Increasing Pipeline Opportunities In The Legal Profession For Minorities

Thursday, March 1, 2007 - 01:00

On November 3-5, 2005, the American Bar Association launched an historic conference entitled "Embracing the Opportunities for Increasing Diversity in the Legal Profession - Collaborating to Expand the Pipeline (Let's Get Real)." Hosted by the ABA Presidential Advisory Council on Diversity in the Profession and the Law School Admission Council, the conference's aim was to bring together for the first time all of the stakeholder representatives that would be necessary to collaborate, educate and activate a fresh approach to increasing and sustaining more minorities in the legal profession. Indeed, every word in the conference title was fought over to ensure that nothing and no one was missing who would be essential to changing the cultural, ethnic and racial makeup of the legal profession in America.

Conferees agreed that "The legal profession faces no greater challenge in the 21st century than the critical need to diversify its rank."

The basis of this conclusion rested upon, in part, the Pre-Conference Report which was sent to all attendees who were selected to attend this invitation-only gathering because of their acknowledged expertise and involvement in the subject matter of the conference. The report, authored by Diane S. Abraham, a visiting faculty member at the University of Hawaii Law School, stated that African-American children attending state-funded pre-kindergarten programs are almost twice as likely to be expelled as other groups. The test-score gap between students of color and white students begins as early as the fourth grade and continues through the undergraduate and graduate levels. African-Americans graduate from high school at significantly lower rates than whites and Asian-Americans.

As for colleges and universities, the report indicated that minority students, particularly African-Americans, are less likely to attend college immediately after high school than their white counterparts, and for the 2002-03 academic year, African-American (non-Hispanic) students earned only 8.7% of the college degrees compared to 70% for white (non-Hispanic) students. A 2005 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) study noted that only 38.5% of African-American (non-Hispanic) students attending four-year colleges graduated "on-time." The NCES study also found that only 32.8% of African-American male students graduated within the standard four years compared to 40% of Hispanic men, 54.4% of white men, and 59.6% of Asian men. In states that ban affirmative action in public schools, such as California, the admission rates of students of color in post-secondary educational institutions have plummeted. In the University of California system, 2003 admissions numbers for all minority groups dropped from the previous year. The African-American admissions rate plummeted 15%, Native- Americans had a 9.2% drop, Hispanics' admissions fell 3%, and Asians' declined 2%.

The situation in law schools given these statistics is predictable. Students of color have a disproportionately lower law school application, enrollment, and graduation rate. In the fall of 2005, white students constituted more than 65% of all applications to ABA-accredited law schools, compared to 10.4% of African-Americans, 8.3% of Asians, and 8.2% of all Hispanic groups. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of first-year African-American law students rose from 3,402 to 3,457, a mere 1.6% increase in a four-year period. Unfortunately, 2005 brought a 20% drop in that number to only 3,107 - the smallest class of African-American 1Ls since 1990-91; indeed, in 2005, fewer than 400 Native-Americans enrolled in law school. Moreover, in the past decade, law school enrollment for students of color has remained around 19-21% of all law school applicants, but most minority groups experienced slippage in total law school enrollment during the past decade. American Indians/Alaska Natives had a 5.3% decline, that is, 57 fewer students in law school in 2005-06 compared to 1995-96. For that same period, African-American enrollment fell 6.7%, Mexican Americans dropped 3.4%, and Puerto Ricans plunged 24%. By contrast, Asian/Pacific Islanders' enrollment skyrocketed 45.8%, with 3,533 more attending law school in 2005-06 than 10 years earlier. The report noted African-Americans tend to score lower on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) than other groups, which diminishes their chances of being admitted to law school, and law students of color have a higher attrition rate than white law students. In 1998, the percentage of students of color remaining in law school by their second year was 86.8% compared to 93.6% of white students. In 1998, the percentage of students of color remaining in law school by their third year was 84.7% compared to 91.2% of white students.

As students transition from the academy to the profession, the report noted, bar exam passage rates for students of color are generally lower than whites. A 1998 report found that African-Americans have the lowest bar passage rate, at 77.6%. Asians pass the bar exam at a rate of 91.9%, while white students have a 96.7% passage rate. A 2005 report noted that African-Americans represent 12.1% of the U.S. population and only 6.8% of the law degrees conferred. That same report found Hispanics and Latinos represent 12.5% of the U.S. population and only 6.9% of the law degrees awarded. Students of color graduating from law school in 2004 secured only 19.7% of the 30,035 legal jobs available nationwide.

