Racial Inequity on the Bar Exam

By Professor Deborah Jones Merritt, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

Stark racial disparities mark our profession’s licensing system. Last year, 88% of White candidates passed the bar exam on their first try. For BIPOC candidates, pass rates were significantly lower: 66% for Black candidates, 76% for Latinx candidates, 78% for both Hawaiian and Native American candidates, and 80% for Asian candidates. These racial disparities have existed for decades. Why do they persist? And why do we, as a profession, tolerate them?

New research from the AccessLex Institute confirms what many scholars have suspected: candidates who have the resources to devote extensive time to bar preparation are more likely to succeed than those who lack those resources. The bar exam is a test of family and financial resources, rather than minimum competence to practice law. White candidates are more likely to benefit from those resources than BIPOC ones, and the bar exam mirrors those differences.

But the AccessLex study goes further: it shows that, even after controlling for a host of factors (including study time and LSAT score), White candidates are more likely than candidates of color to pass the bar exam. What explains that racial tilt?

In a recent op-ed, Claudia Angelos, Carol Chomsky, Joan Howarth, and I suggest that at least part of the answer lies in the nature of high-stakes testing. Research repeatedly demonstrates that stereotype threat affects performance on these exams. Test-takers who belong to groups that our culture stereotypes as low-performing on a particular test will perform less ably than they would absent that stereotype. The threat, notably, hits high-achieving individuals particularly hard. And it stretches across race and gender. White men, for example, perform less well on math tests when they are reminded that “Asians outperform Whites” in math. Our profession, in sum, has created a licensing system that predictably and inexorably favors White candidates. At the same time, it overlooks knowledge and skills that we know are essential to protect clients: We don’t test client counseling, fact investigation, cultural competence, or negotiation. Nor do we test doctrinal knowledge in the subjects most likely to assist clients of color: immigration, juvenile law, employment law, fair housing, and other civil rights statutes. It’s time to acknowledge and rework the racist impact of our licensing system. For more, please click here.

SALT: Social Justice in Action

Social Justice in Action Webinar
SALT is proud to resume our webinar series, Social Justice in Action, featuring law school teachers sharing their expertise on how to educate the next generation of lawyers, support students of color, and dismantle structural inequality and racism in the United States.

This February 26 webinar will explore trauma informed lawyering and teaching. Experts in this field will share insight into how we better can support students, clients, and ourselves in the face of racism, other forms of discrimination, economic and resource inequality, experience with violence, health and housing insecurity, and other trauma. Register below to join us for this month’s important discussion.
 Trauma Informed Teaching & Lawyering Friday, February 26, 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. EST
Register Here 
Featured Panelists
Sarah Katz
 Prof. Katz joined the Temple Law faculty in July 2012. She directs and teaches the Family Law Litigation Clinic. She researches and writes about trauma-informed legal practice, the child welfare system, child custody, intimate partner violence, and other family law topics.
Teri McMurtry-Chubb

 Prof. McMurtry-Chubb researches, teaches, and writes in the areas of critical rhetoric, discourse and genre analysis, and legal history. She has lectured nationally on structural discrimination in educational institutions and the workplace, and is a leader in designing curricula to facilitate diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
Andrew Sta. Ana

 Mr. Sta. Ana is the Director of Law and Policy at Day One. Based in New York City, Day One partners with youth to end dating abuse through community education, supportive services, legal advocacy and leadership development. Mr. Sta. Ana works to amplify the voices of young survivors and to promote healthy relationships.
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email
containing information about joining the meeting.

Assessing the Experiential (R)evolution

by Professors Laila Hlass (Tulane Law) and Allison Korn (UCLA Law)

In the midst of calls for law schools to meaningfully address systemic racism in our institutions and a pivot to virtual and hybrid learning in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the time is now to consider new paths forward in experiential education. Furthermore, in the wake of deadly assaults on our democracy, law schools’ should grapple with how to teach  justice and social change formally through curriculum and informally through programming. We hope to spark conversation and action regarding reimagining legal education, specifically contemplating the roles that experiential education and experiential faculty should play in the future of law schools.

For more than a century, law schools did not generally mandate any experiential education, but in 2014, the ABA adopted six-credit mandate, alongside a packet of experiential reforms.  In 2018–2019, as the first classes of law students graduated under the revised ABA Standards, we conducted a national survey of ABA-accredited law schools, asking about changes in experiential education and we received responses from 126 institutions.

Our article Assessing the Experiential (R)evolution, recently published in Villanova Law Review, reports findings from this empirical investigation into the experiential landscape shift since the revised Standards were adopted. From our survey, we learned of a recent proliferation of deans and directors of experiential education. Along with this came continued growth in experiential curricula, including among experiential courses in the first-year curriculum, and experimentation with new pedagogical approaches, such as adopting hybrid experiential courses termed “labs” and “practicums.” These trends of expansion and experimentation raised many questions for us:

  • As law schools increasingly add deans and directors of experiential education, experiential courses, and new tools for course assessment and approval, while experimenting with new course models, are they also working to uplift experiential programming as an essential part of the institution?
  • As law schools hire new experiential faculty and appoint experiential deans and directors, are they being responsive to the clinician diversity imperative, taking steps to identify, recruit, and support clinicians of color?
  • Are law schools not only integrating experiential deans, directors, and faculty into the greater faculty but also ensuring that they have reasonably similar security of position and a voice in law school governance?
  • While investing in integration across law school coursework, have law schools acknowledged that experiential education is core to the law school curriculum?

