By Andrew Cohen
While America’s legal profession has advanced in many areas over the past few decades, its persistent demographic imbalance—85 percent of lawyers in the United States are white—remains vexing.
“A lot of smart people have spent decades trying hard to make things better but we see only limited results,” laments David A. Carrillo ’95, founding executive director of Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center. “We need a new approach to help move things in the right direction.”
Toward that end, Carrillo’s center is co-sponsoring a diversity summit with the Bar Association of San Francisco and California ChangeLawyers on Jan. 21 in San Francisco. California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye will be the keynote speaker, with presentations to follow on the profession’s current state, pipeline programs from the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), and diversity among federal judicial clerks.
Recent data shows potholes throughout the path. Caucasians made up 55 percent of LSAT takers during the January 2019 exam, and earned 62 percent of JD degrees in 2018—numbers far lower than the 85 percent figure of U.S. lawyers who are white.
There is minority dropoff in pre-bar, bar passage, and post-bar employment. Adding minority graduation and bar passage rates relative to whites (both slightly lower), Carrillo says, “The result is that new minority lawyers start at a disadvantage that grows over time. I think we lose more in the employment arena than we lose in law school or the bar exam.”
African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans are roughly one-third of the population. But according to the National Association for Law Placement, they are one-fifth of law school graduates and make up just 7 percent of law firm partners and 9 percent of large corporation general counsels. In major law firms, only 3 percent of associates and less than 2 percent of partners are African American.
And while more women are applying to law school than men—a gap that grew from 2,730 in 2016 to 5,000 in 2018—their attrition rate after graduating is much higher.
“Minorities and women are dropping out of the profession at higher rates than their white male counterparts,” says Carrillo, who helped enlist speakers for the summit and will serve as a moderator. “We need to be more strategic in assessing what’s working and what’s not. It’s all about finding solutions. There’s no consensus on what the main hurdles are, and one goal is to develop a more comprehensive and reliable data set for people to study and analyze.”
Many law schools have ramped up efforts to better recruit and support a more diverse pool of students. It has long been part of the public mission at Berkeley Law, where people of color make up nearly half (49 percent) of the first-year J.D. class, and usually 60 percent or more identify as female. Yet much of the problem is beyond law schools’ control.
Kristin Theis-Alvarez, Berkeley Law’s dean of admissions and financial aid, also chairs the LSAC’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. While acknowledging embedded societal barriers to making law schools better demographically reflect their communities, she believes more can be done to move the needle.
“There’s a pipeline to law school, but it’s a leaky one,” Theis-Alvarez says. “Whether someone who expresses interest in law school is met with encouragement from advisors matters. Whether someone can build their pre-law resume by travelling to work an unpaid position in the summer matters. Whether someone has the ability to pay for a test-prep course, or to take time off from work to study, matters. Then there’s the issue of financial aid while in law school. These days, we’re one of the few that still provides substantial need-based aid as well as merit-based aid.”
The diversity gap also feeds on itself, she notes. Students of color and first-generation students are less likely to consider law school because they know fewer family or community members who are attorneys, and low-income students are also more likely to be deterred by the cost in the first place.
People of color who do attend law school often see few other people of color in the classroom—as fellow students or instructors—which can reinforce a notion that they don’t truly belong in that environment. Those who do graduate and work at law firms face similar issues, as well as implicit bias and structural discrimination, along the partner track. Data shows that minority attorney and partner numbers are small, flat, and in some instances dropping.
Judicial clerkships are another area of ethnic disparity. Berkeley Law has made huge strides in placing students of color in clerkships over the past few years, and recently created a new director of judicial clerkships position in part to fuel that momentum.
Jeremy Fogel, executive director of the law school’s Berkeley Judicial Institute, will discuss his ongoing research on diversity rates among federal judicial clerks, and the clerkship hiring process. It marks one of many areas, from when people first begin to consider law school to when they’re law-firm partners and organizational leaders, that merits closer study.
“There’s no easy fix,” Carrillo says. “But so long as our legal profession fails to accurately reflect the people who use it, we need to work on changing the landscape.”