Columns, Opinions

Mitra ’18: Diversity in law starts at law school

By
opinions editor
Sunday, March 12, 2017

On Feb. 1, I woke up to euphoric news: For the first time in its 130-year history, the Harvard Law Review had elected a black woman president. Twenty-seven years after former President Barack Obama became the first black president of the prestigious student-run journal, law student ImeIme Umana made history. Over the next several weeks, as the news filtered through newspapers and newsfeeds, I saw many posts celebrating her election — with good reason.

The announcement came amidst a backdrop of improving diversity indicators in law schools across the country. In 2016, women outnumbered men in law school enrollment for the first time, making up a little over 50 percent of seats at juris doctorate programs. The Harvard Law Review, a feeder for some of the most powerful positions in the legal field, recently elected its most diverse class of editors in its history. And just two weeks ago, Yale announced that law professor Heather Gerken would become the first female dean of its law school, which is currently ranked the best in the country.

But the truth isn’t nearly as rosy as some news organizations would have us believe. These isolated incidents mask the fact that law schools are still falling behind in many other indicators of diversity. For instance, while women earn 57 percent of undergraduate degrees, they only make up 51 percent of law school applicants. Meanwhile, the percentage of African Americans and Hispanic Americans enrolled in law school actually decreased between 2010 and 2013. And while the overall percentages of women and minorities in law schools may have risen over the last 10 years, they still lag behind at the most prestigious institutions. Doesn’t the very fact that it took 130 years for a black woman to become president of the Harvard Law Review say something about the system in itself?

Moreover, whatever improvements have been made in law school admissions have not translated to progress in future employment. A November 2016 report describes how women hold less than 20 percent of partnerships at major law firms and 33 percent of federal district court judgeships. Even more alarmingly, African Americans accounted for just 5 percent of practicing lawyers in 2010 — an absolutely ridiculous figure. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, law is one of the least diverse professions in the country. More research is needed to truly evaluate diversity in the legal system (particularly from an intersectional perspective), but what we know points to a more sobering reality than recent New York Times headlines would suggest.

We have come a long way from the days when law schools and law firms consisted entirely of white men, but we shouldn’t let recent progress lull us into a sense of complacency. In the wake of national soul-searching around issues of bias in the criminal justice system, it is imperative that the legal profession become more diverse — a process that starts in the law schools.

An encouraging sign is that law schools are beginning to take some action. Just last week, Harvard Law School famously announced that it will no longer require LSAT scores and would accept GRE scores instead. This move will help to diversify the applicant pool, since the GRE examination is administered more frequently and in more locations each year. Other top schools have also started to discuss changing the aid structure to reflect financial need rather than GPA and LSAT scores, shaking up an outdated system that currently favors middle-class white candidates. Yet there is much more to be done to make the law school process equitable for all.

We should definitely acknowledge the progress that has taken place over the last couple of decades and rejoice at moments like Umana’s election. As a minority woman who intends to go to law school someday, I for one have never been more excited to enter the field. But we should also remember that there is still a long road ahead.

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.