Posted on April 27, 2006

Law School Verdict’s Still Out: Race vs. Ranking

G. Jeffrey MacDonald, USA TODAY, April 26, 2006

Law schools eager to raise their national rankings are demanding higher scores on the Law School Admission Test, but they’re paying a price in terms of racial diversity as fewer and fewer black applicants make the cutoff.

That’s the controversial argument of John Nussbaumer, an associate dean at Michigan’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School and author of a widely debated paper in this month’s edition of the St. John’s University Law Review. His thesis says schools increasingly ignore their mandate not to overemphasize the LSAT. It is striking chords far beyond academic circles as the legal profession ponders how to reverse a steady, 10-year decline.

Since 1994, when first-year black enrollment peaked at 3,432, that number has dropped 13% to 2,975, according to data from the Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT. By contrast, Asian and Hispanic enrollments have climbed: Asians by 44% to 3,759, and Hispanics by 26% to 2,610.

Blacks are getting denied at the gate, Nussbaumer says, because schools are increasingly concerned with LSAT scores: The average law student’s score has jumped from 154.3 in 2001 to 157.3 in 2005. And because blacks as a group consistently score about 9 points below the national average, a heightened focus on that one benchmark means blacks are getting a disproportionate share of rejection letters.

“Students with low scores can succeed and can be good lawyers,” Nussbaumer says, adding that factors such as life experience and work habits don’t get tested on the LSAT. “But if you over-rely on the LSAT, some of these folks get cut out of the chance to try.”

Whether or not they accept Nussbaumer’s analysis, lawyers agree the trend is troubling both for their profession and for society: Blacks make up 13% of the U.S. population, but they’re just 6.8% of 135,000 law students.

This past weekend, members of an American Bar Association panel on diversity met with law school representatives in Dallas to draft an action plan. Among other key steps, members agreed to develop programs nationwide that get kids as early as kindergarten to think about law as the guarantor of countless personal freedoms — and an exciting career option.

The USA “is becoming more diverse, but the profession that broke down barriers (through landmark cases) is the least diverse” among major fields, says Leonard Baynes, a St. John’s University law professor and editor of the Law Review. When blacks are largely absent from the ranks of legal counsel and judicial authority, he says, “it looks like a very unfair system.”