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The Status of Diversity and Affirmative Action in Law School Admissions

Is affirmative action still used in the admissions process? Will it help me? What is "diversity," anyway?

In June of 2003, the Supreme Court decided the case of Grutter v. Bollinger, which concerned the use of race as a factor in law school admissions at the University of Michigan. In a close vote, the Court upheld the use of race, provided that it is used narrowly and in conjunction with other admissions criteria. This decision was a relief for law schools across the nation, in that it affirmed their ability to use race as at least one factor in creating a diverse student body—at least for the foreseeable future.

That being said, the best way for any person to gain admission to law school remains the same: do well in college and score high on the LSAT. The better you do, the more opportunities you will have for admission and free financial aid, regardless of your race.

Law schools seek, and many actively recruit, applicants from traditionally underrepresented minority groups. The definition of “traditionally underrepresented” can vary from school to school, but generally it includes African-Americans, Hispanics, Latinos, Native Americans, and sometimes Pacific Islanders. (“Asian-Americans” is a broad category that many law schools no longer use, particularly those on the West Coast, where Asian populations are significant. Instead, they break up the category into distinct groups: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and so forth. In parts of the country with low populations of Asian-Americans, being an "Asian-American" of any type might still add to the diversity of an entering class.)

These days, however, diversity is not based on race alone. Many characteristics other than race can contribute to the diversity of a law school's student body. Examples include persons of low socioeconomic status; persons from rural areas or inner cities; disabled persons; persons who have overcome serious life obstacles; first generation college graduates; older students; persons from underrepresented geographic regions, and veterans. Read on to see how these categories might affect your application.

As you do, however, keep two things in mind: first, each one of us is “diverse.” Each person is a unique individual, with unique experiences and feelings, who has come to the application process in his or her own way. My students tend to lament the fact that they are white, small-town, Midwestern, and middle class. They often feel that they do not bring anything distinct or out of the ordinary to the table. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! Have some faith and confidence in yourself! There is no one on the planet exactly like you, and there will never be again. Do not subject yourself to a “cookie cutter” stereotype that does not exist. Instead, convince the law school that, whatever your race or gender or age, you will contribute mightily to its entering class, and you will make a real difference in your chosen profession.

Second, a good law school experience comes when the student is happy with and well-adjusted to his or her law school. A “good fit” is very important in choosing a law school. That “fit” is personal to you, regardless of the categories that might be used to classify you. You need to find a law school that you like, one where you feel you belong. You’ll be better served in the long run if you choose a school that makes you feel welcome and comfortable—to the extent that any first-year student is comfortable in law school!

That being said, let’s turn to various categories of “diversity” to see how they might pertain to you.

Race

Many minority students shy away from law school, or don’t consider it an attainable goal. To combat this problem of minority underrepresentation, some states, law schools, and undergraduate institutions offer preparatory programs for minorities interested in law school. One such program is called “LSPI” (pronounced "liss-pee"), or Law School Preparation Institute. A typical LSPI program enrolls students during their junior year. The program offers tutoring, LSAT preparation, speakers representing various legal careers, and the like. It can sometimes include academic work for credit, and it lasts through graduation. Another program is “CLEO,” or Council on Legal Education Opportunities. It is sponsored by the American Bar Association. Minority students who are accepted to law school may choose to attend a CLEO program the summer before they enroll. The program is offered at regional law school sites across the country. Some undergraduate versions of CLEO offer similar training to prospective law students while they are still in college. The “Plus Program,” or Pre-Law Undergraduate Scholars Program, is aimed at introducing minority undergraduate students to the possibilities offered by law school and legal careers. CLEO and PLUS programs generally range from two to six weeks in length, and involve rigorous training in legal reasoning, analysis, and writing. Finally, some law schools offer their own programs for prospective or accepted applicants. Commonly, these programs bring minority students to campus a week or two prior to enrollment. Students attend lectures, meetings, and socials and get used to the law school environment, thus alleviating some of the chaos that surrounds the start of the first semester.

Gender and Low SocioEconomic Status

Being female no longer counts as diverse, because women for several years now have made up 50% or more of the typical law school entering class. In fact, 2002 marked the first time that, nationwide, more women applied to law school than men!