The cumulative effect - captured in statistics like those above - is a severe constriction of the diversity pipeline into the profession for students of color. Any one of these statistics taken alone is a cause for concern. Taken together, these numbers indicate the pervasiveness of the problem.

Evett Simmons, Chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on Diversity in the Legal Profession, noted, "We must reach out to youth at an early age to get them fired up about the rule of law, a fair system of justice, and economic empowerment. We are on a mission to grow lawyers that will look like America, contribute to America, and not forget from whence they came."

Individuals and organizations are encouraged to review the recommendations of the Conference and identify the ones that align with their own interests and resources.

Organizations should use these recommendations as a catalyst for creative development of actions that best fit the particular service provider and targeted recipients. The recommendations are not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. They do, however, offer strategic starting points for taking action that will make a real difference in improving diversity in the pipeline and in the legal profession.

Recommendations

Embrace and participate in the ABA's call to all state, territorial, and local bar associations to collaborate with elementary and secondary schools to develop and support programs that will ensure an increase of minority applications to college and will increase the readiness of minority applicants for college. Identify existing K-12 programs that encourage youth to consider a legal career, and work toward increasing minority student participation in these existing "general" population pipeline programs and developing comparable programs, when needed, that are adapted specifically to attract students of color. We must encourage the legal profession and the judiciary to support diversity pipeline initiatives all along the pipeline by creating visual presentations explaining why diversity pipeline programs matter, for use state by state; encouraging state bar associations and supreme courts to offer CLE/pro bono credits for mentoring; creating a CD-ROM (with technical assistance provided) for use by legal organizations that adopt K-12 schools. We need to select cities with significant minority populations as sites for developing mock trial programs that include substantive content of interest to students of color and then identify appropriate entities within those cities to collaborate on developing mentoring programs for K-12 students, encouraging the respective state bar associations and supreme courts to offer CLE/pro bono credits for mentoring, and then developing a tool kit for law students to mentor K-12 students. We should strive to develop law-related and legal career-focused curriculum for K-12 students, using content that will interest students of color, including providing skill development, enhancing career awareness, offering educational pathway programming, and encouraging parental involvement whenever possible. We must recruit lawyers and law firms that practice any aspect of education law - such as general counsel for educational institutions and practitioners that handle education-related cases - to become involved in diversity pipeline issues and then connect diversity pipeline efforts with law-related education programs. We can then begin to develop and implement a longitudinal model to track the progress of students of color who have participated in pipeline programs throughout the educational process.

The report goes on to state that we should embrace and participate in the ABA's call to all state, territorial, and local bar associations to collaborate with colleges and universities to develop and support pre-law programs that will increase minority applications to law school and increase the readiness of minority applicants for law school. We should identify existing programs that help college students prepare for a legal career, and work toward increasing minority student participation in these "general population" pipeline programs and then develop comparable programs, when needed, that are adapted specifically to attract students of color. We should identify and support existing diversity pipeline initiatives that have a proven track record of attracting minority students and work with community college administrators to encourage students of color to pursue four-year and advanced degrees. We can assist financially needy students of color in practical ways by encouraging law firms and other legal professionals to provide financial assistance to students of color, educating students of color about the financial aid resources available and how to access those resources, and educating students of color about managing debt. We should also develop law-related technology programs that aid in skill building for use by students of color and their advisors. We must encourage colleges and universities to provide courses and programming about law school preparation and the admission process, including stressing the importance of proper course selection in preparing for the LSAT, identifying existing LSAT preparation courses and providing LSAT preparation courses where none exists, actively supporting collaboration between law schools, colleges, and universities in the preparation of students of color for law school, and identifying existing pre-law skill building programs and making students of color aware of these programs. In order to develop enrichment and academically-based programming, we must provide programs focused on math, reading comprehension, and analytical reasoning and writing. We must also provide development, career awareness, and educational pathway programming.

Finally, the report noted, we need to embrace and participate in the ABA's call to the Law School Admission Council and all state, territorial, and local bar associations to collaborate with accredited law schools to combat high rates of minority attrition and ensure that admission policies do not result in a disparate impact on acceptance rates of minority applicants.

Carl G. Cooper is the Chief Diversity Officer of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis LLP. He works with the firm's Management Committee and other firm personnel to design and implement an agenda for K&L Gates that promotes, achieves and maintains a diverse workplace. This article is based on information in the Post-Conference Report of "Embracing the Opportunities for Increasing Diversity in the Legal Profession - Collaborating to Expand the Pipeline (Let's Get Real)," Rice University, November 3-5, 2005.

Please email the author at carl.cooper@klgates.com with questions about this article.