Diversity Pipeline Programs in Legal Education: Context, Research, and a Path Forward

Research and Data

Executive Summary

As the racial and ethnic diversity of the United States continues to grow, it is increasingly important that comparable cultural diversity grows in the legal profession. Diversity in the legal field is central to ensuring public confidence in the legal system and provides society with a sense of fairness in the judicial system. The benefits of diverse leadership are numerous, particularly as the U.S. engages with a global, multicultural marketplace. To address gaps in the educational pipeline to the legal profession, many diversity pipeline programs have emerged to inspire interest, engagement, and success in degree programs in law. The goal of this report is to identify some of the key factors that are associated with successful diversity programs based on a scan of the literature, both within and outside of law school pipeline programs.

Understanding the Education Pipeline to Law School and Beyond

The pathway to law school shows students from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds missing opportunities to advance through the education pipeline beginning with early education, through high school, in the immediate transition to college, and culminating with students’ experiences with law school success and passing the bar. While the last 30 years have yielded substantial increases in the number of minorities enrolling in law school, as well as the total number of Juris Doctor (J.D.) degrees in the United States, there are still significant gaps for underrepresented minority groups compared to their peers. Significant gaps in the pipeline to the legal field occur early on in the pipeline, but the challenges continue into law school and beyond.

Foundation of Diversity Pipelines: Primary and Secondary Education

  • Gaps among students from different racial/ethnic groups start before and during elementary school, continuing on to high school, in subject areas particularly relevant to law, such as reading and writing, history, and civics. Although these gaps are due to a host of factors, from parents’ educational levels to poverty, the gaps reflect the fact that many minorExecutive Summary ity students may start with less knowledge of core subject areas.
  • These differences lead to the first major distinction between groups: high school graduation rates are much lower for underrepresented minority students compared to White and Asian students.

Transition into Postsecondary Education

  • Racial/ethnic disparities in educational attainment persist into college. During the transition from high school to college, minorities are less likely to enroll immediately following high school graduation compared with their White and Asian peers. This is significant, because delaying college enrollment is associated with lower persistence toward a degree.
  • Despite the disparities in immediate college enrollment, over the last few decades, there have been increases in the number of minorities enrolling in college; this has resulted in a greater proportion of minorities in the total undergraduate population.
  • However, underrepresented minority students are less likely to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree within four years, which delays possible enrollment in graduate education. White and Asian/Pacific Islander students are more likely than Black and Hispanic students to graduate within four years; extending the time period to six years narrows the gap, but does not eliminate it.
  • Overall, fewer minorities age 25 and older have received a Bachelor’s degree compared to their White peers.

Transition to and Enrollment in Law School

  • As students approach law school, the pipeline continues to narrow. Applications to law school by most minority groups have decreased in recent years as part of a broader trend of falling law school applications. Although the percentage of applicants who are admitted to law school has increased for all racial/ethnic groups, it remains much lower for underrepresented minorities.
  • In recent years, law schools have become increasingly concerned about declining enrollments after many years of growth. One positive long-term trend suggests that the number of minorities in law school have increased substantially over a 30-year period, with roughly three times the original number of students enrolling.
  • The proportion of minorities in the total J.D. population has also steadily increased during the same time period, from 9 percent of all J.D. students to 27 percent of students. Although this is positive news, there are recent hints that minority enrollment might be slipping. While total minority enrollment in 2013-2014 decreased only slightly from the previous year—within the context of a larger overall decline in J.D. enrollment—the enrollment of first-year minority students decreased over the past three years.
  • These trends in enrollment varied among racial/ethnic groups over the most recent decade. Between 2002-2003 and 2013-2014, total minority enrollment increased by 27 percent.

Graduation and Bar Passage Rates

  • Efforts to retain minority students may be having an impact. More J.D. degrees are being awarded to minority students than ever before; 11,951 in 2012-2013, a significant increase from only 3,169 in 1983-1984. Similarly, the proportion of all J.D. degrees awarded to minorities increased over that period from 9 percent to 25 percent.
  • Overall, however, degrees are still disproportionately awarded to White students. White graduates comprise 69 percent of all professional degrees conferred in 2011-2012, followed by 13 percent for Asian/ Pacific Islanders, 7 percent for Blacks, and 6 percent for Hispanics. Comparing professional fields, there is a smaller proportion of degrees conferred to minorities in law compared to other fields, such as medicine and dentistry. However, this is in part due to higher proportions of Asian/Pacific Islanders in the medical and dental fields; the proportion of degrees awarded to Black and Hispanic students is similar across professions.
  • Bar passage rates may be lower among underrepresented minority graduates than those of their White and Asian counterpart