Our article proposes a series of recommendations aimed at ensuring sustainability for experiential deans and directors, implementing equitable practices for experiential curriculum and faculty development, and assessing curricular changes thoughtfully and deliberately. But this proposal is only a starting point for deeper discussion about how we might approach our experiential programs and renew our collective vision for robust, innovative, justice-centered experiential education. Over the next few weeks, the Best Practices Blog will host reactions to and commentary on these themes from a deep bench of extraordinary colleagues in the experiential community. From building sustainable administrative roles to examining and improving racial diversity among experiential faculty; from increasing experiential offerings for first-year students to highlighting changes within externship and field placement programs – each commentary will help us assess and build on current experiential programs and call on our institutions to better understand and support the increasingly vital role experiential education plays in the legal academy.

Looking At Ourselves–How Can Reduce Barriers to Entry in the Legal Profession?

Jennifer S. Bard, Visiting Professor of Law, University of Florida Levin College of Law

Over a series of past posts, I have looked at how law school could be adapted so that it does not disadvantage students who come not already knowing how to play the law school game. As we have known for a long time, some groups of students experience more initial success than others in law school–and these differences are magnified by the effect first semester grades can have on lifelong implications in terms of employment opportunities. Most law students catch on quickly after the first semester, but their self-esteem may have already been severely damaged in what Sara Berman has called “a zero-sum environment where initially-lower performers are not encouraged to improve in consistent and meaningful ways”.

But taking a step back from equalizing the experience of students already in law schools, it may be time to think about who isn’t there–and why. What aspects of legal education, such as the cost and program structure, create barriers to entry?  And how do these barriers to entry worsen an ever growing justice gap in the United States where only a small percentage of people who would benefit from legal representation have access to a lawyer?

The primary barriers are the cost of legal education and how it is structured.. The challenge we face is that there are barriers at every stage of the process, from high school graduation  to college entry and beyond.  Homelessness, substance use, mental health can all be factors in making  higher education inaccessible. Also, we know of the barriers students with disabilities face when they get to law school (or college), but we don’t know how many people who chose not to attend might have done so if they could do so from a more accessible location.  And of course, many scholars have pointed out that systemic racism is itself a formidable barrier in gaining admission to law school. 

We can’t as legal educators end the systemic racism and economic inequalities that block many people from even being eligible to attend law school.  Nor can we always reconfigure our aging infrastructure. But we can take responsibility for what we charge students to attend and how we structure the conditions for completion.

The first step to lowering the barriers within our own control is to recognize them. We need to re-evaluate the very structure of legal education–which can be most easily seen by reviewing the standards that both govern and reflect current practice. My intent is not to criticize the existing ABA standards or those who drafted and uphold them nor to suggest that they be rescinded, and legal education deregulated.   But rather to recognize the consequences and costs of these practices so we can better evaluate their value.  Below is a list of some obvious suspects–I’m sure everyone can generate more.

*Restrictions on Distance Education

With few exceptions, approved law schools cannot confer a degree on a student who does not earn two-thirds of their credits in face to face instruction. This continues to put law school out-of-step with nearly every other degree-granting program in the United States and to both the cost and physical demands of attending law school.

*Expensive Eligibility Requirements:

B.A. Required

Next on the list, we need to consider the cost in time and money of requiring that students earn a B.A. before enrolling in law school.  Lawyers in Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand are all practicing laws at the highest possible levels without seven years of post-secondary specialty training.

 *Length of Degree and Time Limit on Completion

Not only must students complete a B.A., but they must also accumulate 87 credits within 84 months of enrollment.  This of course adds cost in the form of tuition, but it also requires an even greater expenditure of time away from family and limit on the ability to earn a living.

Each of these requirements, indeed each of the Standards which govern legal education, were developed with the best intentions, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that just because we haven’t done something before doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t find a way to do it now.

Using What We’ve Learned About the Effect of Racism and Economic Disparities on Law Students During the Pandemic

Jennifer S. Bard, Visiting Professor of Law, Levin College of Law

In my last two blog posts, I wrote about how law school’s structure unfairly benefits students who come in knowing how the game is played and those with the resources to play it under the best possible conditions.  I’ve also linked legal education to the systemic bias of the legal profession.

Our current situation, a still spreading deadly pandemic that has so far claimed over 250,000 lives in the U.S., has intensified those inequalities for everyone.  The evidence is already coming in of how the Pandemic is harming first-generation students.  

