The diversity challenge

Law schools have long known that first-time bar pass rates for minority are dismal compared to others, and the reasons have long eluded them. But that has not stopped schools from taking proactive steps to help students pass the bar exam.

For years it was the secret in the closet — minorities, especially African-Americans, struggled with the bar exam.

While more than 95 percent of whites passed the bar exam on the first try, only 61.4 percent of African-American students did so, according to a 1998 study by the Law School Admissions Council.

Some critics argued that poorly planned affirmative action programs were to blame. These programs, it was argued, admitted law students with lower grades or LSAT scores, and then ignored the students’ progress while in school.

While the jury is out on this theory, law schools have significantly improved their support for students — especially in regards to the bar exam.

 “I see that there is a lot more engagement with alumni and faculty,” said Paula Edgar, owner and principal of PGE LLC, a diversity consulting company. “My frustration is that there are resources that schools have, but students don’t use those resources.”

Minority enrollment has continued to increase, and many law schools and local bar associations continue to develop programs to help students develop legal skills, bridge cultural gaps and understand the expectations of law professors.

The diversity debate

Most legal administrators have long understood the value of a diverse student body — that it can enrich class discussions by allowing for varied viewpoints.

“Having diversity can encourage law students to consider and contemplate legal arguments made from perspectives other than their own,” said Sean Lew, assistant professor of Pro Bono at the Charlotte School of Law and member of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. “Having diversity in the classroom can also lead to an increased understanding of other races and ethnic groups, which can help law students to develop their multicultural competence when performing legal work with diverse clientele.”
But rampant rumors and anecdotal reports that minority bar passage rates were dismal, led some to question the wisdom of investing the time and resources into increasing minority enrollments.

The argument was that schools were doing a disservice to these students, since they would never pass the bar exam.

Rather than retreat on the number of minorities in law school, legal education first sought to better understand the problem. That led to the creation of the LSAC’s National Longitudinal Bar Passage Study.

The study tracked students who entered law school nationwide in 1991, gauging factors that influence bar passage such as educational background, law school environment and curriculum, self-esteems, student indebtedness and family issues.

One of the important findings of the study was “the relatively large proportion of examinees of color, particularly black examinees, that failed the bar examination on the first attempt and did not make a second attempt.” Eventual bar passage rates were found to be considerably higher than first-time rates for all ethnic groups. Among the examinees of color who eventually passed, between 94 and 97 percent passed after one or two attempts and 99 percent passed by the third attempt, the study reported.

Whatever the reasons for the disparities, the odds seemed overwhelming for minority students. Many acknowledged that they know they don’t pass at rates higher than others.

“It’s psychological warfare,” said Alberto Torrico, a graduate of UC Hastings College of Law.

People were looking for answers. The study helped bring awareness to the issue, and also clarified the so-called tale that minority students didn’t graduate from law school or become members of the legal profession.

“The truth is that minority law students graduate and pass the bar examination soon after graduation in significant numbers,” wrote former dean of Howard University School of Law Henry Ramsey, Jr., in his introduction to the LSAC study. “Therefore, the debate should be put to rest about whether law school affirmative action admission programs materially increase the number of minority lawyers.”

Next week: Diversifying the profession

by Michelle Weyenberg, managing editor for The National Jurist