Gender and Race in Legal Education

The prompt for this mobblog is “What kind of institution do we want a law school to be?,” and most of the posts have focused on content and method — what and how do law schools teach, what and how do law faculties study, how many law schools do we need, and where?

Dan Filler’s post on single-sex education flagged an important and otherwise under-discussed theme:  The “who” of legal education.  Who applies, who gets admitted, who attends, and who graduates?  Who teaches, and who administers?

These questions overlap with the theme of my “Too Many Law Schools?” post, which was prompted by reports describing the distribution of salaries among practicing lawyers:  a relatively small handful of salary winners, and a much larger pool of debt-burdened strugglers.  I haven’t had time to go surfing through the data, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that women and non-white lawyers fall disproportionately into the latter group.

So I take it as given that race and gender questions should be on the table when we talk about the future of legal education.  That’s the easy part.  The difficult part, of course, is figuring out how to break those questions apart, think about them, and act on them in useful ways.  Dan’s post floated one provocative idea.  Here’s a second, which admittedly is not quite so provocative, and which is certainly no panacea: 

In law school admissions, tell applicants that they can choose whether or not to submit their LSAT scores.  

Why? 

Most of the reasons will be obvious:  First, LSAT scores predict nothing that the legal profession truly cares about.  They predict academic success in law school, and nothing more.  Second, in part because of the prominence of US News rankings of law schools, at least some law schools have adopted rigid LSAT cutoffs:  To preserve the LSAT range that fuels the US News system, these schools simply will not admit a student whose LSAT score falls beneath a certain line (this practice undercuts criticism of “test optional” admissions strategies as marketing fluff).  Third, male and white and Asian American test takers tend to outperform all other groups on the LSAT.

One reason may be less obvious.  The homogeneity of legal education follows partly from inertia and partly from fear (fear of rankings impact, fear of accreditors, and fear of applicant and alumni response).  Major change is all but impossible in the current climate.  Fear is a constant, and making the LSAT optional is a minor change.  But that minor change may permit a school to think more deliberately about its institutional identity.  If we want more heterogeneity at the institutional level, look for ways to build heterogeneity at the individual level.  What people are we training?

Standardized admissions tests were developed decades ago on the premise that they would make the university admissions process more meritocratic.  Look around the law school classroom, then look around the legal profession.  Have they succeeded?