Ensuring Culturally Responsive Legal Education

Law schools have the opportunity and responsibility to create stronger and more culturally responsive legal education. Doing so should involve a robust focus on the campus culture, curriculum and pedagogy that emphasize intercultural competencies for legal professionals, and student and alumni affinity networks, with particular attention paid to groups that are underserved in and by the legal profession. 

According to the 2017 American Bar Association annual questionnaire, 85 percent of lawyers are white. Additionally, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that the legal profession is one of the least racially diverse in the country — less so than architecture, engineering, accounting, and medicine. However, we are seeing potential for change in the legal profession as we look at the changing demographics of the U.S. population. Despite this trend, there is still much that law schools can do to make sure they are preparing a diverse set of students to serve clients from all underrepresented groups, closing the opportunity gap to ensure success for all in the profession, and being responsive to students from a variety of backgrounds.

A law school inclusion agenda begins with understanding how different groups are experiencing the law school environment. There are many national and international conversations that influence climate more broadly — such as the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, state religious liberty laws, and the #MeToo movement — but all politics is local, as is understanding one’s campus community. Without a willingness to ask hard questions of ourselves, how will we know if there are problems that need attention or, more importantly, what those problems are that are specific to our community. 

Focus groups, surveys, bias reporting mechanisms, and other avenues for sharing will help schools better understand the experience of those in their community. Disaggregating responses to the Law School Survey of Student Engagement — which provides empirical information about the law school environment — illuminates experiences across demographic groups. Once you identify problems, you should take concrete steps to mitigate them. At Stetson University College of Law, this has meant hiring consultants to address identified areas for change, such as faculty, staff, and student training and the development of an inclusion plan.

Climate assessment — via surveys, for example — will identify areas for growth, some of which will be difficult to address. Be careful not to begin with areas where you are least likely to achieve success (e.g., tackling faculty diversity when you have a hiring freeze or making large-scale changes to the curriculum when, in the past, this has taken years to accomplish). Find a few goals that are achievable and can generate momentum and then begin to focus on some of the trickier areas as well.

We have found that in the law school environment, an infusion of diversity and inclusion content into existing curricular and co-curricular experiences is often successful and sustainable. For example, as career services staff prepare students to exhibit successful workplace behaviors, they can focus on the importance of fair and ethical treatment of clients, which is also required for bar membership. Furthermore, inclusive pedagogical classroom techniques that move beyond the standard Socratic method can help ensure more equitable classrooms, with students learning through exchange with one another rather than solely from faculty individually. 

There are ample opportunities to flex cultural competence muscles in the legal classroom through intellectual dialogue and the selection of specific cases and topics of study. Many law schools have used the required professional rules and responsibilities class as a vehicle for discussing the needs of clients from a variety of backgrounds. This approach provides students the opportunity to consider clients whose lives, identities, and backgrounds differ from their own and the ways in which they can best serve them. 

Other substantive courses in the curriculum can also provide avenues for incorporating diverse perspectives. Contract law classes offer opportunities to discuss changes in LGBTQ legal protections with regard to real estate, adoption, or prenuptial agreements, and criminal law and criminal procedure courses allow students to learn about disparate effects on marginalized groups. To determine where these diverse perspectives may show up in your curriculum, we suggest creating a matrix of required and elective courses, paying special attention to the broad topics covered. This effort will make it easier to see where diversity and inclusion can be infused.

As you identify the needs in your community and ways to address them, share your plans with members of campus in order to maintain transparency and get buy-in from all. Law school administrators should communicate commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion explicitly in writing and speeches and by their presence at events. Students and colleagues will pay attention when a dean shows up at the part-time student organization end-of-year gathering or the panel sponsored by the Asian Law Student Association. These gestures are viewed as signs of a commitment to those communities. 

A dean’s personal message on the school’s website or language in the new student welcome address are also opportunities to convey the type of place your school aspires to be. For example, Stetson College of Law added language into its orientation sessions for students and new hires that emphasizes the type of inclusive and welcoming community it strives to be and the diversity and inclusion opportunities available there. 

Ensure that the school supports student and alumni affinity groups that allow for networking and connecting across a shared interest or identity, and make that clear on your website and in admissions materials. Historically black law schools have led the way with extensive and prestigious alumni networks that mentor current students and alumni throughout their careers.   

If you are connected to an undergraduate institution, draw on the assets offered there as resources for the law school. Elon University offers several pathways for employee professional development, including a recently added intercultural consciousness certificate program through which faculty, staff, and administrators can participate in a yearlong cohort that helps them reflect on their identities and develop intercultural knowledge, skills, awareness, and humility. Participants create and implement individual capstone projects that will improve diversity and inclusion in their work areas.

Finally, do what university communities do best: Come together to discuss issues important in the field. Our campus communities crave outlets for conversation and connection. At Elon, many of these opportunities arise from the “Just in Time” civic engagement series. These spur-of-the-moment panels on topics such as the march of white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups in Charlottesville or the passage of an executive order that limits immigration from specific countries can address relevant legal issues and resonate with particular groups on campus. 

Law schools have long discussed difficult subjects. Now, the increasing need for diversity in the legal profession requires that they broaden those topics and work to create legal education environments that serve all students, faculty, and staff.

Brooke Barnett is associate provost for academic and inclusive excellence and a professor of communications at Elon University. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Christopher M. Pietruszkiewicz, JD, is president of the University of Evansville and former dean of Stetson University College of Law. This article ran in our July/August 2018 issue.