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The Road to Law School and Beyond: Examining Challenges to Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Legal Profession (RR-02-01)

Executive Summary

Despite a steady increase in minority law school graduates since the early 1980s, African Americans made up only 6.5% of newly employed lawyers in 2001. Asians represented 6.7%, Hispanics 3.4%, Latinos 1.5%, Native Americans 0.6% and multiracial individuals 0.5%. With the exception of the numbers for Asians, these figures are considerably lower than the corresponding proportions that the groups represent of the U.S. population. In an effort to explore possible sources of the underrepresentation, this article brings together existing data that describe the participation rates of members of different racial-ethnic groups, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, at successive points along the way to employment in the law. It focuses on the process by which prospective lawyers are educated, starting with graduation from high school, through the steps that lead to a career in the law, comparing the experiences of minorities with those of their nonminority cohorts. The objective of the article is to identify places along the path to the legal profession at which members of minority groups are most likely to fall by the wayside. 

The study starts with high school graduation. According to data from the census, the high school completion rate for African Americans in 1998 was about 73%, an impressive increase from about 20% in 1960! The rate for Hispanics of any race was 60%, up from 32% in 1970, the first year for which data were available for Hispanics. Nonetheless, these figures compare unfavorably with the 82% of white students between the ages of 18 and 24 who had completed high school by 1998. When the reference group changes from 18-to-24 year olds to 25-to-29 year olds, graduation rates increase: roughly 88% of white adults between 25 and 29 had completed high school by 1998 and the rates among this age group for African Americans who completed high school were virtually identical with those of whites, 88% rounded. These data suggest that African Americans are completing high school later than whites. Hispanics, though, continued to complete high school at lower rates.

College enrollment rates have been increasing steadily among high school graduates from all racial-ethnic groups, so that by 1998, just over 68% of the white population between 18 and 24 had been enrolled in (four-year) college for one or more years. Because African American and Hispanic high school graduates do not enter four-year colleges at the same rate as their white peers, the comparable percentages of African American and Hispanic 18-to-24 year olds that had been enrolled in college for at least one year were 62 and 53. Whatever source is consulted, the college completion rate for African Americans is considerably lower than the rate for whites, and the rate for Hispanics is lower still. Census data show that roughly 27% of all 25-to-29 year olds and 28% of whites in the same age group had earned at least a bachelor’s degree by 1998. However, according to the annual report on the status of minorities in education issued by the American Council on Education (ACE) only about 16% of African Americans and 10% of Hispanics held baccalaureate degrees. 

Data that describe first professional degrees show that, among the first professional degrees recorded by National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), a law degree appears to be a popular choice for members of minority groups. In fact, college graduates who are members of minority groups are proportionally more likely than their white counterparts to consider attending law school, according to data collected by Law School Admission Council (LSAC). Almost one third (32%) of the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) examinees in 1999-2000 were members of minority groups, compared with 22% of those who received bachelor’s degrees in that year. By way of contrast, non-Hispanic whites received 81% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in that year but represented 70% of the LSAT-takers in 1994. Because the proportions of LSAT-takers who do not apply to law school after having taken the test are roughly equal (between 20 and 22%) for all groups, there is no disproportionate loss of any single group at this stage of application to law school.

At the level of admission, the racial-ethnic profile of the group of applicants admitted to law school is different from that of the applicant pool. Even though all groups apply to law school in percentages that exceed their representation in the population of individuals with bachelor’s degrees, the overall rates of admission of minority applicants are generally lower than those of white applicants. Since these rates are not uniform across the distributions of LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages (UGPAs), the differences in overall acceptance rates may be attributed at least in part to the minority-majority gap in these measures.

As was the case with college, then, minorities enter legal education at rates that are lower than those of their white counterparts. In addition, law school persistence and completion are lower for black, Hispanic, and Native American law school students than they are for Asian and white students. Yet, owing to high levels of interest in and application to law school on the part of minorities, the racial-ethnic composition of the population of law school graduates looks very much like that of the population of individuals with bachelor’s degrees. The percentages of law degrees earned by Asians, Hispanics, and American Indians are virtually identical to the percentages of bachelor’s degrees earned by those groups. Only among African Americans is there a drop-off between bachelor’s degree and law degree, with the result that African Americans are ultimately more underrepresented among the latter. Finally, because black, Hispanic, and Native American bar examinees pass at lower rates than their Asian and white counterparts, the end result is a legal profession in which these groups are underrepresented relative to the total population.

Because the article is based on data that has been gleaned from multiple sources, collected at different times, and using different instruments and questions, there appear to be inconsistencies among them. Nonetheless, they tell the same basic story, even when numbers vary slightly from source to source. The most heartening trend discernible from the data summarized in the article is a substantial increase in the participation of minority groups in legal education since the 1970s. The experience of at least one minority group—Asian Americans—along the pathway to the legal profession is similar to that of whites. Among groups that continue to be underrepresented—blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans—both their numbers and proportions have increased at virtually all of the junctures treated in the report. The article concludes by identifying possible targets for action to increase minority representation in legal education and the profession.


The Road to Law School and Beyond: Examining Challenges to Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Legal Profession (RR-02-01)

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