Accessing Diversity in the Legal Profession

diversity in the legal professionIn my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.

On Sunday, black actress Viola Davis made history as the first black woman to win a Primetime Emmy award. Instead of thanking the usual producers, crew, agents, “team”, the two-time Oscar nominee took on race in Hollywood. And not in the self-deprecating fashion that awards show hosts have been doing for years. Rather, she opened with the above quote from our potential future face of the $20 bill, Harriet Tubman. And then she said this:

[L]et me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.

When we talk about the problems of diversity in the legal profession, we often combine two ideas that should be separated – access and opportunity. Access. Are minorities able to attend law schools? Are minorities able to succeed at law school and interview at top law firms? Then, opportunity. Once minority lawyers are able to access the law firm, are they given the same opportunities at that law firm that majority lawyers are? Are they given the same mentoring, sponsorship, project control, client contact, that majority lawyers are given? Are they given the same opportunities to stay and thrive?

The statistics say, “No.” While blacks make up 13.4 percent of the country’s population, only 3.3 percent of American lawyers in practice are black. Furthermore, only 1 percent of attorneys in the top 100 corporate law firms are members of minority groups. And while in 2011, 19.9% of law firm associates were minorities of any ethnicity, only 6.56% of partners were minorities.

Passing through the Pipeline

For good and bad, much of the more recent focus in diversity and inclusion has been on the opportunity end of the spectrum. The assumption is that minorities have made it into the legal profession; now let’s ensure they have the same opportunities to succeed as everyone else does. Diversity and inclusion therefore focuses on the minorities who have already arrived, on closing the opportunity gap that Viola Davis spoke about in her speech.

However there is another issue. And it’s one of basic access. For many minorities seeking to access law firms, the problem starts with the pipeline. What is the pipeline? It’s the process by which children who like fairness, become teenagers interested in justice, become high schoolers interested in becoming lawyers, become college students who take the LSAT, become law students enrolled in law schools, become the attorneys of government, non-profit and corporate America.

But for many minorities, particularly Hispanics and blacks, the pipeline of access gets clogged. As Professor Sarah Redfield bluntly states:

Diversity efforts will not fail because the business case for diversity is unclear or because corporations and firms will not continue to push for diversity … [Instead] efforts to improve diversity will fail because the number of potentially qualified matriculants to law school cannot support anything close to parity with the increasing diversity in the American population … Simply put, too few underrepresented minorities are progressing in school and moving successfully through the pipeline. Too few are graduating from high school and progressing to and succeeding in college. Too few are achieving LSAT scores and GPAs that meet the standards for admission to law school, all too few to contribute to a diverse profession.

In order to increase minority representation and retention in the legal profession, more minorities need to be able to access the legal profession. This is not an argument for, or even against, affirmative action. Rather it’s an argument for something much simpler: pipeline programming. Fostering an interest in pursuing a legal career at an early educational level, such as high school, will definitively widen the pool of diverse students who can go on to become law students and legal professionals. How can we increase an interest in the legal profession in groups that may not have any positive experiences with the legal profession, and for many, with no lawyers, judges, or politicians in their family, any experience with the legal profession at all?

Improving Access to the Legal Profession

The challenge of pipeline programming has been met by a number of organizations over the years. The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) offers a variety of grants and programs to encourage enrollment of underrepresented groups. For example, DiscoverLaw.org’s Pre-Law Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) Program helps freshman and sophomore students at the college level develop both an interest in the law as well as the skills necessary to gain admission into law school. The American Bar Association also provides the Pipeline Diversity Directory, a comprehensive, free database of pipeline programs.

Pipeline programs have certain limitations however. Most are short-term in duration and many programs end once the student is enrolled in law school. To achieve adequate representation in the legal profession as a whole, a successful pipeline program should include assistance in landing clerkships and externship placements, and emphasize essential employment skills such as resume-writing and interviewing.

Luckily, the legal community has several programs that reflect this approach. The organization Legal Outreach provides both a high school-to-college pipeline program as well as a college-to-law school pipeline program. The latter program gives college freshman the opportunity to work as summer paralegals at law firms and provides LSAT preparation during their sophomore year. In addition, Legal Outreach hosts a Summer Law Institute for rising ninth graders. This summer program allows students to participate in a mock trial, learn about the criminal justice system, and meet attorneys and judges in their community.

The Pipeline to Justice program at CUNY School of Law serves as another college-to-law school pipeline program for minority students. The program allows students with LSAT scores under that required for admission, a second chance for enrollment. If the student shows a passion for public interest and academic promise despite her LSAT score, she will be admitted and supported throughout the law school experience. Students may also join the program from CUNY’s undergraduate school and may take part in classes to help prepare them for the LSAT and to hone the writing and reading skills necessary for law school success. Once the students graduate, the program supports them through the bar exam. CUNY’s Pipeline to Justice program launched in 2006, and led to a 20 percent increase in students of color in its debut year.

Closer to home, the Chicago-based Just the Beginning – A Pipeline Organization (JTB-APO) has dedicated pipeline programs for middle school, high school, college and law schools students to inspire under-represented students and increase diversity in the profession. 61% of the school-age students from their summer program were living below the poverty level. 92% identified as a race other than white. One of JTB-APO’s signature efforts is its national judicial externship/clerkship referral program for qualified students. The program matches law students with federal and state judges across the country for semester and summer internships, as well as full-time clerkships. Finally, and more locally, JTB-APO partners with the Minority Legal Education Resources to assist minority students in passing the Illinois bar.

These are just a few of the ways pipeline programs across the country are trying to increase the numbers of minorities able to access the legal profession. If you are interested in participating, visit your local bar association. From Lawyers in the Classroom to mentoring programs to Law Day, numerous ways exist for Illinois lawyers to get involved in pipeline programming. The legal profession has spent copious amounts of time and research focused on improving opportunities for minority lawyers in the legal profession. Let’s do the same for improving access.


Our intern Jessica Saltiel contributed to this post.

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