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Law School Admissions and Minorities

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After World War II, the top law schools abandoned their previous effort to maintain upper-class control of the legal system and devoted themselves to making the legal profession a meritocracy. They have consistently enlarged the pool from which they seek law students, first by recruiting aggressively among Jews and other established ethnic groups, then by developing affirmative action programs for minorities in protected categories, and later by throwing their doors open to women. Other law schools imitated these trend-setting institutions. Because of this history, there is a more idealistic commitment to diversity in legal education than there is in most other large American institutions. Since law is a channel of upward mobility, many legal educators attach a very high priority to efforts to bring more and more disadvantaged minorities into the system.

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If such an intense affirmative action effort is being made, why is there a lag? One theory is that law schools are having difficulty identifying minority prospects. They know only whatever information applicants reveal about themselves. Many individuals hesitate to admit that they are minority members because they fear the lingering bigotry that still persists in American life. They're making a mistake; in my experience, the benefits of affirmative action in the admissions process clearly outweigh the drawbacks of racial prejudice. If you are a member of a protected category, you should identify yourself as such whenever you have the opportunity to do so.

If your name is on the CRS list, don't be surprised if a law school you haven't applied to calls you on the phone and encourages you to apply. You register for the CRS by answering three additional questions on the LSAT/LSDAS registration form. There is no extra charge.

Some law schools hold minority-oriented open houses. Their recruiters often attend minority-oriented job fairs and career fairs, even on quite small campuses. Some recruiters attend meetings of minority student organizations; they've also been known to solicit the names of promising students from minority faculty members, lawyers, law students, ministers, and other professionals. Try to get your name on as many minority-oriented mailing lists as possible.

Most larger law schools support an extensive roster of minority student groups. Hispanic, native-American, and African-American groups, among others, are likely to be involved in recruiting new law students. Law schools often contact a minority prospect through a law student of the same minority. Hispanic law students are especially helpful in this regard because they can speak to prospects in Spanish. The president of one law school's Hispanic club visited Bradley last year; she helped one graduating senior fill out his law school application, read over his essay and corrected the grammar, and then made follow-up phone calls to remind him of deadlines. It's worth your time to try to contact appropriate minority student groups at the law schools on your preferred list. If you visit these schools, ask to speak to minority students. Or, write to the addresses listed in the catalogs.

Some local law schools have also made special efforts to recruit African Americans who have had some success in the business world or in community politics. If you are older, experience of this kind can partly compensate for poor undergraduate numbers. You can document it by providing extensive letters of recommendation, by writing an essay discussing what you have learned, and by submitting newspaper clippings about your political or business activity that mention you by name.

A more pressing problem, however, is that GPAs and LSAT scores still happen to be accurate predictors of a candidate's ability to do law school work. Students admitted with poor numbers are more likely to drop out or flunk out. "It looks bad to make special admissions," one law school recruiter told me, "but it would really look bad to let black students in and then flunk them all out." Poor retention rates also damage law schools financially, for the schools depend on each student to pay a full three years' worth of tuition.

To improve the quality of the pool of affirmative action candidates, law schools, foundations, and state governments have begun to create enrichment programs. Though they all differ, all have the same goal: to improve the educational backgrounds of minority students while they are undergraduates, to help them achieve good college grades, and to make it more likely that they will be able to do law school work.

Most of these programs create minority equivalents of general student groups or activities. Campuses with prelaw clubs, for example, may also have African-American prelaw clubs. There are minority-oriented courses and internships; for example, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials offers a state legislative internship program to college students who are citizens of California, Florida, Illinois, New York, or Texas and who "possess a sense of commitment to the Latino community."

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The Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) is an umbrella organization created to increase the number of minority law students. (You can discern the widespread support for this goal by studying the list of CLEO's sponsors: the American Bar Association, the Association of American Law Schools, the Law School Admission Council, the Hispanic National Bar Association, the National Asian Pacific Bar Association, and the National Bar Association.) CLEO now conducts seven regional six-week institutes designed to prepare undergraduates to attend law school. About 250 disadvantaged undergraduates each year are taught about legal method and law as a subject. The teaching is considered extremely rigorous.

There are now other summer enrichment programs for minority students. A typical example is Illinois's Program for Minority Access to Law School, or PMALS, which is designed to "increase the pool of qualified African-American and Hispanic law students in Illinois" by "both stimulat[ing] students' interest in the legal profession and . . . help[ing] them develop the analytic and writing skills necessary for the study of law." Students accepted for PMALS attend two four-week summer sessions after their freshman (or sometimes sopho-more) and senior years of college. There is coursework on legal subjects and on developing law-related skills, taught by both law school and undergraduate faculty. Teaching assistants provide individual tutoring.

If you are a minority student, you should investigate these programs. Enrichment opportunities of this kind are extremely valuable, both because they teach necessary skills and also because they'll put you on an academic fast track, introduce you to helpful people, and mark you as a good prospect.

Because there is a shortage of well-qualified minority applicants, you are a scarce and desirable commodity if your numbers are strong. If your undergraduate grades are good, you can improve your law school prospects dramatically by doing well on the LSAT. To some extent, minority group members can compensate for poor grades with a high test score. Therefore, test preparation is extremely valuable. Unless you know that your test-taking skills are unusually good, you should consider a test preparation course mandatory. But in one of those destructive American racial ironies, minority applicants, who can most benefit from test prep courses, are the least likely to know about these courses and take them. If the problem is money, make inquiries. The Stanley Kaplan organization has some scholarship money for impoverished students. Your prelaw adviser may know of similar scholarships available from other test preparation companies.

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