Law School Diversity and U.S. News
Some of you may have seen the recent study finding that the percentage of African-American and Mexican-American students in law school has decreased in the last fifteen years. The study found that although there are 3,000 more first-year seats available today than in 1993 (the number of law schools has increased from 176 to 200), few of those seats are being filled by African-American or Mexican-American students. As a result, African-American and Mexican-American students comprise a smaller percentage of the entering law school class than they did in 1993. According to the ABA, the same trend is true of Puerto Rican law students, but that is not the case with all minority law students. In fact, both the number and percentage of law students who self-identify as “Other Hispanic,” Asian, or Pacific Islander increased significantly from 1993 to 2008.
The number of African-Americans and Mexican-Americans applying to law school has not changed significantly over the last 15 years. Some years, the applicant pool has been smaller than in 1993, and in other years, it has been larger, but all in all, these groups have been applying to law school in “relatively constant numbers.” Admittedly, the applicant pool is small, but it does not explain why the percentage of African-Americans and Mexican-Americans in law school has declined over the last fifteen years. Why aren’t these groups filling some of the 3,000 first-year seats that have been added since 1993?
One reason is that few African-Americans and Mexican-Americans actually get into law school. Although the undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores of African-American and Mexican-American students have improved over the last 15 years, their LSAT scores are still somewhat lower than those of other applicants. This explains, in part, why these applicants are rejected by all of the law schools to which they apply at much higher rates than white applicants. “From 2003-2008, 61 percent of black applicants and 46 percent of Chicano applicants were denied acceptance at all of the law schools to which they applied as compared to 34 percent of white applicants.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger recognized that “student body diversity is a compelling state interest” and most of us find that our classes are enriched when we have a diverse group of students. The discussion of transracial adoption in Family Law, or damages in Torts, for example, is much more nuanced when students provide multiple perspectives. I am not suggesting that white, heterosexual, Christian, middle-class individuals cannot have rich discussions with multiple perspectives, but we all learn more when we are surrounded by individuals whose backgrounds and life experiences are different from our own. I am reminded of a comment made by a student after a class on transracial adoption last year. This student was usually very vocal, but that day she had been very quiet. I asked her if everything was alright and she said that she did not feel comfortable discussing transracial adoption when there were no African-American students in the class and that she felt that she was talking about African-Americans behind their back. I mentioned that I have written about transracial adoption and I make a point to introduce various perspectives. She replied: “I know you do, but it’s just not the same.” She’s right. It’s not the same.
I believe that law school administrators and faculty are sincere when we express concern about the lack of African-Americans and Mexican-Americans in law school. So why do we continue to disproportionately reject these applicants? Some scholars argue that law schools’ desire to rise in the U.S. News & World Report Law School rankings has led to an over-reliance on LSAT scores when making admissions decisions. The median LSAT of a law school’s entering class counts for 12.5% of the U.S. News overall ranking and students often base their choice of law school primarily on the rankings. In addition, private employers’ decisions to conduct on campus interviews at certain law schools and not others are based partly on the rankings.
Commentators debate whether the LSAT is a good predictor of success in law school, and thus should be a factor in the rankings. However, even if the LSAT has some predictive value, aren’t there other variables, such as diversity, that U.S. News should consider when determining law school rankings? If we believe, to quote Justice O’Connor, that “diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society,” shouldn’t diversity be a factor in the rankings, along with the LSAT, undergraduate GPA, student-faculty ratio, etc.? Shouldn’t the rankings reflect what we, as lawyers and educators, believe are the essential elements of a quality legal education?