A sense of belonging and support is essential for success in law school, but many students of color say their law schools are falling short, according to new data from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE).
The 2020 LSSSE collected responses on law school experience from roughly 13,000 law students at 68 law schools in Spring 2020. For the first time, the survey included a Diversity and Inclusiveness Module, which examined environments, processes, and activities that reflect the engagement and validation of cultural diversity and societal differences at schools.
“While many law schools have focused on improving diversity, this report reveals that we must not lose sight of inclusion,” said Meera E. Deo, Director of the LSSSE, in a release. “Many of our most vulnerable students—including those who are marginalized based on their race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, debt load, and first-gen status—are telling us that we need to do more to show we value them, to prove they belong, to make them comfortable in legal education and the legal profession.”
Institutions that put mechanisms in place to foster community across backgrounds and experiences can help students understand that all should be welcome. But this institutional support isn’t being experienced equally across the law school community, the survey says.
The survey found that almost a quarter (23%) of Black law students said their schools do “very little” to foster support for racial/ethnic diversity on campus, compared to just 6.8% of white students. The discrepancy is starker among Black women, 26% of whom say their schools do “very little” to create a supportive environment, as compared to 5.5% of white men.
Women and others from traditionally underrepresented groups don’t view their schools as supportive of gender diversity as much as males. When asked if their campus is a “supportive environment for gender diversity,” 39% of men believed this “very much” as opposed to 27% of women and only 9% of students who identify as another gender identity.
A lack of belonging can have negative academic and professional consequences for students whose academic indicators otherwise suggest they should have strong performance, the LSSSE’s report Diversity & Inclusion says. And LSSSE’s data shows that white students have a stronger sense of belonging than their classmates of color.
One out of every five (21%) law students who are Black, Latinx, or Native American and 32% of first-gen students (whose parents didn’t finish high school) said they “do not feel comfortable being myself at this institution,” compared to just 12% of white students. Notably, 34% of Black women said they don’t feel like a member of their campus community.
A quarter (25%) of Black students said their law schools do “very little” to prevent students from being stigmatized based on characteristics like race/ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. Only 9.3% of white students agree.
Twenty percent of gay students, 16% of lesbians, 15% of bisexual students, and 19% of those who identify as another sexual orientation see their schools as doing “very little” to avoid identity-based stigma.
Law schools should encourage students to reflect on their cultural identity and develop skills needed to fight societal problems like discrimination and harassment, the report says.
However, 26% of white students said they never reflect on cultural identity in law school, compared to 50% of Black women who do so “very often.” First-gen students (34%) are also more likely to reflect on their cultural identity than students (16%) who have a parent with a doctoral or professional degree.
In addition, over one-third (36%) of all Black students think their schools do “very little” to help students develop anti-discrimination tools, while 50% of white students said their schools do “quite a bit” or “very much.” And, almost a quarter (24%) of women see their schools doing “very little” to prepare them to handle discrimination or harassment, while 56% of men think their schools do “quite a bit” or “very much.”
Kimberly M. Mutcherson, Co-Dean and Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School, urges law schools to conduct institutional audits to identify who they are failing, how they are failing, and how to fix those failures. Though the work is ongoing, Mutcherson recommends that law schools start by:
- revisiting curricula and noting how it fails to adequately grapple with law as a tool of oppression (past and present);
- reflecting on hiring, tenure, and promotion practices that reinforce a self-perpetuating elitism;
- considering scholarship funding models that disproportionately reward existing privilege; and
- thinking creatively about building internal support systems, academic and personal, so that all students and faculty get what they need to be successful.
The LSSSE is part of Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research (CPR), a research center in the School of Education devoted to studying the student experience.
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