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Black presence in law schools dwindling

by Kenneth Mallory
The Chicago Defender
August 5, 2005

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - A report by the American Bar Association has found that the proportion of minorities, including Blacks and Hispanics, enrolling in law schools has decreased in the past two years.

'Minority representation among law students has dropped for the past two years, from 20.6 percent in 2001-2002 to 20.3 percent in 2003-2004,' said the findings in the third edition of "Miles to Go: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession," published by the ABA's Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Legal Profession.

"Miles to Go" finds that African-American representation in law is less than other professions, like teaching and medicine.

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In addition, the report contends minorities are less apt than Whites to head to private law firms after leaving law school, more likely to resign from firms after three years there and 'continue to be grossly underrepresented in top level jobs, such as law partner and corporate general counsel.'

The report's author, New York Law School Professor Elizabeth Chambliss, deemed the finding of reduced enrollment 'extremely troubling,' and, in an interview, discussed the under-representation of minorities in the profession.

'The legal profession already is one of the least racially integrated professions in the United States when all four minority groups [African-American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American] are aggregated,' she said. 'African-Americans, too, are represented at lower levels than in many comparable professions. In 2000, African-Americans made up only 3.9 percent of all lawyers, compared to 4.4 percent of physicians, 5.6 percent of college and university professors, 7.8 percent of computer scientists and 7.9 percent of accountants and auditors.'

Chambliss discussed the implications of such findings.

'The low level of Black representation in the profession may discourage promising Black students from considering law and limit Black lawyers' chances to find mentors and role models within the law. And, to the extent that Black lawyers are more likely than others to be concerned with racial justice, discrimination, community development, and the like, the dearth of Black lawyers contributes to an already unequal access to lawyers in the United States.'

The dean of admissions at a prominent area law school acknowledged a decline in the number of minorities enrolling in its program, while another said the number of Black applicants was declining.

At the George Washington University Law School, Robert Stanek, associate dean for admissions and financial aid, said enrollment declined at the highly competitive school, which, according to the ABA, received more than 11,000 applications in 2004.

'Two, three and four years ago, we admitted a certain number of minority candidates, and usually the numbers that enrolled constituted about a third of the class,' said Stanek. 'Last year, our same number of offers of admission resulted in a much lower percentage registered. We didn't see an application decline. We saw a decline in the numbers accepting our offer of admission.'

Stanek said school officials are still trying to 'digest exactly what [has] happened,' and, subsequently, have not initiated any new recruitment efforts for minority students.

But Reginald McGahee, dean of admissions at Howard University Law School, perhaps the premiere African-American law school in the country, said the number of applicants applying to Howard Law and many other higher education institutions across the country has declined, especially among Black males.

'There is a universal drop in African-American males that are applying to law schools, and more specifically, higher education in general. And we're seeing that same decline,' he said.

Law officials discussed obstacles that might preclude Blacks from pursuing careers in law, such as a growing disinterest in the profession and the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test), which many feel is biased against Black law school applicants.

Lawrence Baca, chair of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, said law schools can increase the number of minorities by having Black law school graduates reach out to Black students.

'Any law school that wants to increase minority participation, or, particularly, Black participation, is going to have to get out and do some outreach work,' Baca said. 'The first thing that I would do if I was a law school is I would find my graduates of color, whatever racial or ethnic group it is, and ask them for their assistance in helping me identify folks and convincing folks to apply.'

Baca said he believed a major reason Black students are not considering careers in law is because they lack role models in the profession and do not hear about positive things lawyers have done with their careers.

He also said lawyers have not been pictured in a positive light in the media, possibly deterring students from considering law careers.

'The legal trade for one reason or another has not had the best reputation in the press, and to the extent that it may be causing students to not apply to law school, the way to get past that is for our folks to go into the law schools and say, 'I don't care about what you wrote about in the paper. Here's what I did last week with my career,'' said Baca.

But a major concern voiced by many future Black lawyers, as well as those advocating increased diversity in the profession, is the hurdle the LSAT poses to Black students.

'One of the main barriers to increasing diversity among law students is law schools' heavy reliance on the LSAT. African Americans and other minority groups score lower, on average, than Whites, on the LSAT, yet law schools' reliance on this measure of aptitude has increased markedly over time,' Chambliss said in a statement. 'One point differences on the LSAT can make the difference between admission and rejection by law schools, even though such differences are not statistically significant, and even though the LSAT does not predict success as a lawyer, however measured.'

Stanek agreed that the LSAT is quickly becoming the most important factor in law school admissions.

'Is it overriding all other factors? I don't think so -- yet,' he said.

McGahee said some currently believe the LSAT is biased.

'The main thing that we have to realize [is] that there's a lot of debate out there right now that there are some inherent biases that go along with the LSAT. Being at Howard, we're more sensitive to that than some other institutions in the countries may be. But what we can't get away from [is] that, right now, there is no other test to properly evaluate and predict whether a student will or won't do well in law school,' he said.

McGahee said Black students should take time to ensure they are prepared for the LSAT.

But according to Chambliss, law schools shouldn't rely as much on the standardized test.

'Law schools concerned with increasing the diversity of their student bodies need to focus less on the LSAT and more on other measures of achievement, including undergraduate grades and work history,' she said.

But Kim Keenan, president of the National Bar Association, a group representing thousands of Black lawyers, discussed the possible ramifications the underrepresentation of African Americans in law will have for the Black community in the future.

'Ultimately, at some point, you will not be able to find lawyers of color,' said Keenan.

Acknowledging that the number of Blacks, particularly Black males, at law schools is beginning to decline, Keenan said the Black community has to start ensuring that Black children have the necessary 'educational opportunities,' as early as grammar school, to properly train them and increase their chances to enter the profession.

'Our professional workforce should look like our country,' said Keenan.

Story courtesy of the Afro Newspapers.