Law schools renew a drive for diversity

Lawyers may not score well in public-opinion surveys, but at some point, everybody needs one - whether to write up a will, file a suit, or defend against criminal charges.

Nine times out of 10 in the United States, the face of that lawyer is white. And a growing number of attorneys say the profession's failure to keep pace with America's diversity is intolerable.

About 7 percent of current law students are African-American, and about 6 percent are Hispanic, according to the American Bar Association (ABA).

Those low numbers are prompting many law schools to redouble their efforts to boost diversity. If the public is going to have confidence in the US legal system, they argue, the proportion of minority law-school graduates needs to be higher.

To that end, law schools are reaching out to potential applicants before they graduate from college or even high school. They are also encouraging alumni to act as mentors to minority students to keep them from feeling isolated on campus or from dropping out.

The goal is not just to help minority students, but to create an environment that offers more breadth of perspectives.

"Whether it's a conservative daughter of a black surgeon or a recent immigrant, the classroom experience is richer for having those students in class," says Kent Lollis of the Law School Admission Council in Pennsylvania.

Affirmative action wanes

Law schools saw growth in minority enrollments in the 1980s and early '90s. But since 1995, they've faced a series of ballot initiatives and court rulings that dismantle affirmative-action policies. The University of Michigan Law School is facing a test of its admissions policy.

In states that banned affirmative action - California, Texas, and Washington - minority enrollment has dropped sharply, according to a recent study by the ABA. At Boalt Hall, the University of California's law school in Berkeley, the proportion of African-Americans and Hispanics dropped to 9 percent in 2000 from about 18 percent in 1996.

"The legal profession is already one of the least integrated professions and promises to continue to be if this campaign [against affirmative action] is successful," says Elizabeth Chambliss, author of the ABA study.

William Paul, former ABA president, has a more dramatic take: "We really have a crisis on our hands."

Even US Attorney General Janet Reno has spoken about minorities being left out of the legal profession. "The results," she told a legal-diversity convention in October, are "anger, frustration, a lack of confidence in the law, and a conclusion that the law is ineffective."

Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree says the ballot initiatives and lawsuits have made many law schools cautious. "They're afraid of claims of reverse discrimination. They're afraid of being sued," he says.

But a number of law-school officials nationwide say curbs on affirmative action have actually pushed them to broaden their approach to diversity.

"Simply protecting law schools' right to take race into account as one of many factors in admissions will not, standing alone, assure a diverse student body in law schools," says University of Michigan Law School professor David Chambers. "At every stage in the chain of events that leads up to law school, there's work to be done."

At the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law, for instance, disadvantaged undergraduate students from around L.A. learn legal reasoning and critical-thinking skills during Saturday seminars, says outreach director Leo Trujillo-Cox.

Student David Plancarte says the program's benefits - including a law-student mentor and subsidies for admissions-test preparation - persuaded him to stay at UCLA for law school.

To reach younger audiences, the Law School Admission Council gave grants to 150 member schools this year to host events for minority high-schoolers.

At Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge-area high school students learned about law-school life during a mock class and heard attorneys describe their careers. "We felt that we needed to get in contact with these students before their college years," says Tracy Evans, director of career services at LSU's law center (see story, page 17).

Yet schools in states where affirmative action has disappeared still struggle to convince minority students that they'll be welcome. Andrea Ritchie says she turned down a full scholarship at Boalt Hall because of California's ban on affirmative action.

"I didn't feel comfortable learning in that environment," Ms. Ritchie says. Instead, she decided on Howard University Law School, where nearly 90 percent of the students share her African-American heritage.

The burden of isolation

Students who do sign on to schools where they will be a tiny minority often find it an isolating experience. Chrystal James was one of only two African-Americans in her class, and says she nearly dropped out of UCLA's School of Law last year.

Ms. James says she felt compelled to speak up in class on behalf of black opinion, and watched dejectedly as the school's Black Law Journal shut down. "There's a heavy burden," she comments.

To reduce that burden, law schools are increasingly drawing on their minority alumni. These graduates volunteer to mentor students and help them with the job hunt. The University of Tennessee's College of Law and the Knoxville Bar Association pair entering students with local attorneys and host an annual networking reception with potential employers.

If a law school is homogenous, evidence suggests it's not just minority students who lose out. In a 1999 Harvard Civil Rights Project survey, 90 percent of Harvard and University of Michigan law students said diversity had a positive impact on their education.

Having minority professors is important too, since they can bring different teaching styles and research interests to the campus, says University of Florida law professor Kenneth Nunn. And they show all students that minorities can succeed at the top of the profession.

In September, Mr. Nunn gave up his position as associate dean after what he describes as "a fruitless struggle within the system." As a professor, he believes he'll have more freedom to express his frustration with the school's failure to hire and retain more African-American faculty.

High-profile alumni

Law-school alumni are starting to offer their own careers as evidence of the value of diversity. A study of University of Michigan law graduates last year found minorities had equal job satisfaction, earn nearly as much, and do more public service when compared with whites.

In September, more than 400 African-American Harvard Law School grads - including American Express CEO-designate Kenneth Chenault and Washington mayor Anthony Williams - returned to the campus for the first Celebration of Black Alumni. "You could argue about the benefits of diversity in policy terms until you're blue in the face," says Harvard Law Dean Robert Clark. "But if you have all the people together and see the results, it makes a huge difference."

Even as they reach out in new ways, law schools emphasize they can't expand the pipeline by themselves. Medicine, engineering, business, and liberal-arts graduate programs need to work together to increase the pool of minority candidates, says Mr. Chambers of the University of Michigan, who co-chairs the diversity task force of the Association of American Law Schools.

In October, Lawyers For One America presented President Bill Clinton with 28 recommendations for diversifying the profession - ranging from deemphasizing law-school admissions tests to encouraging judges to hire more minority clerks. "It's the entire legal profession that needs to act," says Teveia Barnes, the group's executive director.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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