The Status of Diversity and Affirmative Action in Law School
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.
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.
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
Visiting the law schools, of course, is an excellent way for any
prospective student to judge whether the law school will be the
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.
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.
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
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.