Group Takes Steps to Boost Number of Minority Lawyers

Matt Krupnick, Contra Costa Times (San Francisco), Feb. 20, 2006

It’s tough to get much whiter than the legal profession, which in California is 85 percent white.

The American Bar Association says it’s time that changed.

The association has proposed stricter diversity requirements for the 193 law schools it has accredited nationally. The ABA’s governing body will vote on the rule change in August.

For many schools, the reform would require that administrators take steps to increase minority enrollment through admissions preferences and recruiting. But the policy is less clear for schools in California and other states that forbid affirmative action in college admissions.

Affirmative-action bans are no excuse for law schools that are not trying to boost minority numbers, said John Sebert, the bar association’s legal-education consultant.

“You’ve got to go about it in some other ways,” he said.

Abiding by the new rule could expose public law schools to challenges from opponents of racial preferences opponents. They have already warned legal educators that they’re keeping an eye out for violations. Washington has a ban similar to California’s Proposition 209, and Michigan residents will soon vote on their own version.

About 20 public and private California schools would be subject to the ABA requirements, including public institutions such as UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall and Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

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Affirmative-action supporters and school officials argue that a lack of diversity among the nation’s lawyers has harmed the justice system. California Bar Association statistics show that 85 percent of the association’s members are white, 3.8 percent are Latino and 1.7 percent are black.

About 7 percent of California’s residents are black, according to U.S. Census numbers, while fewer than 60 percent are white.

David Coleman, Contra Costa County’s head public defender, said he has far more trouble hiring qualified minority attorneys now than he did before Prop. 209. The shortage will worsen as older minority attorneys retire, he said.

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Statewide, about 33 percent of the black students who took the California bar examination for the first time in July passed, compared with 69 percent of whites, 61.7 percent of Asians and 48.8 percent of Latinos.

Californians who voted in favor of Prop. 209 would probably feel differently about affirmative actions if they knew the economic effects the ban has had, said Guy Johnson, a 2005 Boalt Hall alumnus who now does research for the school’s Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity.

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