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'Already Behind': Diversifying The Legal Profession Starts Before The LSAT

LEAP fellows Astrid Saenz, Fatima Salcido, and Victor Briseno participating in a law school application workshop.
Carrie Sommer
Courtesy of Cindy Lopez
LEAP fellows Astrid Saenz, Fatima Salcido, and Victor Briseno participating in a law school application workshop.

When Ingrid Lopez Martinez received DACA status during her senior year of high school, it transformed her perception of the law. Instead of seeing it as a system used to limit her immigrant family's potential, she for the first time saw the law "as a transformative tool for justice."

This first-generation college graduate, who moved to the United States from El Salvador at age 4, now aspires to become a lawyer so that she can "pay it forward" and advocate for the undocumented community.

She soon learned, though, that getting into law schoolcan be particularlycomplicatedfor many minority applicants — from the expense of test prepcourses to the cost of actually applying to schools. There are other knowledge gaps, too. Many first generation college grads applying to law school don't know the ins and outs of the application process. They have no personal connections to people who can help guide them through the process and may not know, for instance, the disadvantage of applying to law school late in the application cycle.

A number of groups are focusing on "the pipeline" to law school as a way to diversify the legal profession overall.

A 2015 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the law was the least racially diverse profession in the country, and it remains among the top.

That's not all. As of 2020, the American Bar Association reported that 86% of all lawyers were non-Hispanic whites. To put that in context, while African Americans make up 13.4% of the U.S. population, they make up only 5% of all lawyers. And amazingly, that percentage has not budged in 10 years.

Just applying to law school, prospective students shell out thousands

Applying to law school is expensive. Taking the competitive law school admission test, known as the LSAT, just once costs $200. The Law School Admissions Council, or LSAC, then charges students an additional $195 to aggregate application materials and $45 for each time they apply to a new school. LSAC only waives fees for those who prove they are in "extreme need."

The fees continue to mount. Each school has its own fee for applying. While these are more easily waived, they can range from $15 to $100 per school.

Collectively, with the average applicant applying to six schools, fees can add up to $1,000 or more. And this number does not even include paying for an LSAT prep course, which most applicants routinely rely on to up their scores.

The average LSAT prep course costs between $600 and $1,800. Although expensive, they can significantly improve LSAT scores. For example, the Princeton Review's "LSAT 165+" essentially guarantees an improvement of at least seven points. It costs $1,700.

Bottom line: Though courses like these are a critical piece of success, they are financially out of reach for many minority students. While some organizations offer free LSAT prep courses online, there is often a hitch. Khan Academy, for example, does not have live programming and does not guarantee an increase in the LSAT score.

The average score on the LSAT varies vastly by race. Research by Aaron Taylor, Executive Director of AccessLex, a center for legal education excellence, shows that the average score for white and Asian test takers is 153, while the average for Black test takers is 142 and for Latinos is 146.

On a test where scores range between 120 and 180, an 11-point score differential between white and Black test takers is incredibly consequential. Driven in part by that stark disparity, 49% of Black law school applicants were not admitted to a single law school.

DACA student Lopez Martinez, for instance, tried taking the LSAT while she was in college but did so without guidance and realized that she was essentially flying blind. She saw friends studying for the LSAT, knew she wanted to be a lawyer, and figured she too should take the test.

But without mentorship throughout the process and with only test-prep books, and no LSAT course, Lopez Martinez did not do well enough on the test to even bother applying to any law schools.

The illusion of admissions deadlines

While most law schools tout rolling admissions, the entering class of many law schools is mostly determined before the application deadline even passes. Law schools begin accepting applications between August and October and do not stop accepting applications until between February and June.

Minority applicants likely do not share the same mentorship and networking relationships that more privileged applicants rely on to learn the importance of applying early. They maynot know that as space in the entering class shrinks, competition increases, and admission offers diminish as time goes by.

During the 2017-18 admissions cycle, 43% of Black applicants and 36% of Latino applicants applied in March or later — compared to only 29% of white applicants, according to AccessLex director Taylor.

