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

Graduates from The George Washington University Law School take photos in their graduation regalia outside the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.
Graduates from The George Washington University Law School take photos in their graduation regalia outside the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Aug 10 - A recent American Bar Association study found that the legal profession in America has remained overwhelmingly white and male over the last decade and that racial diversity among lawyers has actually regressed in some respects.

The percentage of Black and Native American attorneys has receded slightly since 2011. Black lawyers went from 4.8% of the profession to 4.7% in 2021, and Native Americans from 1% to less than half a percent. Those numbers are much lower than the 13% of Americans who are Black, and the 1.3% who are Native Americans.

The data is sobering, though not entirely surprising.

I asked three lawyers who focus on legal education, diversity and inclusion, and employment how they explain the stagnant numbers.

Kendra Abercrombie is diversity manager for the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism and previously headed diversity recruitment efforts at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Aaron Taylor is executive director for AccessLex' Center for Legal Education Excellence, and was formerly director of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement. Both Taylor and Abercrombie are Black. Rebecca Tsosie is a professor of Yaqui descent at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law and a faculty member for its Indigenous Peoples’ Law and Policy Program.

Each agreed there are issues in the “pipeline” to becoming an attorney and within legal practice itself. They stressed that law school and firm culture are often plain unwelcoming to people of color. They also emphasized that the decline is underlaid by socio-economic racial inequities preceding law school, including in K-12 education.

Here are some of their answers, edited for length and clarity.

REUTERS: What’s your main takeaway regarding the falling numbers of Black and Native American lawyers?

Abercrombie: When I worked in law school admissions, I consistently found a disconnect between what white students knew about the process and what students of color knew. I think many Black applicants lacked awareness of or access to resources that help with LSAT prep or the choice of a school. Helping to fill this access-to-information gap is a first step in addressing these challenges.

Taylor: What we see today is a reflection of how the past continues to perpetuate itself and manifests in a very familiar way. Formal legal education was founded on exclusionary and classist premises. Those goals have waned somewhat, but the core of the educational and professional process is still typified by a narrow range of considerations, faulty pedagogy and the centering of white cultural norms.

Schools profess a desire to increase diversity while adhering to policies devised to exclude Black people.

The intense ranking systems, lack of continual assessments and overemphasizing of standardized test scores are very problematic.

Much of this issue is also about unequal access to high quality education, to resources, to information. Admission tests can be gamed if you prepare in a particular way, for example, but the most high-value kinds of test prep are very expensive. Or consider mentorship: You're less likely to know a lawyer if you're from a group that was systematically excluded from legal education.

Tsosie: The education pipeline is a big problem. Frankly, most Native and Black students are from underfunded school districts that can’t really graduate students or they graduate students who aren’t college-ready. Many bridge programs intended to help underserved communities get into higher education have also been politicized, and ended or curtailed.

I also think a lot of Black and Native people experience racial microaggressions and even overt discrimination, so it’s difficult to make your way through top firms and schools. There is a harmful stereotyping, particularly for Native students. Their numbers are minuscule. You may have one, or none, in a classroom or workplace. I don’t think it’s intentional, but that sort of stereotyping attitude comes out.

REUTERS: Law schools and firms say they spend a lot of time and money to address this exact problem. Why are they making some progress for women, for example, but not Black or Native folks?

Taylor: There’s a peculiar thing about race in this country, particularly anti-Black racism. Something makes it much stickier than gender has been.

Abercrombie: Focusing solely on race scares people sometimes. It’s seen as a taboo topic, while gender can be easier to approach. I believe this accounts for some of the progress we’ve seen for women.

Law firms and schools are constantly rolling out initiatives to address diversity, but they should first focus on historical systems rooted in exclusionism. They should be creating strategic plans to recognize and dismantle those systems, tied to metrics and measurable goals.

Reuters: What’s your most important recommendation to address this issue?

Tsosie: The whole idea is: Can we recreate an institution, one with a culture that embraces diversity? And how would you do it? What I’m intrigued about is how you indigenize a university. How you educate across intersections to acknowledge that the school might be sitting on tribal territory, and the land was the repository of tribal people and knowledge, but it's now only a repository for certain kinds of knowledge. I see all these incoming law students who have no idea that tribal territory isn't part of the state, that there's a separate legal system, and that's unacceptable. We need to be educating across that intersection.

Abercrombie: Firm leaders must advocate for inclusion beyond just numbers. Diverse partners shouldn’t just have a seat at the table. Allow them access to the same 5-course meal as everyone else.

Law firms have historically created systems to limit their recruitment options. I’ve seen firms state explicitly that they only recruit from the top 10% of specific schools. If you’re only selecting from four of the 199 accredited schools, and with additional contingencies, it’s going to be challenging to recruit diverse talent.

I often hear that the profession’s diversity challenges are a pipeline issue, but we can’t simply blame the pipeline. The legal profession must recognize systems that limit the pool, which have been in place for decades, and actively dismantle them.

Update: This story has been changed to include the full name of the Illinois Supreme Court commission for which Kendra Abercrombie is diversity manager.

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Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com