Goal IX Newsletter

Winter 2001, Volume 7, Number 1

The Browning of the Bar - Why Lawyers Must Take Action by: Beverly McQueary Smith

Lawyers can help shape the choice of who gets to attend their alma maters— and they should. All of us who have graduated from law schools in the United States of America have an obligation to monitor who is admitted to study in our law schools. If we fail to be vigilant, then we may end up attending a law school reunion 30 to 50 years hence and find that our law school has lost its societal relevance because of its failure to admit students of color.

Beverly McQueary Smith

In an increasingly diverse America, we need more dedicated lawyers who look like the clients they represent. Diverse students in our law school classrooms help to fashion a better-educated legal profession. In America, where people peacefully decide disputes by deferring to the rule of law, future respect for the rule of law will depend upon a policy of inclusion, not exclusion. As rights-givers and rights-protectors, lawyers of goodwill work to protect the rights and interests of those who are unable or less able to defend and represent themselves. Viewed from this perspective, lawyers and members of the organized bar must work to promote the rigorous implementation of ABA Standard 211. This standard requires law schools to provide comprehensive opportunities to minority groups to study law and enter the profession. Standard 211 emphasizes opportunities for racial and ethnic minority groups that have been victims of discrimination in various forms. In application, this commitment typically relates to the admissions process, special recruitment efforts, and financial aid.

U.S. census data from 1997 predicts that by 2030, approximately 40 percent of all Americans will be members of minority groups. Thus, schools’ practices of excluding or limiting minority enrollment threaten the general welfare of our society, portending disastrous consequences to those institutions, to the legal profession, to our bar associations, and, especially, to bar associations of color. After the 1996 passage of California Proposition 209, which forbids discrimination against and/or preferential treatment for individuals and groups in public education, UCLA Law School enrolled only two black students in its 1999 class. In the aftermath of Hopwood v. Texas, 116 S. Ct. 2581 (1996), black enrollment at the University of Texas School of Law also dropped. The enrollment numbers for members of other minority groups remain as dismal.

Apart, from any narrow, parochial interest we may have in preserving our alma maters’ commitment to diversity, other societal benefits flow from promoting diversity in our educational institutions. William Bowen and Derek Bok’s empirical study, The Shape of the River—which examines 30 years of affirmative action among selective institutions of higher education that used race as a factor to admit students—concludes that affirmative action led to striking gains in minority representation within the most lucrative and influential occupations.

Bowen and Bok also found that these graduates were better citizens because, among other things, they were more active contributors to their community and civic organizations than their white counterparts. They reported that “[t]he growth of minority managers and professionals has been encouraged by a widespread recognition of the pressing need for greater diversity at all levels of responsibility and in all walks of life. Evidence of this recognition is provided by the actions of leaders throughout government, business, and the professions.” They assert that government officials will have difficulty producing enlightened policies and find it hard to enjoy the confidence of the minority community if an overwhelmingly white cabinet and Congress are making the decisions affecting the lives of such an increasingly diverse, multiracial society.

Minorities comprise more than one-third of all new entrants to the workforce and generate more than $600 billion in purchasing power, according to Bowen and Bok. Diverse corporate leadership is essential to understanding the marketplace and to recruiting, managing, and motivating the workforce on which corporate performance ultimately depends. Business executives who want their corporations to remain profitable and competitive in a global marketplace state that corporations will not be healthy unless the society is healthy. A healthy society in the twenty-first century will be one in which the most challenging, rewarding career possibilities are perceived to be—and truly are— open to all races and ethnic groups. As lawyers, we must work to ensure that our institutions of higher learning admit, retain, and graduate people of color because lawyers retain the power of rights-givers. Charles Hamilton Houston once said that lawyers must be social engineers or they will be parasites on society.

Here are some concrete steps that persons of goodwill can take to promote diversity in the legal academy:

  • Volunteer to serve on an ABA accreditation team, which inspects accredited law schools every seven years; you can help to determine whether the law school complies with Standard 211.
  • At meetings of your alumni association, pointedly ask deans or their representatives how many minority students are enrolled, were dismissed, or have graduated.
  • Determine the number of minority students who need financial aid and endow a fund to help them avoid the perils of work-study that diverts their attention away from focusing on their academic performance.
  • Contribute money to help defray tuition and other costs for minority law school students.
  • Encourage minority students to apply for the scholarship fund established under the leadership of former ABA President Bill Paul.
  • Serve as a mentor for one or more minority students.
  • Provide minority students with jobs, externships, or internships that will enable them to gain practical instruction and experience in how to survive in law school and the legal profession.
  • Write the dean of your alma mater to inquire about policies for hiring minority faculty and other administrators and for recruitment, admission, and retention of minority students. Data show that minority students fare better in law schools that have minority faculty.
  • Help open the pipeline for future lawyers by having your bar association adopt a high school, junior high school, or elementary school. Lawyers can reach back to serve as role models for students, particularly those who may not have many positive examples in their environments. Each one should reach one and teach one!
  • Work to close the technology gap or the digital divide in the public schools in your community by implementing a computer recycling program. As you upgrade personal or business computer equipment, donate the “old” ones to deserving students. In 1998, the National Bar Association launched a Computers in Our Communities Action Plan to do just that.
  • Help state and local government agencies remove the barriers that prevent them from donating old computers and other office supplies and equipment to deserving students.
  • Fund a program to teach minority students how to upgrade, repair, or maintain donated computers.
  • Have your bar association establish a program to attract, recruit, retain, and promote minority lawyers to law firms, corporate law departments, and the like. For example, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York screens and places minority law students in law firms for the summer between their first and second years.
  • Promote computer literacy by having your bar association, law firm, or corporation provide free or low-cost training to members of the minority community.
  • Do not stand idly by when there is so much to do.

This list of steps is not exhaustive, but it illustrates that lawyers and members of the organized bar can do much to promote diversity in colleges and universities. We cannot stand by idly and watch the educational opportunities our generation enjoyed evaporate into nothingness. Secure the blessings of liberty by promoting educational opportunities for the next generation of lawyers, judges, legal scholars, and law students.

Beverly McQueary Smith is a professor of law, Touro College, and former president of the National Bar Association (1998-99).