Addressing Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession

holley-walkerThis month, I will complete my first year as the dean of the Howard University School of Law. I wanted to offer some observations from my time in this role and some reflections on the critical need to address diversity in the legal profession.

Recently, Deborah L. Rhode of Stanford University wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post in which she highlighted the continuing struggle to diversify the legal profession. Currently, 88 percent of all lawyers are white, according to data from the American Bar Association (ABA). Rhode notes that this makes the legal field less diverse than all other professions, including medicine, engineering, and accounting.

This is the state of the profession despite efforts over the last 50 years to promote diversity and inclusion. As Rhode notes, the ABA Presidential Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity has outlined some key strategies for making the profession more inclusive. For law schools, these strategies include institutions being able to articulate the rationale for diversity initiatives, citing diversity in their mission statements, taking a holistic approach to reviewing admissions applications, and educating students on issues of unconscious bias. For employers in the public and private sector, recommendations focus on employers re-examining their diversity goals and programs, gathering quantitative and qualitative data to assess their diversity programs, and providing incentives for managers to reach diversity goals.

One often-overlooked area — as the ABA and other leaders in the legal profession develop roadmaps to increasing diversity — is the importance of historically black law schools to these efforts. Historically black law schools include Howard University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Southern University Law Center, Florida A&M University College of Law, North Carolina Central University School of Law, and David A. Clarke School of Law. These schools are still responsible for graduating the largest number of African American law students each year.

Supporting and promoting the work of historically black law schools is critical to creating a more inclusive legal profession. These law schools provide models of multi-racial legal education environments. For example, Thurgood Marshall School of Law’s student population is 47 percent African American, 31 percent Latino, 13 percent Caucasian, and 5 percent Asian. Also, women make up 55 percent of the student population.

Too often the diversity of the student populations at historically black law schools is dismissed as solely attributable to our mission and history. While those are both critical in the recruitment of inclusive student bodies, there are also other important factors.

First, most of these law schools de-emphasize rankings in an effort to fulfill their missions. More majority law schools should embrace this model if they are serious about their diversity goals. De-emphasizing rankings allows law schools to make the LSAT only one part of a truly holistic review of an individual’s application instead of a determining factor.

Also, these schools tend to have lower tuition rates, thus making them affordable for a wider range of students. For example, North Carolina Central’s tuition for all full-time, in-state students is approximately $12,655 a year, and for out-of-state students, tuition is $27,696 per year. By comparison, the average law school tuition in 2012 was around $40,000, according to the ABA. Affordability is key in recruiting all types of law students, but especially students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. All law schools that want to create a more inclusive learning environment must be committed to making law school more affordable.

Next, employers in the private and public sector should incorporate recruitment from historically black law schools into their diversity efforts. The partnership between Howard and many of the largest corporate law firms in the U.S. is an example of this strategy. There are many law firms that work to create an ongoing relationship with our law school. Those partnerships have resulted in the ability of those firms to recruit excellent, highly motivated students and a network of Howard lawyers into their firms to help sustain and mentor associates.

Historically black law schools should also be a cornerstone of efforts to perform further scholarly research on diversity in the profession. The ABA Commission noted the need for data and assessment of diversity programs and initiatives and the need to study how we nurture lawyers of color in order to empower them to advance in their careers. The alumni networks at these law schools provide an invaluable resource as a data set for these questions. The faculty at historically black law schools is also particularly interested in questions regarding academic support, pedagogy, and career placement for minority lawyers. The profession should support these research efforts and partner with the schools.

All lawyers who are committed to excellence in the profession should embrace diversity, inclusion, and opportunity as guiding principles. In order to put those principles into action, we should look to historically black law schools for best practices and scholarly research to assess and better implement diversity programs throughout the profession.●

Danielle Holley-Walker, JD, is the dean of the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.