Despite an increase in capacity, law schools have been admitting fewer African-American and Mexican American students over the last 15 years.

 

Conrad Johnson, director of the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic at Columbia University, says the clinic Web site on Black and Mexican American law school admissions provides a full picture of long-term trends.

As director of the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic at the Columbia University Law School, law professor Conrad Johnson knows that digital technology has the power to highlight and amplify social justice concerns and to enable people to take direct action. Under Johnson’s leadership, the clinic has developed and maintained the Columbia-hosted Web site titled “A Disturbing Trend in Law School Diversity,” which highlights more than a decade of declining to stagnant African-American and Mexican American enrollment at U.S. law schools.

“What we tried to do in this study is something we haven’t seen done very often (and that) is to measure the trends of inclusiveness in the context of the capacity of law schools to take in students, which has increased by 10 percent over the last 15 years,” Johnson says.

The Web site features 12 graphs taken from Law School Admission Council (LSAC) data showing how first-year African-American and Mexican American enrollment has declined 8.6 percent, from a total of 3,937 in 1992 to 3,595 in 2005. The Web site notes that in 1992 there were 176 accredited U.S. law schools and by 2006 that total had increased to 195 accredited schools, offering a gain of nearly 4,000 first-year seats for law school students. It’s also shown that, while African-American and Mexican American applicants have endured falling admissions rates, their undergraduate grade point averages and Law School Admission Test scores have improved during the same period.

“Instead of measuring this year against last year, we decided to say ‘let’s look at 15 years and let’s look at LSAT scores, GPAs and capacities of law schools to take in new students,’ and I think that’s going to be particularly important to continue to monitor the fuller picture as opposed to a small slice of the picture,” Johnson notes.

More recently, the American Bar Association reported that first-year African-American law school enrollment went from 3,107 in 2005-2006 to 3,516 in 2006-2007 and fell to 3,486 in 2007-2008. First-year Mexican American law school enrollment went from 851 in 2005-2006 to 915 in 2006-2007 and fell to 888 in 2007-2008.

While it’s notable that overall racial diversity has increased with growing numbers of Asian Americans and some Hispanics excluding Mexican Americans gaining admission to law schools, diversity advocates, such as Johnson, are making it known that African-American and Mexican American admissions rates have fallen consistently since the 1990s.

 

A ‘Disturbing Trend’

“The stats are pretty clear that we’re making no progress. There’s no way to put a nice face on it. The first statistic of note is that African-American enrollment peaked in 1995-1996 at the American Bar Association-approved law schools; that was the high water mark. For 12 consecutive years since then, African-American enrollment has fallen short of that mark, and what’s really disturbing is that, during the same period of time, 20 new law schools were created,” says John Nussbaumer, the associate dean of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Nussbaumer has presented LSAC data at meetings showing that, from 2002 to 2007, 62 percent of African-American and 4 percent of Mexican American applicants to law school failed to gain admission to any ABA-approved institution, while just 34 percent of 363,360 White applicants were turned away from all the schools to which they applied.

John Nussbaumer, associate dean of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, says his school faced pressure from the ABA Section of Legal Education to limit the number and percentage of students with lower-tier LSAT scores.

Johnson notes that a growing coalition of individuals, such as Nussbaumer and himself, and organizations, such as the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) and the National Bar Association, an African-American legal organization, are collaborating to reverse the slide of African-American and Mexican American law school enrollment. The SALT organization collaborated with Johnson’s Columbia law school clinic to help produce and publicize the “Disturbing Trend” Web site at www2.law.columbia.edu/civilrights.

 

“There’s certainly been increased attention to this issue. … There has been a number of articles about this which are positive about raising awareness. … And there have been efforts in Congress to address this,” Johnson says.

 

An Overreliance on the LSAT

Diversity advocates charge that law schools are putting too much weight in their admissions on undergraduate grade point averages and LSAT scores, while conducting little or no holistic reviews of applicants. They point out that schools often institute rigid LSAT score cutoff rates, a practice that leads to many competitive applicants receiving no consideration from admissions committees. Such practices are said to merely enable individual schools to boast relatively high LSAT median scores of their matriculants in published law school rankings, such as the one released by U.S. News & World Report.

