Law in Contemporary Society

Plugging Enrollment Gaps with Students of Color

A New Reality

In light of the “Great Recession”, the 2007-2013 economic downtown impacting the United States and many foreign countries, scholars and critics’ criticism of law schools intensified. Stories of lawyers with $150,000+ debt graduating into a weak job market helped lead to a drop-off in law school enrollment. After a 52, 488 enrollment peak in 2010, enrollment at law schools fell to levels not seen since 1973.

In addition to the recession, a number of factors contributed to the decline in law enrollment –the pursuit of more “practical” degrees such as engineering, skyrocketing tuition costs, and the presence of online legal startups like Avoo and Legalzoom. These factors fueled perhaps the greatest impactor of the law school enrollment fall: the declining prestige of a legal degree.

As the economic benefits of a law degree fell, many who were not moved by the social benefits of a law degree stopped applying to, and enrolling in, law school. Both white and minority law school enrollment dropped. In 2012, for example, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) saw a 15% decline in test takers, with the biggest drop coming from high scoring students—a group traditionally overrepresented by non-minority students. Lower-scoring test-takers, which includes nearly all people of color applicants, where not moved by media reports making the case against attending law school, or claims that "You might be an idiot" for seeking a J.D.

People of Color Still Seeking Law Degrees

Minority communities in particular, are less sensitive to precipitous drops in law school enrollment, or in the projected success of a law school graduate. Many people of color instead view a law degree as a prestigious ornament. As a student of color, I felt what seemed like pressure from an entire community to attend law school once I graduated from college in 2012. A J.D., to many minorities, is a means to enter the “in-group” of a society that has long resisted their inclusion. The legal profession might be the least diverse in the United States because historically, minorities and women were not given the same opportunities to practice to law as white men. The legal profession’s exclusivity help create the prestige of a legal degrees: access to the profession could lead to the economic mobility and, most important, the social mobility reserved for white men. In spite of evidence suggesting that investing in a law degree did not lead automatically lead to riches, everyone—from family members to local business owners in the street—congratulated me for being on the path to becoming President of the United States, just like Barack Obama, by enrolling in law school.

Law schools turned to minority students seeking prestige to help their falling enrollment numbers. St. Louis University School of Law School professor Aaron Taylor, in a 2013 study “Diversity as a Survival Strategy”, analyzed the disparity between minority and non-minorities in the law school application and enrollment process. Taylor found that the proportion of minority law school students at schools increased from 25.5% in 2011 to 30% in 2013. Schools outside of the top 40, as identified by the U.S. News and World Report Survey, accrued nearly all of the diversity gains. Black and latinx students at the lowest ranked schools saw the greatest increase at 11.5%. The trend of increased minority enrollment at lower ranked schools continued as the overall decline in law school enrollment rose. While top law schools could afford to operate as usual, lower ranked schools used students of color’s pursuit of prestige to plug revenue gaps.

False Promises

Taylor is correct in noting that top schools need to make diversity a priority, and that the tie between law school and student quality is not as strong as one would think. Indeed, both lower and higher ranked school produce quality lawyers. Still, since 2013, in response to the recession and the decline in law school enrollment, scholars have designed a number of websites dedicated to showing that lower ranked schools possess significant low bar passage rates than higher ranked schools, and that students at lower ranked schools face more difficulty finding success in the legal market. Taylor couched his analysis with a rebuke of the “conventional wisdom” that “subpar schools are taking advantage of subpar students”. However, lower ranked, especially for-profit, law schools’ increased reliance on people of color should be met with skepticism, given the correlation between graduate employment rates and law school rank. People of color encouraged to obtain law degrees based on prestige alone, just as I was in 2012, could end up jobless and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

Today, simply attending law school does not sufficiently guarantee legal work at all, let alone high-paying legal work. The ABA has sanctioned and forced the closure of a few schools that have sold the dream of becoming the lawyer without any results. Since the recession, the financial realities of the legal field stripped much of the law degree’s economic prestige. Still, to minority communities, the social benefit of becoming a lawyer is still alive and well. The centuries old prestige that came with a legal degree did not dissipate with a six-year recession or five years of school declining enrollment. Marginalized groups could still access the social benefits of becoming a lawyer even without the potential for economic gain. Law school enrollment may have eroded the past ten years, but schools that learn how to capitalize on a degree’s social benefit can still succeed in today’s market.


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r4 - 26 Apr 2018 - 19:02:25 - BrandonJoseph
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