Law Schools Renew a Drive for Diversity

Article excerpt

Lawyers may not score well in public-opinion surveys, but at some point, everybody needs one - whether to write up a will, file a suit, or defend against criminal charges.

Nine times out of 10 in the United States, the face of that lawyer is white. And a growing number of attorneys say the profession's failure to keep pace with America's diversity is intolerable.

About 7 percent of current law students are African-American, and about 6 percent are Hispanic, according to the American Bar Association (ABA).

Those low numbers are prompting many law schools to redouble their efforts to boost diversity. If the public is going to have confidence in the US legal system, they argue, the proportion of minority law-school graduates needs to be higher.

To that end, law schools are reaching out to potential applicants before they graduate from college or even high school. They are also encouraging alumni to act as mentors to minority students to keep them from feeling isolated on campus or from dropping out.

The goal is not just to help minority students, but to create an environment that offers more breadth of perspectives.

"Whether it's a conservative daughter of a black surgeon or a recent immigrant, the classroom experience is richer for having those students in class," says Kent Lollis of the Law School Admission Council in Pennsylvania.

Affirmative action wanes

Law schools saw growth in minority enrollments in the 1980s and early '90s. But since 1995, they've faced a series of ballot initiatives and court rulings that dismantle affirmative-action policies. The University of Michigan Law School is facing a test of its admissions policy.

In states that banned affirmative action - California, Texas, and Washington - minority enrollment has dropped sharply, according to a recent study by the ABA. At Boalt Hall, the University of California's law school in Berkeley, the proportion of African- Americans and Hispanics dropped to 9 percent in 2000 from about 18 percent in 1996.

"The legal profession is already one of the least integrated professions and promises to continue to be if this campaign [against affirmative action] is successful," says Elizabeth Chambliss, author of the ABA study.

William Paul, former ABA president, has a more dramatic take: "We really have a crisis on our hands."

Even US Attorney General Janet Reno has spoken about minorities being left out of the legal profession. "The results," she told a legal-diversity convention in October, are "anger, frustration, a lack of confidence in the law, and a conclusion that the law is ineffective."

Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree says the ballot initiatives and lawsuits have made many law schools cautious. "They're afraid of claims of reverse discrimination. They're afraid of being sued," he says.

But a number of law-school officials nationwide say curbs on affirmative action have actually pushed them to broaden their approach to diversity.

"Simply protecting law schools' right to take race into account as one of many factors in admissions will not, standing alone, assure a diverse student body in law schools," says University of Michigan Law School professor David Chambers. "At every stage in the chain of events that leads up to law school, there's work to be done."

At the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law, for instance, disadvantaged undergraduate students from around L.A. learn legal reasoning and critical-thinking skills during Saturday seminars, says outreach director Leo Trujillo-Cox.

Student David Plancarte says the program's benefits - including a law-student mentor and subsidies for admissions-test preparation - persuaded him to stay at UCLA for law school.

To reach younger audiences, the Law School Admission Council gave grants to 150 member schools this year to host events for minority high-schoolers. …