“Law schools are paying a lot of attention to the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and, as a result, they are overrelying on the LSAT,” Johnson explains. “This overreliance and trend has played out in a number of ways. One is the decrease of inclusivity of African-Americans and Mexican Americans and that’s reflected in their numbers and percentages within entering classes but also in the shut-out rates as you compare different ethnic groups,” he adds.

The American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which is sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit U.S. law schools, has come under scrutiny by diversity advocates as well as by the Congressional Black Caucus. Advocates contend that law schools that have aggressively reached out to racially and socioeconomically diverse populations by instituting holistic admissions and de-emphasizing the LSAT’s role have faced pressure to raise minimum LSAT requirements.

Last year, the late U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, D-Ohio, pushed through a provision in the Higher Education Opportunity Act that requires the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to “examine the impact that law school accreditation requirements and other factors have on the costs of law schools and student access to law school, including the impact of such requirements on racial and ethnic minorities.”

“One certain factor in the trend is the overreliance of law schools and accreditors on LSAT scores as an admissions criterion, and I expect the GAO study to bear that out,” Tubbs-Jones said in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives last year. Charles Young, a GAO spokesman, says GAO personnel are in the early stages of determining the scope of the accreditation impact study and have yet to figure out how long it will take to complete the assignment.

Thomas M. Cooley’s Nussbaumer says his school faced pressure from 1998 to 2003 from the ABA Section of Legal Education to limit the number and percentage of students with lower-tier LSAT scores and saw its African-American enrollment cut in half as a result. Though the school has 10 percent African-American enrollment in contrast to 20 percent in 1998, Thomas M. Cooley is still one of the leading producers of African-American law graduates with only Howard University and Texas Southern University, both historically Black institutions, graduating more African-American students in the last five years.

“When schools admit a lot of low LSAT students, they tend to come under fire from the ABA accreditation committee, and I don’t think the ABA folks are bad people. They’re very supportive of diversity. They’re very concerned about schools taking advantage of minority applicants,” Nussbaumer explains.

Efforts to bring about admissions processes that balance out the heavy weight of LSAT scores and grade point averages will have to target “the admissions committees who are making those voluntary decisions,” Nussbaumer says.

“There are schools, and my school is one of them, that basically say ‘we’re not going to play that game.’ And we’re not the only one. There’s about 20 to 25 schools that say they want to serve those (racially and socioeconomic diverse) communities,” he says.

 

Going Forward with Diversity

 

The late U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, D-Ohio, included a provision in the Higher Education Opportunity Act requiring evaluation of law school accreditation standards and student access.

Critics of diversity initiatives have sharpened their critique of affirmative action in recent years by putting forth arguments and studies that attempt to demonstrate that affirmative action policies end up harming the intended groups more than helping them. When the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar unveiled a diversity standard in 2006 covering law school admissions, opponents not only argued the standard would pressure law schools to use illegal “racial preferences,” they also cited University of California, Los Angeles law professor Richard Sander’s research on the “mismatch” effect. The research, based heavily on standardized scores and other quantitative measures, argued that Blacks who had gained admission to law school under affirmative action would have had higher grades and higher completion rates had they attended less competitive schools where their academic credentials were better matched.    

For their part, the ABA and the LSAC have devoted considerable resources to promote and encourage diversity initiatives. The issue over whether law schools, in pursuit of high law school rankings, allow LSAT scores as well as undergraduate grade point averages to unduly shape their admissions policies “is not a new complaint” that ABA officials hear, says Nancy Slonim, the ABA director of policy communications. She explains that ABA policy does not condone law school participation in and promotion of ratings systems.

Kent Lollis, the executive director for initiatives at LSAC, which administers the LSAT, says the exam “is a high stakes test, and, because of that, it probably gets more weight in the admissions process than we recommend.”

Columbia’s Johnson says law school diversity will continue to suffer if schools take “shortcuts” in their admissions process by overrelying on LSAT scores, a practice he points out as contrary to ABA and LSAC policies.

“I would suggest that law schools get rid of these automatic cutoffs because they don’t consider the whole person and overrely on one test, which itself only claims to be a predictor for success in the first year of law school. But it has nothing to do with or doesn’t even claim to predict success as a lawyer, or test for qualities that actually determine success as a lawyer like perseverance and diligence,” he notes.



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