While being female does not really help your chances of admission, being a single parent who has successfully gotten off welfare just might. This person—whether male or female—has overcome the challenges of poverty and parenting, and can make a case that his or her experiences will add a different, rich perspective to the study of law. For that reason, law schools tend to look at an applicant’s economic background: did he or she grow up poor? Live on welfare? Work three jobs to pay for college? Support his or her family when parents were absent? Accomplish significant things with little or no financial help from the family or others? If you have this sort of background, and you believe it helped you to become what you are today, you may wish to tell your story in the personal statement section of your application. There’s a more detailed discussion of this topic in that section of the CD.

GLBT

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons are generally not considered diverse per se, but again GLBT applicants often have compelling stories to tell about their life experiences and challenges. Most U.S. law schools have policies prohibiting discrimination against the GLBT community; some even offer scholarships for GLBT activism (whether the activist is straight or gay). If you are a GLBT student seeking a law school where you will fit in, you should find many fine choices. As you search the web sites of the law schools, you should come across the anti-discrimination policies of those schools. Pay attention to the support they offer students: Do they have GLBT faculty? A GLBT law student organization? A course in civil rights that focuses at least in part on GLBT issues? A comprehensive listing of law schools’ policies on these and other issues of concern to GLBT applicants can be found on the LSAC’s web site at www.lsac.org. Visiting the law schools, of course, is an excellent way for any prospective student to judge whether the law school will be the right fit.

Disabled Students

Disabled students are used to facing special challenges in pursuing higher education. Obtaining appropriate accommodations on the LSAT exam can be one of them. If you are a disabled student, be sure to read the document on this topic found under the LSAT section of this CD.

Not all law schools are equally accommodating to the disabled. For example, some law schools have their own disabled students’ office, while others house it in the university as a whole, where it may be geared more toward the needs of undergraduates. Some schools spend more money on disability services than others; some are physically easier to negotiate than others. To find the most friendly and “user-friendly” law schools, it is a good idea to visit their facilities or at least talk to other disabled students who are already enrolled there.

Geography

What I like to call “geographic diversity” can help (or hurt) a student in the admissions process. I break down geographic diversity into two types: residency and uniqueness. Residency is a straightforward concept: public law schools that are supported by state tax dollars feel an obligation to enroll at least some in-state residents. The percentage of in-state residents can vary widely: the University of Texas typically accepts 90% Texas residents; the University of Minnesota accepts around 50%; the University of Virginia accepts somewhere around 42%, and in the past has been quite generous in making outsiders into residents. Some state legislatures mandate the percentage of residents that are to be admitted; others leave it up to the schools. Some states grant residency easily; in others, it is very difficult to become an in-state resident for tuition purposes.

 

Age

Is being an older or returning student a barrier to admission? Nope. Law schools seek students who are mature, who have learned from their life experiences, and who bring interesting attributes to the class. In fact, it’s almost a disadvantage to be young in the application process—meaning fresh out of college. Being older, on the other hand, can be a great benefit: you’ll have a lot to say on your personal statement, and a lot to offer the entering class.

Being an older student is no guarantee of admission, of course, because folks are applying to law school in record numbers, and most of them have some years under their belt. That being said, is any age too old? I don’t really think so. It is not uncommon for students to start law school in their 50s. I had one student who was retired, financially comfortable, and who wanted to go to law school to give back to her community by doing non-profit legal work for free. She thought that the law schools might shy away, given that she would be nearly 60 when she graduated. On the other hand, it sure is nice when someone goes to law school simply to serve the poor and doesn’t care about drawing a salary! Beneficence aside, there are lots of sitting federal judges who are in their 90s and show no sign of stopping. So you really are as young as you feel, I guess. In short, age may make you diverse in some instances; it is generally not, at the very least, an obstacle to admission.

In Sum

A “good fit” is perhaps the most important factor in selecting a law school. It is also the most ignored. Students tend to choose law schools based on their prestige, location, or price—important considerations, certainly. But if you want a good experience, it’s critical to find a place where you are comfortable instead of miserable, and where you will like and respect your student colleagues. After all, they will be your professional colleagues soon enough. Finding the right law school for you is a highly personal undertaking. The best advice I can give you is to embrace this challenge, and choose wisely.

 


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