The nation's law schools — and, by extension, its lawyers — are too White, according to a University of Dayton Law School study.
The study says that 67 percent of law school applicants are White, but Whites end up filling more than 80 percent of law school seats. The result is a national system of jurisprudence in which non-Whites are underrepresented, the study notes.
But what of Portland's only law school, the Lewis & Clark Law School? To its credit, Lewis & Clark admits more non-White applicants than the national average and has a greater percentage of non-White students than Portland has of non-White residents.
The study, "The Whitest Law Schools 2005," by University of Dayton Law School Professor Vernellia Randall, ranks the nation's 177 historically White law schools — those law schools not housed in historically Black colleges and universities, which are located predominately in the South — based on the percentage of White students seated in comparison to the national average of just over 80 percent. By this measure, Lewis & Clark ranks as the 97th Whitest law school.
Randall claims that the nationwide disparity in law school admissions is caused by the cultural bias inherent in the LSAT, the standardized test that all law school applicants must take; the way the National Bar Association's Law School Admission Council (LSAC) reports test scores; the way that U.S. News and World Report ranks law schools; and the way that law school deans and faculty make admission decisions.
"Because society believes test numbers are proof of intelligence and ability, and law schools want to increase their rankings, hard-working, intelligent people of all races and backgrounds are losing the numbers game, even when they are capable of becoming excellent attorneys," Randall said in her report. "Thus, we have a less diverse legal profession."
Randall notes that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation's White and minority populations will be approximately equal by 2050. These proportions have already been achieved in California, where, she adds, White applicants are still over-represented in law schools. The same phenomenon is likely in 2050.
"We could have an America where a White minority controls the legal system, similar to South Africa in the last half of the 20th century," Randall said.
"The rule of law will deteriorate in such a society, in part because people have a difficult time trusting a system disproportionately dominated by persons who do not share their racial or ethnic experiences."
The solution, she suggests, is an aggressive campaign on the part of law schools to admit more non-White applicants.
Shannon Burns, head of admissions for the Lewis & Clark Law School, said that diversity in the student body and faculty is a core value for both the law school and undergraduate programs at Lewis & Clark.
"We're always striving for diversity at our law school," Burns said. "That's something we've always been committed to. … It's a value we have."
Burns added that recruiting a diverse group of law students can be a challenge in a place like Oregon – a state that is among the Whitest in the nation. As a result, she said, the school routinely looks beyond Oregon's borders for its students.
"Frankly, a lot of people choose the law school they're going to go to based on where they live," she said, "and there isn't a large minority population in Oregon. We make a significant effort to recruit all over the country. Most of our students come from the West Coast, but most actually don't come from Oregon. In our last class, 59 percent came from outside of Oregon."
Burnsacknowledged Randall's point that LSAT scores often weed out many minority applicants – as on many standardized tests, Blacks and Latinos don't perform as well on the LSAT as Whites and Asian Americans do. But such benchmarks can lead to a promising student being dismissed out of hand, which is why Lewis & Clark doesn't use a minimum "cut-off" score on the LSAT to disqualify an applicant.
Instead, she said, the school looks at the entire applicant – his or her academic performance, extracurricular activities and interests – in addition to the LSAT. This is precisely the method that Randall recommends to address the admission disparity.
Last year, Burns said, the law school admitted a slightly higher percentage of minority applicants than its overall admittance rate. In other words, minority applicants are making it into the school at a higher rate than White applicants are.
"There's no evidence of discrimination in our admission rate," she said. "I'm proud to say that Lewis & Clark has the highest percentage of minority students of all the law schools in the state."
Despite the comparatively positive results in minority recruitment achieved by Lewis & Clark and other law schools with similar admissions philosophies, Burns said that the disparity in admissions across the board remains too high.
"I think the real issue is getting more minority students through the pipeline," she said. "Getting them through the educational system to the point where they have the credentials to apply to law school."
Burns cited Lewis & Clark's efforts to reach out to high school students through programs like mock trials and campus tours to turn young people on to a possible career in law.
"Maybe they won't go to Lewis & Clark, or maybe they won't go into law, but at least they'll have the awareness that it's possible for them," she said.
One obstacle that potential law students find daunting, Burns said, is the high price of a legal education. She encouraged young people not to let that issue dissuade them. Many financial aid resources are available to help law students make ends meet, and this is especially true for minority students. Lewis & Clark's own endowment sets aside money for minority scholarships, she said.
For more information on Lewis & Clark Law School's admissions and financial aid, visit www.law.lclark.edu.