4 Top Law Schools for Racial Justice and Civil Rights

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Best Civil Rights Law Schools

By Jennifer McEntee

No doubt, many law students want to enter the fight. The fight that has sparked so much passion. The one against racial injustice.

The motivation for doing so has rarely been as stark or as powerful. 

One name: George Floyd.

The racial unrest that has swept the nation since Floyd’s death has brought about a heightened awareness, with thousands who want to make a difference. And for many, the difference-makers are attorneys who are protecting citizens and changing laws. 

Law schools are doing their part to prepare the next generation of attorneys who are ready to tackle racial injustice. Since the end of May, dozens of law schools have announced new programs, initiatives and scholarships designed to attract students interested in racial justice reform and provide them with a legal education that will prepare them to be at the forefront of the movement. 

We set out to find the law schools that offer the most resources and opportunities when it comes to racial justice. Here are the best law schools for social justice as we've identifed. Each has civil rights centers, clinics, journals, courses and other offerings. We also looked at the racial makeup of the student body. We then weighted these factors, with related clinics at 20%, centers at 20%, courses at 17.5%, journals at 10%, other factors at 7.5% and student body diversity at 25%. 

The end result is 23 schools that stand out from the nation’s other 200 law schools, with Howard University School of Law at the top. That is not surprising. Howard University was the nation’s first Black law school, and it’s the alma mater of Thurgood Marshall, the late Supreme Court justice and civil rights activist. 

The list includes other diversity-minded schools, such as City University of New York School of Law, No. 2; and University of California Davis School of Law, No. 3. 

Some of the most prestigious law schools in the nation made the list, including Georgetown University Law Center, No. 9; University of Virginia School of Law, No. 10; University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, No. 19; and University of Texas School of Law, No. 23. 

But other schools that are not as well known join them, such as Seattle University School of Law, No. 4; New York Law School, No. 11; and University of Denver Sturm College of Law, No. 14. 

What all of the schools have in common is a commitment to racial justice issues that is supported through their curriculum and by their faculties. Twenty-one of the 23 schools offer clinics that allow students to work on racial justice matters; 22 fund centers on the subject; 10 have journals that deal with racial justice; and all offer substantial courses on the subject. 

We talked with law students, law professors and faculty at some of these schools about how their racial justice programs are making strides in the current civil rights movement and how important these programs will be moving forward. 

#1. Howard University School of Law

Elorm Sallah wanted to study public policy in a diverse environment where he could learn about the legal system’s racial inequities.

 “I wanted to be taught by professors who can teach in a way that offers nuance,” he said.

Sallah found that education at Howard University School of Law, the nation’s first Black law school. Indeed, the Washington, D.C., institution has a history unlike most others when it comes to civil rights activism. Many other notable civil rights leaders are Howard graduates. 

Now in his second year at Howard University, Sallah said he has strengthened his advocacy skills as a student attorney for the law school’s Child Welfare Clinic and honed his writing and citation skills as an editor for the student-run Howard Human & Civil Rights Law Review.

“There’s been a lot of tangible, hands-on experience so far,” he said.

And while he’s disheartened to read about people of color dying at the hands of law enforcement and at a disproportionate rate from COVID-19, he’s encouraged that lawyers such as those produced by Howard are working to make substantive change.

“I have a sense of optimism that doesn’t exist for everyone right now,” Sallah said. “I have learned so much about how the law operates and that there are lawyers advocating for an end to this systemic injustice.”

Justin Hansford is a law professor at Howard University, executive director of its Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center and co-author of the textbook “Race, Racism and American Law.”

Hansford said his center has a three-pronged approach to fighting for civil and human rights: legal advocacy, grassroots organizing and academic study. 

“We use our heads, hands and hearts,” he said.

There’s plenty to do. The Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center is urging U.S. lawmakers to consider structural racism amid the coronavirus crisis, particularly when it comes to health, economics, domestic violence, policing and mass incarceration.

The center has worked with Harvard Law School’s criminal justice policy program and Law4BlackLives DC to publish the report “The Contradiction of Color-blind COVID-19 Relief: Black America in the Age of Pandemic.”

Also, the center recently set up a legal observer training program for law school students who want to attend public demonstrations such as the Black Lives Matter protests. Students learn how to monitor, record and report unlawful behavior or conflict between activists and law enforcement.

“It’s a way for law students to be safe and helpful. It’s an intelligent way to get engaged with protests,” Hansford said.

 

#2. City University of New York School of Law

Yvette Wilson-Barnes is associate dean of student affairs at CUNY School of Law and co-chairs the university’s Race, Privilege and Diversity Committee. The committee, made up of faculty, staff and students, is working to provide the campus community with programs and resources that examine biases.

