed grant allowed us to design and print brochures and provide
breakfasts and lunches during the program. Seven St. John's professors
generously provided their time to teach scaled down versions of their
courses. Dean Mary Daly led by example and showed her commitment to the
program by teaching a one-hour session on legal ethics.
St. John's sought out undergraduate colleges in the New York City area that
have a high concentration of, and a history of teaching, economically
disadvantaged students. We partnered with four undergraduate colleges
John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY Puerto Rican and Latin
American Studies Department, Medgar Evers College/ CUNY, St. John's
University, and York College/CUNY. Approximately 40 students were selected
for the program.
Each participating undergraduate college was responsible for selecting 10
students. To qualify, the students had to have at least a 3.0 grade point
average and have completed no more than 64 college credits. In addition,
the students had to be either a first-generation college student, be from
an economically disadvantaged background, or be a member of an
The four participating schools sent their best students. Even though we
required a 3.0 minimum average, the students' median grade point average
was 3.5. Several of the students had grade points of 3.8 or higher. They
represented the mosaic of New York City. Nine were men, and 27 were women.
In terms of race and ethnicity, 17 identified themselves as
black/African-American, 15 as Latino, two as mixed race, one as white and
one as Asian-American.
They have overcome significant economic and other hardships. One student
described how her mother was diagnosed as HIV positive causing the student
to be the breadwinner in her family. Another described how her parents
emigrated to the United States and did not speak English. Another student
described how she was battling terminal cancer. Yet somehow they are able
to keep it together and earn excellent grades.
During the four days, the students learned about constitutional law,
criminal law, international law, immigration law, legal research and
writing, and legal ethics. They also had two hours of LSAT review. The
students met with our admissions officers and a career panel of recent law
school graduates. The students had so many questions for the admissions
office that we had to schedule a second session.
Similarly, for the career panel, the participating students asked questions
right up to the close of the session even though more than 40 minutes was
left for questions. In fact, the participating students wanted to
"cut" their next class in order to spend more time with the
panel. The career panel consisted of St. John's Law School alumni who
graduated no more than three years ago so that the students could see
themselves in the panelists. It was one of the most popular portions of the
The student evaluations of the program were outstanding: 100 percent of the
students who completed the evaluation of the 2005 Summer Prep Program
reported that they learned more about law school after completing the
program; 97 percent of the students responded that they were more likely to
apply to law school after completing the program; 94 percent responded that
they would highly recommend the program to a friend or relative.
In the evaluation form, one student wrote:
Today, I feel richer because of all the knowledge I obtained in this
program. From now till the day I graduate I will work extremely hard to
improve my reading and writing skills to be competitive when it comes to
applying to law school.
Another student wrote:
What I liked most about the program was the atmosphere of the course and
the work load. I really felt like a law student attending my first days of
law school. And it is because of this program I am reassured that studying
law will be part of my future.
Another student wrote:
It gave me reassurance of what I want to do. It was a glimpse of why the
hard work is worth the struggle.
Finally, another student wrote:
The time I spent during the week allowed me to understand what will be
requested of me and what I should expect when I get out of
As suggested by the feedback, the Summer Prep Program motivated the college
sophomores to stay in school and to aspire to go on to law school.
The Summer Prep Program has the potential to change institutions. Since the
summer, John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY is now considering a
pre-law institute to assist all their students in applying to law school;
Medgar Evers College/CUNY is now considering creating a criminal justice
major. York College//CUNY is considering creating an intramural mock trial
team. My St. John's colleagues were impressed with the students'
enthusiasm, hard work and good manners. Several of the students stayed
until 10 each night working on their assignments. Almost all the students
were eager and ready to participate in the classroom discussions.
The students were also changed by the experience. Since the summer, two of
the graduates of the program have gone on to be presidents of their
respective pre-law societies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY
and St. John's University. Several of the graduates have received
law-related internships in the state attorney general's office, the John
Jay College of Criminal Justice Office of General Counsel, and St. John's
Law School Dean's Office.
There are many young people like the Summer Prep Students. They just don't
get press attention. Without our intervention, these students probably
could have perfectly respectable careers in government service and business
management. Individuals who participated in the program will enrich the
profession. The legal profession is worse off by failing to recruit these
talented individuals as lawyers. We need to make sure that their race and
economic circumstances do not stand in their way of becoming lawyers.
Based on the success of this year's program, St. John's has decided to
expand the program to two weeks of classes with an optional one-week
internship with a judge or other legal employer. My colleagues have heard
so many good things about the program that I have more volunteers than I
need. Next year, we plan to have a mock trial demonstration by one of our
law school trial teams. We also will have an internship seminar so that the
students can have some idea of what to get out of the internships. I am
also seeking sources of funding so that we will be able to offer the
students a free commercial LSAT review course after their junior year. We
want to make sure that there are no excuses and no obstacles standing in
the way of these students' ultimate success.
Law firms face challenges recruiting talented people of color similar to
those faced by law schools. Part of the challenge facing both law schools
and law firms is a lack of information and lack of available role models
for the groups they are trying to attract. In many families in
many neighborhoods, for that matter there is no trusted adviser
who can steer a smart student toward the law simply because there is little
knowledge of what law school and the legal profession are about. Sometimes
smart minority students receive bad advice.
St. John's realized it needed to break down some of the misconceptions
about law school and supply some useful information to this underserved
market. Law firms will have to take similar steps if they want to attract
capable and talented law students of color. By pursuing an intensive
mentorship program, law firms and law schools can expand the pool and at
the same time change lives of deserving disadvantaged students. The legal
profession will be better off from this expanded notion of diversity. And
we will be instrumental in creating the leaders of the future.
Some law firms are already doing this kind of outreach. Their pioneering
efforts should be commended. For instance, at least two major New York law
firms are working with local public high schools. White & Case LLP
mentors the Jamaica High School Law Team, and Cravath, Swaine and Moore,
LLP, has adopted the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn.
Atlanta law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennen LLP has developed a very
ambitious six-week program very similar to St. John's Summer Prep Program
where students from historically black colleges receive information about
careers in law schools over a six-week period.
To achieve increased racial diversity in the profession, we have to make an
investment to expand the pool of qualified minority applicants. We have to
search for creative ways to increase the pool of qualified law students who
ultimately will be available to work for law firms.
Baynes is a professor and director of the Ronald H. Brown Center for
Civil Rights and Economic Development at St. John's University School of
Law in Queens, N.Y. His e-mail is email@example.com.