Law School Diversity

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There have been a number of articles in the New York Times this week highlighting diversity challenges in law schools, and the lack of legal representation among low and middle income individuals who cannot afford it.

In one article, Law School Admissions Lag Among Minorities, the Times reports on a Columbia Law School study showing that the number of African-American and Mexican-American law students declined between 1993 and 2008.   One key reason cited is the concern over US News & World Report rankings.  The associate dean of Thomas M Cooley Law School is quoted, saying "[a] big part of it is that many schools base their admissions criteria not on whether students have a reasonable chance of success, but how those L.S.A.T. numbers are going to affect their rankings in the U.S. News & World Report."  So even though the grades and and LSAT scores of African-Americans and Mexicans have improved over time, they are increasingly being shut out of law schools.  Instead of law schools complaining about and feeling held hostage by U.S. News & World Report, I wonder whether law school deans would come together to boycott U.S. News by refusing to share any information with them.   I know this would be risky, but it may be worth thinking about.

Another key factor in law school diversity, not discussed in the article, is the cost of a legal education.  The cost is sufficiently steep to price many people out of the market.  I recently had a conversation with the parent of a college senior who was relieved that her son decided to pursue a Ph.D. instead of a law degree because he will actually receive financial assistance to pursue his Ph.D.  If he had chosen law school, his parents would have paid tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.  While no one has come up with a magical solution to this problem, there are discussions out there about finding alternative ways to finance law school education.

Another article, an op-ed piece by two judges, A Nation of Do-It-Yourself Lawyers, talks about the increased number of people going to court pro se because they cannot afford legal representation.  These individuals are not just low income earners, but also include, middle income folks and small business owners.  Often there are significant issues at stake like child custody and foreclosure, and lives are being dramatically impacted with no legal assistance.   In Courts Seek More Lawyers to Help the Poor, the Times highlights a new program in New York designed to bring in retired attorneys to help represent some of these people.

In my opinion, all three articles are related.  A more diverse student body will produce more diverse attorneys, some of whom will go into communities that lack sufficient legal representation and help alleviate the problem of "do-it-yourself lawyers."

-Barbara L. Atwell

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