Diverse departments start with diverse law schools

In-house counsel must focus on the pipeline to law school for diverse candidates.

As I approach my 20th law school class reunion, I have reflected on how dramatically the professional landscape for lawyers has changed over the years. Law firms combined and grew to become enormous multinational entities. Starting associate salaries in the largest firms skyrocketed. In general terms, lawyers and law firms have, over these years, enjoyed unprecedented levels of remuneration, visibility and prestige. These factors have caused many of the best and brightest to seek admission to law school. Over the past 20 years, law school applications have exploded.

To meet this demand, the number of available seats in ABA accredited law schools increased over the past two decades, as has the number of ABA accredited schools. With these expanded opportunities to attend law school, one might think that the opportunity increased proportionally for all demographic groups. Unfortunately, not so.

A recent study by a Columbia University law professor found that the opportunities to attend law school actually shrank over the past two decades for certain minority groups. In a study titled “A Disturbing Trend in Law School Diversity,” conducted in partnership with the Society of American Law School Teachers, Professor Conrad Johnson found that the proportion of black students entering law school actually dropped 7.5 percent between 1993 and 2008. I vividly recall being one of a small handful of minority students in my law school classes in the late 1980s. I cannot imagine how those numbers have managed to get even worse.

The news for Latino aspirants to law school is even more sobering. Over the same time period, the percentage of Mexican-American students admitted to law school declined nearly 12 percent. This decline ironically coincides with the rapid ascendency of Latinos as our country’s largest demographic group.

The decline for these groups occurred despite an increase in the overall number of available law school slots and despite a steady increase in the credentials of both groups’ candidate pools.

There will be a vigorous debate about what factors have driven this trend. Some will cite law schools’ infatuation with rankings as a driver of admission decisions favoring better resourced, more traditional candidates. Others cite our profession’s profound lack of creativity in how we go about identifying those who are most likely to be successful lawyers, essentially ignoring those factors that we practicing lawyers know matter most—tenacity, resourcefulness, intellectual curiosity, passion and work ethic.

While Professor Johnson’s findings will undoubtedly be a subject of continued debate, this data is for us in-house lawyers a call to action. 

As in-house lawyers, we must focus on the pipeline to law school for diverse candidates. In The Coca-Cola Co. legal division, our approach to diversity and inclusion has four dimensions: 1) internal recruitment, development, promotion and retention of diverse lawyers; 2) driving supplier diversity through increased use of certified minority- and women-owned law firms; 3) surveying, comparing, measuring and rewarding progressive diversity practices of the large firms with whom we do business and ultimately linking diversity to enlarged opportunities to do business with us; and 4) pipeline and affinity work.

As a law department, consider engaging in one or more of the great pipeline opportunities that currently exist. For example, our legal division has had a longstanding partnership with the Street Law program, which encourages public high school students to consider careers in the law by placing lawyers as visiting teachers in classrooms. Connecting with your company’s community and fueling the legal pipeline will make you part of the solution to declining minority law school enrollment. 

John Lewis Jr.

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