January 25, 2021

Analyzing Pathways to the J.D. with National Student Clearinghouse Data

Tiffane Cochran and Lauren Walker
Research and Data


The lack of diversity in legal education and the profession is a well-established fact. Data and rich commentary from law school scholars clearly illustrate barriers to entry for historically underrepresented groups.1 Yet, we continue to see persistent gaps in law school and bar admission among ethnic minorities—particularly, Black and Latinx students.2 And although information on firstgeneration and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups is harder to obtain, we also find inequitable access for these students where data are available.3

Although discussions of law school diversity necessitate examination of students’ racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, they also require an analysis of the pathways students must navigate to obtain law school admission. Conceptually, the law school admission process is depicted as a single, linear and uniform path for all students; in reality, it is a series of paths that can lead to disparate outcomes depending on the student and the route taken.

Observing these pathways and where they lead can help us better understand how students of all backgrounds come to access legal education, and how we might improve these paths to advance diversity and equity in law school admission and enrollment. At a time when our nation is embroiled in social unrest, racial injustice, and political discord, ensuring that law school graduating classes reflect the diversity of society is even more paramount.

Utilizing data from the National Student Clearinghouse (“Clearinghouse”) and the American Bar Association (ABA), this paper describes undergraduate pathways to the J.D. and how those pathways lead to different law school destinations. We use Clearinghouse data to conduct a retrospective analysis of the 2017-2018 cohort of law students and graduates to examine their demographics, undergraduate majors, undergraduate institution types, and educational experiences before and during law school. To examine law school destinations, we utilize ABA data to categorize law schools based on first-time bar passage rates, scholarship generosity, law job placement, and student retention.4 Each school is scored based on its combined performance on these metrics, then grouped according to its relationship to the mean score. Hereafter, these law school groupings are described as follows: Above Average, Just Above Average, Just Below Average, and Below Average. Law schools that have since closed are grouped separately.5

Part I of the report disaggregates and summarizes the cohort by student demographics, pathways to law school, and law school destination. Part II examines law school destinations by student demographics and pathways. Finally, Part III discusses the results and their implications, offering suggestions for broadening pathways to law school and improving outcomes for underserved groups who successfully enroll.


1 See, e.g., Diane Curtis, The LSAT and the Reproduction of Hierarchy, 41 W. New Eng. L. Rev. 307 (2019); Aaron N. Taylor, The Marginalization of Black Aspiring Lawyers, 13 FIU L. Rev. 489 (2019); Alisa Cunningham & Patricia Steele, Diversity Pipeline Programs in Legal Education: Context, Research, and a Path Forward (AccessLex Inst. Research Paper No. 15-02, 2015), https://ssrn.com/abstract=2618777.
2 AccessLex Inst., Legal Education Data Deck 7 (2020), https://www.accesslex.org/legal-education-data-deck.
3 See Law Sch. Sur vey of Student Engagement, Lookin g Ahead: Assessment in Legal Education 10–11 (2014), https://lssse.indiana.edu/wpcontent/uploads/2016/01/LSSSE_2014_AnnualReport.pdf; Julie R. Posselt & Eric Grodsky, Graduate Education and Social Stratification, 43 Ann . Rev. Soc. 353 (2017); Richard H. Sander, Class in American Legal Education, 88 Denv. U. L. Rev. 631 (2011); Caroline Kitchener, How the LSAT Destroys Socioeconomic Diversity, Atlan tic (Oct. 18, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/10/thelsat-is-rigged-against-the-poor/504530/.
4 See infra Appendix for the description of the methodology and the complete list of law schools.
5 Closed law schools captured in the data for this report are Arizona Summit Law School, Charlotte School of Law, and Valparaiso University.