This is a Moment: How COVID-19 and Calls for Racial Justice Provide an Opening for Law Schools to be Bold

Volume 1: Rethinking the Admission Process

Legal education has been unsettled in ways that were unimaginable at the start of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way in which we physically interact with each other, impacting how law students are educated. In-person instruction, one of the foundational and enduring characteristics of legal education, has ceded significant ground to online instruction. As a result of this pandemic, it is likely that online and hybrid instruction will be prominent aspects of legal education even after it is safe to cram students into classrooms again.  

A climate newly ripe for adaptation and reform has been enhanced even more by the recent surge of calls for racial and social justice. Law students have been vocal in expressing their solidarity with these movements, even making demands of their law schools. Law schools have responded, mostly with solidarity statements of their own. Some have taken more tangible actions as well.

The dual forces – pandemic and justice movements – have sharpened critiques and criticisms of legal education. And while these critiques are not new, they have certainly been amplified. This is a moment. Notions of access, equity, and inclusion must now inform everything that legal educators do. In this piece, I discuss the front end of the legal education pipeline – the recruitment and admission processes – and the imperative that law schools respond to the challenges we face by enrolling classes that represent the diversity of our nation.

Law schools have long professed commitments to diversity. Statements extolling lofty diversity-related ideals can be found on practically every law school’s website. However, law schools continue to be exclusionary spaces. In 2019, students of color comprised nearly 8% of law students, even though they make up 12.8% of the U.S. population. But this is just part of the story.  Inclusivity is lacking in law schools as well. Recent findings from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement show that students from underrepresented backgrounds are less likely to feel a sense of belonging once in law school, too. Low levels of representative diversity likely contribute to these feelings of marginalization and isolation. 

Why are law schools so lacking in diversity? It is a long, but fairly straightforward story. The dearth of diversity we see today reflects the exclusionary origins of legal education itself. Exclusion was at first imposed by force of law. Black law school hopefuls were legally prohibited from attending practically every law school, except for Howard and a few others. A series of Supreme Court decisions, Sweatt v. Painter (1950) being most prominent in the law school context, would eventually remove legal barriers to law school entry for Black people, thereby opening the door for other people as well. But today, immense barriers to admission still exist for historically underrepresented groups. 

Contemporary barriers are often race-neutral on their face, but they disproportionately impact certain groups, most notably Black applicants and Latino/a applicants. Overreliance on the LSAT by law schools is a major barrier to admission for certain groups. There are vast disparities in LSAT scores across different races and ethnicities. The average LSAT score for Black test takers is 142. It is 146 for Latina/o test takers. These are compared to a 153 average for White test takers and Asian/Asian American test takers. The sources of these disparities are varied and include things like unequal access to high-quality (and expensive) test prep and other factors that seem to fall outside of our conception of merit. It has been documented in many places that standardized test scores are more reflective of socioeconomic status than meritocratic worthiness. The truth is, these disparities would be less relevant if law schools properly contextualized the test in their admission review processes.

The LSAT is designed to be a partial predictor of first-year grades in law school. At AccessLex, we conducted a study of 20 law schools and found that a one-point increase on the LSAT predicted a 0.03 increase in first-year GPA among those schools. This is a noteworthy but limited forecast of student performance. Also, the predictive value weakens the further students progress in their studies. 

Blunt use of the LSAT has profound implications on who gets admitted and where they get admitted. Disparities in acceptance rates across different racial and ethnic groups closely tracks with LSAT score disparities. Only 48% of Black applicants to one or more law schools during the 2018-19 cycle received an offer of admission. This means that the majority of Black applicants (52%) did not receive a single admission offer. The acceptance rate of Latino/a applicants was higher (61%), but still relatively low. The acceptance rates for White applicants and Asian/Asian-American applicants were 78% and 66% percent, respectively. These trends are the clearest and most unfortunate manifestation of LSAT misuse.

Another barrier is the cost of applying. It stands to reason that applying to more law schools is associated with a higher chance of being admitted to at least one of them, but this can be cost prohibitive. Applying to law school can cost close to $1000 for someone who applies to 5 schools. Low-income applicants may receive fee waivers, but the process for being granted fee waivers adds another element to an already daunting application process. And as mentioned earlier, not everyone can afford an LSAT prep course that itself can cost thousands. Fortunately, LSAC now offers a free course that seems to be broadening access to rigorous preparation. Hopefully, it helps close the score disparity gap.

Diversity statements and solidarity statements are important. But true commitments to diversity and inclusion require action, largely in the form of a fundamentally different approach to recruitment and admissions. Possible solutions include:

  • Invest in diversity pipeline programs that prepare prospective students for the admission process and for law school, with a focus on those who need the most help, as opposed to only the “easy” cases.
  • Do comprehensive regression analyses to measure the predictive value of LSAT scores and UGPAs on outcomes, including those beyond the first year.
  • Contextualize admission factors based on the results of those analyses.
  • Standardize other components of the law school application, including developing rubrics to systematically evaluate personal statements and letters of recommendations, to make comparing applicants more consistent.
  • See the admission process as less of a competitive endeavor and more of an opportunity to change trajectories and impact lives

Again, this is a moment. With the pandemic forcing us to reconsider our means of engagement, and with calls for racial and social justice forcing us to reckon with the inequality that is in the fabric of our society, this is an opening for law schools to be bold. History tells us that if there is a will, a way can be made. The diversity of the general population and their equitable access to justice not only deserves but hinges on a more diverse legal profession. This begins at the gates of law schools. 


 

Tiffanesha Williams, PhD is a senior research analyst in the AccessLex Institute Center for Legal Education Excellence. She can be reached at twilliams@accesslex.org