Denise-Marie Balona, Orlando Sentinel, June 25, 2011
Law schools in Florida have struggled for years to draw more minorities into legal fields long dominated by white men.
Yet despite recruitment drives and other efforts to boost their enrollment, the numbers at some colleges have remained stagnant or have fallen off.
That troubles scholars and college administrators as Florida becomes more and more diverse.
Soaring tuition, tougher admission requirements and other factors have discouraged many minorities from seeking law degrees.
At the University of Florida, black enrollment at the state’s largest public law school dropped 10 percent from fall 2006 to fall 2010, the national Law School Admission Council reported last week.
There’s a growing demand for minority attorneys, as many members of the public seek lawyers in criminal and civil cases who look like them and can relate to them through cultural backgrounds and life experiences.
In addition, law firms want to diversify so they can better compete globally and build trial teams that can make effective cases before racially diverse juries.
A fairness issue
Robert Jerry, dean of UF’s law school, worries that trust in the criminal-justice system among minorities will further erode as the growing population of blacks and Hispanics questions the effectiveness and fairness of a legal system headed primarily by white judges and lawyers.
“If the legal profession does not appear to be broadly representative of our nation’s population, then I’m concerned people will lose confidence in how the justice system is administered,” Jerry said. “And if that happens, the very fabric of our democracy could be in peril.”
Members of Congress were so concerned by a national decline in black students several years ago that they ordered an investigation of the issue through the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The agency issued a report in late 2009 that partly blamed the fact that blacks and Hispanics are generally less likely to go to college. They also tend to have lower undergraduate grade-point averages and scores on the Law School Admission Test–key factors for law-school admission.
The report doesn’t address the elimination of affirmative-action programs in some states, including Florida, although some critics argue those changes have hurt law-school diversity.