Deep applicant pool yields record-breaking diversity at top law schools

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The shiny toe of the John Harvard Statue is seen in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts November 16, 2012. Students and tourists touch the toe of the statue for luck. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

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  • Students of color make up more than half of new 1Ls at Harvard, Yale, Berkeley
  • Schools say virtual recruiting helped them connect with more applicants from underrepresented groups

Aug 30 - A wave of top law schools brought in their most diverse first-year classes ever this month, aided by a nearly 13% increase in the national applicant pool, with Harvard and Yale law schools reporting that students of color made up more than half of their 1L enrollment.

At Harvard Law School, 56% of the J.D. class of 2024 are students of color, up from 47% a year ago, and 54% of the new class are women, the school reported. Kristi Jobson, Harvard Law’s assistant dean for admissions, said on Thursday that her office has made diversity across all measures a priority in recent years. But the pandemic-induced shift to virtual recruiting events enabled the school to reach even more potential students from underrepresented groups last cycle.

“The pandemic is not what anyone would have wanted,” Jobson said. “One silver lining was it forced us to get really creative and we had some excellent results."

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Among the new virtual events Harvard held was a series for prospective students of color in partnership with the law school's student government, and an online series for members of the military that drew 250 participants.

Students of color comprise 54% of Yale Law School’s new 1L class, up slightly from 52% the previous year, according to recent data released by the school. Women account for 51% of the new class, while 17% are first-generation college students.

Like Harvard, Yale Law has also done more online outreach and has made it easier for applicants to obtain fee waivers, said Miriam Ingber, associate dean of admissions and financial aid.

“Our community—and the larger legal community—will benefit enormously from their contributions," Ingber said.

Just half of the top law schools, the so-called T-14, have publicly disclosed data on their new classes thus far, but diversity increases are a consistent theme among those that have. The University of Virginia said its new class is the most diverse on record, with 36% students of color and 51% women. And 11% of 1Ls self-identify as LGBTQ+. The school saw the number of applications increase 29% last cycle.

At the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, 53% of new 1Ls are students of color, 62% are women, and 22% are members of the LGBTQ+ community, the school reported.

The new 1L classes at both Duke Law School and the University of Michigan Law School are 37% students of color, with 55% and 49% women, respectively. That’s up from 33% students of color at Duke last year, and 36% at Michigan.

The University of California at Los Angeles School of Law's new 1L class is 49% students of color and 56% female. And 15% are first-generation college students.

National data on this year’s new crop of law students won’t be released by the American Bar Association for several months, but these early indications of an increase in students of color at top schools will be welcome news to diversity advocates and legal employers who have struggled to bolster their minority ranks. ABA data shows that people of color make up less than 15% of the nation’s lawyers, and many identify law schools as a major part of the minority lawyer pipeline problem.

Greater diversity isn’t the only theme emerging from this year’s enrollment picture. All six of the T-14 schools that have released their new admissions data reported an increase in their median LSAT score. Yale, Harvard, Virginia, Berkeley, UCLA and Duke increased that median by one point, while Michigan saw a two-point increase, according to data compiled by law school admissions consultant Mike Spivey.

Those increases are not unexpected, given that applicants with LSAT scores in the highest range of 175 to 180 more than doubled last admissions cycle, according to data from the Law School Admission Council.

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to add diversity numbers from the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law. The percentage of women in Duke Law School's 1L class has also been corrected to 55% from 53%.

Read more:

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'Exclusionary and classist': Why the legal profession is getting whiter

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com