Cooley officials decry lack of diversity in law school admissions

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

In a thought-provoking paper titled, ''The Door to Law School,'' Cooley Associate Dean John Nussbaumer and Professor Chris Johnson challenge conventional thinking and practices surrounding law school admissions policies.

Published as the lead article in the Fall 2011 volume of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth Law School Roundtable Symposium, the article discusses current and future implications of the growing disparity between the legal profession and the population it serves.

''Professor Johnson and I wrote this article because we wanted to expose the hypocrisy that exists in American legal education today,'' says Nussbaumer, who serves as a liaison from the State Bar of Michigan's Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council to the ABA Council on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline.

''While most law schools talk the talk about diversity, the facts are that most of American legal education knowingly engages in admissions practices that systematically deny admission to thousands of qualified students of color every year.''

Statistics on the number of students who apply to, are accepted by, and matriculate from ABA-approved law schools are gathered by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) and made available to the public.

The data show that over the first 10 years of this century less than one-third of Caucasian applicants are shut out from these law schools, while the shutout rates for all other groups (including African American, Asian American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Native American applicants) are higher -- whose LSAT scores are statistically indistinguishable from their Caucasian counterparts.

Furthermore, of the two largest applicant groups of color, Hispanics and African Americans, nearly one-half to two-thirds, respectively, of those groups never got the opportunity to prove through performance that their LSAT scores were not the best indicator of their ability to succeed in the legal profession.

Lawyers of color comprise only about 10 percent of the profession, despite Census Bureau projections that by 2042 a majority of America's citizens will be citizens of color, according to Nussbaumer.

Even when a substantial increase in the number of available law school seats existed between 2000 and 2010, three groups -- African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans -- lost ground in proportional representation.

African Americans lagged 15 percentage points behind the growth in all students of color and 6 percentage points behind the growth in all students; Mexican Americans lagged 19 percentage points behind the growth in all students of color and 9 percentage points behind the growth in all students; Puerto Ricans lagged 34 percentage points behind all students of color and 24 percentage points behind all students, which indicates a trend that alarms Nussbaumer and Johnson.

''If the legal profession isn't viewed as representative of the society it serves, people may lose trust in the justice system,'' says Johnson, who formerly served as chair of the ABA Council on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline and is a member of the ABA Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO).

This concern is echoed by the ABA Presidential Initiative Commission on Diversity, which offered four rationales for increasing diversity in the legal profession including in democracy, in business, in leadership, and in demographics.

Nussbaumer and Johnson explain that a diverse bench and bar create trust in the mechanisms of government and the rule of law and that such diversity supports the democracy rationale. If, however, the profession fails to diversify its own ranks, it risks becoming what they call ''the apartheid profession.''

''Diversity is good for business because the world is becoming smaller,'' says Johnson.

''It is by working with people who are different that we gain what we call 'global competencies' in the business world.''

In support of the leadership and demographic rationales for diversifying the legal profession, ''The Door to Law School'' cites the crisis in confidence experienced by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

During that era, racial difficulties were caused or heightened when enlisted ranks found themselves commanded by mostly white officers.

The armed services responded to these tensions quickly, by increasing the number of minority officers and by conducting officer training within diverse groups.

Nussbaumer and Johnson say the legal profession must learn a lesson from that military experience because such disparity can be damaging to the ability of any profession to maintain its credibility and effectiveness.

Their article also discusses lost opportunity costs for prospective students who have been shut out from the opportunity to attend law school.

According to data from the LSAC for 2000-09, for example, 95,870 African Americans applied to ABA-approved law schools, with only 38,240 receiving at least one offer of admission.

Had only 10 percent of those 57,630 rejected over that 10-year period alone succeeded in law school and gone on to practice for 40 years, their earnings could have reached $12.6 billion.

The fact that this income was never generated constitutes lost opportunity costs for the African American community as well as the applicants themselves.

A legal profession more representative of the society it serves will only be achieved when applicants of color gain increased access to law school.

Nussbaumer and Johnson say three ways to reach this goal are: to increase the entering credentials of those applicants; to change the way law school admissions decisions are made; and to create magnet law schools that would provide meaningful opportunities for students to succeed in their classes, pass the bar examination, and enter the profession.

Nussbaumer and Johnson would like to see law schools rely less on the LSAT scores that test only the knowledge component of legal education and take into consideration other qualities that indicate a candidate will make a successful lawyer.

Those qualities include judgment, values and ethics, composure, creativity, team-building, innovation, and interpersonal skills.

Nussbaumer and Johnson also say employers must be willing to ''cast a broader net'' and look beyond just the top-tier schools when recruiting new lawyers.

Johnson likes to tell the story of a time he met with 35 senior partners from prestigious New York law firms to discuss diversity.

He found it ironic that those lawyers resisted considering candidates from other than the most elite law schools.

''I told them, 'I checked, and only 20 of the 35 of you went to top-tier law schools,''' he says.

Published: Thu, Dec 1, 2011

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