Pipeline programs

While the Internet is full of tips and tricks for applying to law school, a lot of the most useful resources are just out of reach for those who cannot afford them.

AccessLex does provide an extensive directory of diversity pipeline programs, and the programs on its list do tremendous work. But applicants still need to know they exist and then must apply to each online.

One Southern California-based organization, the Legal Education Access Pipeline, or , began last year with a cohort of 31 LEAP fellows made up of individuals underrepresented in the legal field. LEAP offers a free LSAT prep program, curriculum, and a mentoring program where students are paired with a law school and an attorney mentor.

LEAP founder Cindy Lopez, a retired California Deputy Attorney General explains that she "would not do a diversity pipeline program without LSAT. It's just too important." Her fellows seem to agree.

Lopez Martinez, the DACA student from El Salvador, who essentially flamed out after she took the LSAT in college without any prep course, fared a lot better later when she got help from LEAP and its prep course. She improved her score nearly 10 points, making her eligible for a whole new tier of law schools.

Andaiye McAndrew, a black DACA recipient from Belize, was initially drawn to LEAP because the program offered an expensive and reputable LSAT course cost-free. But, she adds, that is not what kept her in the program. As a first-generation college student who, before LEAP, had not known a single lawyer, the mentorship from lawyers has been critical.

While LEAP founder Lopez sees the LSAT and applying too late in the cycle as two key barriers to law school admission, she also emphasizes that these problems go back to inequities in education. She explains that those with privilege, "grow up talking about college, possibly talking about law school. SAT and college prep is a given at the dinner table ... None of that is existent for these fellows." And, she adds that, "if they've gone to under-resourced high schools, they're already behind the eight ball when they go to college."

The systemic nature of this problem sparked the Playing Field Project, a new pipeline initiative just founded by two recent law school graduates.

Assessing the "playing field"

During this summer's resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, the implications of privilege on law school admissions weighed heavily on Alexei Segall and Akina Newbraugh, who both graduated from top-tier law schools in May and who also both just started as associates at a big law firm.

The pair decided to create a new nonprofit, , to, quite literally, level the law school admissions playing field by providing low-income minority students with LSAT tutoring services, law school application assistance, and other services. They plan to launch with their first set of participants entering the 2021 admission cycle.

Unlike LEAP, which caters to a small but growing cohort of individuals in southern California, the Playing Field Project aims to be national in scope.

"We're not reinventing the wheel ...We're not trying to create an LSAT program. We're not trying to be the ones reviewing essays. We just want to provide those resources to students," Newbraugh says. In short, they are trying to aggregate services and subsidize the admission and prep course fees as a potential game-changer for low-income and minority applicants.

Where should the pipeline start?

The dean of admissions at Georgetown Law School, Andrew Cornblatt, is trying to help build the pipeline at an earlier access point: high school.

After learning during a panel that law students first start thinking about law school in high school, Cornblatt began Georgetown Law's Early Outreach Initiative. It started with the idea that large segments of the population are not having conversations about law school when "these ideas and these ambitions form," he says.

Now he has identified 1,000 high school seniors at under-resourced high schools across 10 cities and has laid plans to have 300 lawyer-mentors who have volunteered to help guide them through their college years.

Law firms as important financial stakeholders

Both the Playing Field Project and LEAP are looking to law firms, and in particular big law firms, for funding. They see firms as key donors who have a stake in a more diverse applicant pool.

It is in their interest because "law firms need more diverse lawyers to make their clients happy," says Playing Field Project co-founder Newbraugh.

Starting next month, for instance, Intel will only hire law firms where the U.S. partners are at least 21% women and at least 10% underrepresented minorities. According to the Wall Street Journal, similar steps are being taken at other large companies including Microsoft, Uber and Novartis.

"Every lawyer I talked to about this, every major law firm, has said the same thing to me. 'What can we do? How can we get more diverse associates and partners?'" says Georgetown's Cornblatt . Their clients are "looking around the table," and saying, "What gives?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Marisa Manzi