The U.S. Census Bureau projects that America is rapidly moving toward a majority-minority nation. The U.S. population is expected to be minority white in 2042. However, the legal profession is still largely non-diverse. These shifting demographics have caught the attention of some key legal minds.
The Illinois Supreme Court passed its new CLE carve-out last year, requiring Illinois attorneys to take one hour of diversity and inclusion credit to help satisfy professional responsibility requirements. The requirement’s purpose is to encourage attorneys to engage with diversity and inclusion issues, as well as increase the numbers of lawyers who’re exposed to such efforts.
These changes are a welcome enhancement in the legal profession. The requirement will, hopefully, continue to foster open conversations about diversity and bias, and encourage more inclusive work environments.
As a current law student in Illinois, however, I can’t help but wonder why diversity and inclusion initiatives aren’t also incorporated into the first-year law school curriculum.
Fueled by my personal experiences as a woman of color, I jumped at the opportunity to serve as a student facilitator for Loyola’s inaugural Professional Identity Formation (PIF) course. I felt that (finally!) concrete steps were being taken to not only address diversity and inclusion in law schools, but also to fill in a gap in curriculum that was failing to prepare students for situations they may face professionally.
The Spark That Ignited the Fervor
The PIF course, which is being taught this semester to 286 1Ls, was the brainchild of students who attended Loyola almost a decade ago. These students pushed for the introduction of a course that addressed the underlying historical and social issues that pervade the American legal and justice systems. They were joined by the Loyola Cultural Impact Initiative (CII), a student-led organization that seeks to improve the Loyola community by educating about and providing resources to strengthen inclusion and cultural competence. However, years went by and nothing came to fruition. That is, until recently.
In the spring semester of 2017, leaders from the Black Law Students Association, the Decalogue Society, and the Muslim Law Students Association among others, sent a letter to the deans of the law school highlighting their concerns with diversity and inclusion efforts.
Student leaders requested that steps be taken to make Loyola a more culturally aware, respectful, and fair space for all, regardless of identity or background. Among the suggestions was the creation of a mandatory 1L course addressing the legal issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality, class, immigration, sex, ability, implicit bias, and other matters related to individuality. Work began soon after to turn the idea of a professional identity course into a reality.
Zelda Harris, associate dean of academic affairs at Loyola, spearheaded getting the course off the ground for the 2018 1L class. She collaborated with the professors chosen to lead PIF to create a five-week curriculum.
The course aims to (1) introduce students to the historical and social context informing the laws, including but not limited to legal issues around race, gender, ability, sexuality, religion, immigration, and poverty, (2) develop awareness, understanding, and the elimination of bias as a necessary tool in the ethical representation of clients, (3) assist students entering the workplace in gaining the knowledge needed to successfully engage and manage a culturally diverse environment, and (4) understand and analyze the professional obligations of lawyers to practice competently and think critically about the law/legal system and its impact on communities based on identity.
Harris recruited external course workshop leaders to administer class discussions aimed at providing students with a more robust understanding of the context and impact of the course material. The workshop leaders are practicing attorneys or Loyola alumni with connections to the legal field.
The CII leadership team provided a student’s perspective on PIF curriculum development. They also identified student facilitators to support workshop leaders substantively and logistically.
Imani Hollie, a lead student facilitator in the PIF course and vice president of CII, explained, “This course is going to be critical in fostering a more accepting and positive atmosphere, because many of the past incidents that occurred at Loyola stemmed from preconceived ideas and misunderstandings.”
CII will also provide feedback on the course at its conclusion. This feedback will influence future course improvements.
“The course’s creation was really a labor of love. It was time consuming and required many moving parts, but was so worth it in the end,” Imani said.
The Inaugural Course
While still in its infancy, the 30-minute lectures followed by hour-long breakout workshops have created a safe space for students to discuss topics that are often uncomfortable and commonly avoided. These topics have included leveraging diversity, creating inclusive climates, leadership, interpersonal communication, teamwork, and cross-cultural and cross-generational lawyering.
The workshop activities, in addition to the pre-class assignments, served as dynamic and interactive challenges to the unconscious biases of the 1L students enrolled. Week after week, my fellow student facilitators and I witnessed genuine conversations on course material happening both inside and outside the classroom.
Our involvement in PIF, as students and facilitators alike, has challenged us to look within ourselves and directly confront our biases. The course has helped us to address situations that we may encounter in our careers and provided us with tools to handle them.
Whether it’s serving as an ally to disadvantaged groups or using my privilege to help those in need, the tools discussed in the course will stick with me in future practice.
The Future of Professionalism
Law schools across the nation aim to prepare their students to practice in the legal field. As such, obligatory resume building workshops and networking events are staples of the first-year course load. However, this isn’t always the case with initiatives that address diversity and inclusion.
Among Illinois law schools, Loyola appears to be leading in the space, with this first-of-its-kind curriculum focused on the development of diversity and inclusion skills related to everyday legal practice.
As the first semester of the course ends, students and facilitators will provide honest feedback on what worked and what didn’t, enabling course creators to adjust the curriculum to more effectively cater to students’ needs.
Loyola will offer the PIF course to 1Ls each fall. Through the course, Loyola and its students will continue to work to uncover biases, better preparing students for the unpredictable profession of law. The PIF course will positively shape the next generation of lawyers, one class at a time.
How does your law school confront bias?