Law School Diversity Highlights Need for Pipeline Initiatives

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White law school applicants are significantly more likely to be admitted to law school than members of other races or ethnicity, according to a new report.

That means law firms trying to hire diverse graduates are hiring from a candidate pool that’s already been narrowed down significantly.

“There’s more emphasis within the profession on diversity and inclusion, but if the pipeline is restricted, it’s always going to be harder to meet whatever goals have been set,” said James O’Neal, founder and Executive Director of Legal Outreach, a New York-based organization that helps children from underserved communities get to college, and, ideally, law school. O’Neal spoke with Bloomberg Law May 17.

In 2017, the law school admission rate for white applicants was 83 percent, while the admission rate for Asian applicants was 74 percent, for Hispanic applicants 67 percent, and for Black applicants 51 percent, according to data compiled by AccessLex Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies legal education in the United States. The average admission rate for all applicants was 75 percent.

Compared to students in other graduate programs, law school students are also far more likely to have parents who went to college or graduate school, and they are less likely to have used Federal Pell Grants to finance their college education, according to AccessLex.

Law school graduates are much more likely to come from high-income families, AccessLex found. Of those who graduated in 2012, two thirds came from families earning $90,000 or more, and 35 percent of graduates came from families earning $130,000 or more. For comparison, the median household income in the United States that year was just over $51,000, according to the Census Bureau.

The numbers show that legal industry diversity initiatives must include efforts to diversify the law student pipeline, O’Neal told Bloomberg Law.

The percentage of first-year law students from minority groups has increased steadily in recent years, from 25 percent in 2011 to 31 percent in 2017. Students from minority groups are much more likely to be enrolled in part-time law programs, according to AccessLex.

O’Neal said he has actually seen a drop in the percentage of Legal Outreach program participants who go on to law school, in part due to the rising cost of legal education and the shrinking job market.

Many low-income students no longer view law school as a viable option to improve their economic standing, according to O’Neal.

“They’re starting to take note of not just the diminished job prospects but also the tremendous amount of debt,” he said.

According to Department of Education data compiled by AccessLex, law school graduates today are far less likely to think law school was worth the cost than they did 15 years ago.

The data compiled by AccessLex was drawn from publicly available information provided by the Law School Admission Council, the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the National Association for Law Placement and the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.