As more fields invest in diversifying the workforce and enhancing opportunities, the legal profession has a special duty to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to thrive. After all, a fair and equitable legal system relies on diversity and inclusion within its ranks.
But progress in the legal world has been too slow. Changing course requires not only thought but definitive action on the part of all of us who shape the legal community, from educators to mentors and employers. Perhaps more importantly, we need to forge stronger partnerships between these groups to ensure that our justice system can operate with fairness, integrity and justice.
The law schools bear a great deal of responsibility, as many of them continue to enroll insufficiently diversified classes. In 2019, according to US News & World Report, 62% of law students were white, 12.7% were Hispanic, 7.8% were black, 6.3% were Asian, and 4% were biracial or multiracial. These numbers reveal that blacks and Hispanics continue to be under-represented relative to their proportions in the US population.
There are several reasons for this: an underdeveloped pipeline, too much emphasis on standardized test performance, and the high cost of legal training.
Law schools have options but need the engagement of law firms
To help improve these daunting statistics, schools have a few options. We can offer more scholarship support to under-represented groups, especially those coming out of historically black colleges and universities. A significant portion of black applicants to law schools and about 50% of all black lawyers are HBCU graduates.
We can extend our reach to undergraduates from under-represented backgrounds, encouraging better results on the Law School Entrance Test, or LSAT, and developing better support for these students – including undergraduates. first generation and low income students – once they arrive. The latter will be essential if we hope to eliminate significant racial disparities in bar examination scores among law school graduates.
At William & Mary Law School, as in our peer schools, institutional statistics underscore the need for progress. In our class of 2023, last year’s incoming class, Blacks and Hispanics made up only 1.7% and 2.2% of the 230 students, respectively. This is down from 2017, when the respective figures were almost 5.4% and 3.2%.
As we pursue the diversification strategies within our grasp, we know they will only move forward modestly unless we pair them with substantial initiatives to develop the under-represented student base. Most law schools do not have the financial or human resources to take on this responsibility on their own. This is where law firms can and should be able to help.
Law firms share the problem of diversity: around 26.5% of law firm partners in 2020 were people of color, according to the National Association for Legal Placement. Meanwhile, in American Bar Association-accredited law schools, about a third of new students in 2019 identified themselves as members of a racial or ethnic minority, ABA noted.
Obviously, to the extent that law schools are not representative of our population, neither will law firms be.
Ensure a diverse pipeline, provide mentors
Thus, it is crucial that firms support law school efforts not only to diversify, but also to engage in initiatives that date back to earlier to strengthen this pipeline of diverse applicants to law schools.
Coach high school students, expose prospective law students to law firms through internships, and fund pre-legal preparation offers such as the Diversity legal pipeline program or Weidner Summer Program for Undergraduates are great ways for businesses to do their part. These pre-legal programs in particular can improve performance on the LSAT.
However, strengthening the pipeline to law school will not be enough to address the lack of diversity within law firms. Firms must commit to recruiting more inclusive categories of new associates and providing them with the professional development support they need to stay and grow once they’re there. Arnold & Porter’s partnership with the National Bar Association to launch a Associated promotion academy for Black Associates is a model.
Real progress in this area is possible and has never been more important. Pathways to law schools and legal practice lead to roles that define and shape the justice system itself. As we become more aware of the deep-seated inequalities in our community, it is clear that those who make, interpret, and apply the law – and advocate for justice under the law – must reflect the full range of experiences. human beings, human thought and perception. state.
By working together, law schools and law firms can bring us closer to this reality.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
A. Benjamin Spencer is Dean of William & Mary Law School.