“It cuts across every dimension of diversity,” said Wilson-Barnes, explaining that student involvement is essential. “They are able to express from their social location their perspective on how race and diversity issues are impacting them.”

CUNY Law is the only publicly funded law school in New York City. Its stated mission is two-fold: practice law in the service of human needs, and transform the law to include those who might otherwise be excluded, marginalized or oppressed.

The law school, which is well known for its clinical program, encourages students to immerse themselves in any of a dozen social justice clinics that focus on topics such as immigration, family law, gender, disability and aging.

Wilson-Barnes said law students are being strained by pandemic-related closures, which have pushed classes online, delayed internships and bar exams, and ultimately may threaten their time lines for attaining future employment.

“It’s very challenging,” she said. “Imagine you’ve made a decision to pursue a legal degree because your heart is tugging at this work, to use the law as a tool of change and advocacy.”

Bobbie Brown, a third-year evening student and president of the Black Law Students Association, is interested in the practice of transactional law and domestic policy.

“As a woman of color, I needed a place to show up as I am,” said Brown, who wanted a law school community that understood her culture and voice. “CUNY creates the space for that dialogue to happen smartly.”

Through the Black Law Students Association, Brown has access to mentoring, alumni connections and internships. It also allows her to participate in lectures, panels and workshops that address issues of race. Brown’s chapter is voicing support for laws that would reform police practices and classify false, bias-motivated 911 calls as hate crimes.

In the law school’s Community & Economic Development Clinic, Brown works with nonprofits on to assist them with formation, governance and contracts. She said CUNY’s academic structure and legal aid work have boosted her confidence in her lawyering skills.  

“I feel like I’m positioned to go straight into practice,” Brown said.

 

#3. University of California Davis School of Law

UC Davis School of Law boasts five student-run journals, five legal services clinics, four research and policy centers, an externship program and competitions in trial advocacy and negotiation.

Kevin Johnson is dean of the law school and a professor of public interest law and Chicana/o studies. He has initiated a racial justice speaker series for the current academic year to address this era of unrest. Guest speakers include Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, who is the only Black chief public defender in California, and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a 1984 graduate of UC Davis who served in the state Assembly and the state Senate before becoming mayor. The talks are online and open to everyone.

“Recent high-profile events have jarred the conscious,” said Johnson, noting that social media has increased the visibility of racial profiling and police brutality. “Now is a good opportunity to have a full and frank discussion of the issues.”

UC Davis students worry about their own communities while deciding how to approach their future careers in law. 

“There’s a fair amount of anxiety and uncertainty and unhappiness,” Johnson said, explaining that campus student groups are increasingly vocal about seeking reform. “I’m not sure if we can solve all the issues.”

UC Davis has been addressing social justice topics since its founding in the mid-1960s. Its law school building is named for civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. Areas of concentration at the law school include human rights and social justice law, with classes in civil rights, disability rights, education, feminist jurisprudence and immigration.

Johnson said UC Davis law alumni have a firm foundation in social justice law and advocate for greater diversity and representation for underserved communities, whether they work directly as civil rights attorneys or pursue legal careers in government, corporations or nonprofits.

“Good can be done wherever you go,” Johnson said.

 

#4. Seattle University School of Law

Students and alumni of Seattle University are among a group of plaintiffs suing the city of Seattle in federal court for allowing the Seattle Police Department to deploy “unnecessary violence against peaceful demonstrators who are speaking out against discriminatory police brutality.”

Law students with the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University School of Law — together with Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington Foundation and the Seattle law office of Perkins Coie — are asking that police stop using chemical agents and projectiles for crowd control as people exercise their constitutional right to protest.

“We’re using this incredible community — which is rich in resources, but also has plenty of problems — as a classroom to talk about representation while exercising their responsibilities as lawyers,” said Annette Clark, dean of the law school. “It’s transformational for these students and reminds them why they came to law school in the first place.”

Seattle University is one of 27 Jesuit universities in the nation. Jesuits value education and service to others, Clark said. Those ideologies are ingrained in the law school’s curriculum, centers, institutes and pro bono work.

“The students who come to our law school are immediately embedded to make social justice a reality,” she said. “They won’t be on the outside looking in.”

Student advocacy was vital to the success of a recent petition by Seattle University to the Washington Supreme Court. It grants diploma privilege to law school students registered to take the bar exam but facing barriers related to the pandemic and civil unrest. The diploma privilege means law students who’ve met all other Washington State Bar Association requirements can practice law in the state without having yet passed the bar. It’s the first time in the state’s history that such a privilege has been granted.

Clark said it was inspiring to see Seattle University law students and graduates address state justices during what she called a “perfect storm of COVID-19 and racial reckoning.”

“We sit at the center of a really challenging time,” she said. “It’s an inflection point, but it’s also an opportunity. It’s an amazing time to be in law school.”

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