Solution to the Problem: Addressing the Pipeline  - Overview of 261 Selected Diversity Pipeline Programs

To address leakages in the education pipeline, many programs have been developed to support students at critical junctures along the pipeline. These diversity-focused pipeline programs have different sponsors, such as law schools, bar associations, law firms, and colleges; and they serve a variety of populations, including disadvantaged students, as well as specific minority groups. These programs offer a wide range of program activities, including mentoring, skills development, advising, and bar preparation. For this analysis, the authors explored 261 distinct pipeline programs. The analysis identified the following common characteristics of existing legal education diversity pipeline programs:

  1. Broadly Focused Approach: The vast majority of the 261 diversity pipeline programs reviewed are mostly national in their focus, and are seeking to serve any and all minority students; few had a specialized focus on individual racial/ethnic minority groups or underrepresented minority groups generally.
  2. Narrow Pipeline Emphasis: Most of the diversity pipeline programs reviewed are working in one part of the education pipeline (although some may have formalized partnerships with other organizations in different levels of the education pipeline): 36 percent of the programs are serving students in high school only, 27.2 percent are working in law schools exclusively, and 17.2 percent are reaching out to students in four-year colleges. Less than 15 percent of all programs are doing any work in early interventions.
  3. Low Program Intensity: Diversity pipeline programs are providing an array of services, ranging from less intensive to more intensive. Among the 261 analyzed, two-thirds are mainly providing low-intensity law school and career information services through career events or law days. Many programs are offering more intensive services beyond just information, such as mentoring, year-round courses, internships, study skills, tutoring, or other academic supports.
  4. Lacking Solid Evidence: Few diversity pipeline programs have been evaluated, and if they have, the findings and best practices are not widely shared.

Recommendations for Leaders and Supporters of Diversity Pipeline Programs

Focus on early and rigorous interventions. Many of the differences in education outcomes begin at a very early age. Therefore it is important to focus efforts on improving educational outcomes on programs in primary and secondary education settings. While all diversity pipeline efforts may not serve students during these foundational ages, partnerships with local schools could be created to enhance programs primarily serving college students, law students, and beyond. Participants could benefit from engagement with primary and secondary school students, and students could benefit from mentoring relationships with adults. Early pipeline programs must provide academically rigorous content, engaging students in coursework that will significantly improve skills such as writing, reading, critical thinking, and civic understanding and engagement. Within these programs, activities must seek to build student interest and motivation by providing wide recognition of students’ success.

Develop strong mentor connections throughout programs. Relationships are a critical component of successful outcomes for program participants. The opportunity to be mentored by an adult with knowledge and experience in the legal field or legal coursework is a key ingredient to successful programming and it can have positive benefits for both students and mentors. Student relationships through formal mentoring make a difference in progress through the education pipeline.

Establish formalized partnerships across pipeline programs. It is important to establish working partnerships through formal agreements between pipeline programs and other entities, such as law firms, institutions, legal organizations, and other community-based programs. These kinds of partnerships can be a source for obtaining funding support, mentors, meeting space, volunteer staff, and other resources. There are many examples of this kind of partnership in the existing pipeline programs, and these collaborations can contribute to long-term stability and resources for program sustainability.

Establish partnerships vertically among different segments of the education pipeline. Creating formalized, cross-pipeline partnerships from one level of the education pipeline to the next will help strengthen connections that may yield better transitions for students from one level to the next, and help program staff better understand what students need to be prepared for the next step.

Rigorously evaluate diversity pipeline programs. Most diversity pipeline programs are not evaluated beyond participation counts. Expanding the investment in evaluations of diversity pipeline programs should be a significant priority. New and well-established programs should begin documenting activities, noting the specifics of their program models, and theorizing on the outcomes that they intend to impact with those activities. This kind of documentation should be followed by analysis of program outcomes through the gathering of both quantitative and qualitative data, ideally by someone external to the program. Evaluation of programs should be used internally for planning and strategizing program improvements and shared externally where appropriate to expand opportunities for collaborative learning on best practices.

Require and support evaluation of diversity programs. Organizations, funders, institutions, and businesses seeking to support diversity pipeline programs should encourage the use of evaluation by requiring evaluation and offering resources to support it.