But it has also provided a clearer window into what was always apparent to student services professionals but not so much to faculty–how much harder the law school experience is for students who come to it with fewer resources of every kind.   

For example, online learning is only as good as the environment in which students learn and we are already seeing effects on students with the least resources. In normal times, all of our students have near 24/7 access to quiet, safe, comfortable places to study, engage in co-curricular activities, meet with faculty, and even take exams. Places without pets, younger siblings, or household chores.  They have lightning fast internet, large monitors, bulk printers, and IT support for when things go wrong.

But of course a lot of what’s going isn’t visible in a 50 minute Zoom session.  On campus, students have access to food either directly, by attending events, or can sometimes be signed up for university meal plans.  But in a world where by some estimates, pre-pandemic as many as half of all U.S. college students experience food insecurity hunger is an increasing peril as is homelessness.   The end of the moratorium on evictions means that as many as 8 million people will lose their homes over the next four months. 

We  also know that during the pandemic college students are facing worse mental health and that for many of our students home is not a safe place as they face abuse from parents and domestic partners. Research is emerging that like other segments of the population, students are drinking more during the Pandemic and are likely part of the increase in overdose deaths.

And then there’s the virus itself. As we all know (and have known for a long time), it very much does infect young adults–and it can hit them hard.   All the factors that contribute to racial bias in health care are magnified by those that put Black, Indigenous, Latino communities at greater risk of infection and, once infected, at greater risk of dying.  In addition, the harm caused by the uncertainty, fear, and loss triggered by living in pandemic conditions.  These are only magnified by our law students who have faced trauma as bar examiners  are caught flat footed and many of the pathways to employment, such as in-person summer placements, were disrupted.

Layered on top of economic disparities issues of systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia, these economic disparities mean that students come into law school with very  different levels of debt. Which itself is affected by racial disparities.   These factors are magnified in law students who come to us after four years of borrowing money for college. (The best information on law school debt is at Accesslex).

The Pandemic will end, and law students will once again have full access to law school facilities. But this glimpse into the real differences in backgrounds and resources should be a starting place for us to look at the law school experience, the gateway to the legal profession.

If any good can come from the experience of being so much closer to our students’ day to day lives, it should be an increased urgency to think about how we can make law school more inclusive. 

In my next post, I will be more specific starting with a proposal reduce the cost of a law degree by moving a year of course work to the undergraduate level.  Doing that would reduce the barriers to entry in the legal profession that saddle lawyers with debt and deprive most individuals in need of legal help from those best trained to assist them. 

Race Ought to Be A Through-Line in Core Law School Curriculum

Darcy Meals, Assistant Director, Center for Access to Justice, Georgia State University College of Law

Long before law school we are taught that, as is engraved in the Supreme Court’s edifice, we are all entitled to “equal justice under law.” It is one of the fundamental ideals of the American legal system. And yet, it so often remains just that: an ideal to which we aspire but at which we have yet to arrive.

More than falling short of a collective goal, however, our nation’s history is replete with examples of racial injustice written into and undergirded by law: federally sanctioned redlining, internment of Japanese Americans, the failure to prosecute or convict police officers for killing Black people at rates three times their white counterparts. These more modern examples stem directly from the “manifest destiny” of our country’s founding and the early establishment of property law principles built on the commodification of Black bodies and seeking to justify taking land from indigenous peoples.

Despite the many overt examples, historical and current, of the ways in which race shapes our legal system, law faculty are often race-avoidant in teaching would-be lawyers. Race may be relegated to a “law and” discussion in upper-level seminars or covered only in reviewing seminal cases like Brown v. Board of Education. But its influence cannot be limited to one course or doctrinal area. Racial bias informs definitions of reasonableness and credible threat, shapes our views of what constitutes intentional infliction of emotional distress, and influences criminal sentencing and civil recovery. Stated or not, the influence of systemic racism pervades the law school curriculum because it permeates the entirety of the American legal system.

When race is absent from class discussions, that silence sends the message that the law is neutral and operates equally for all, when that is not the lived experience for so many. When we fail to incorporate issues of race and racism as foundational in core law school courses, we impede the professional development of future lawyers, who graduate without grappling with difficult but essential questions of how the law can operate to subordinate on the basis of race (and gender, class, age, sexual orientation, gender identification, religion, and ability – and the important intersections of those identities). Our silence about how race informs law and its application does real damage to students and can be particularly alienating – and intellectually violent – for students of color.

To encourage increased engagement with the ways in which race and racism undergird the American legal system, the Center for Access to Justice at Georgia State University College of Law compiled a Racial Justice Resource List. The non-exhaustive list, which will be updated as suggestions come in, is intended for law faculty teaching core (1L) courses who want to include assignments, readings, and discussion on issues of race. The list includes books, book chapters, law review articles, and multi-media for use in teaching how race influences law across the required curriculum. Where possible, the titles are linked to open-access sources. The resource list also provides suggested language regarding classroom expectations and learning objectives and considerations for how to amplify voices and stories that may not have been central in 1L syllabi.

Incorporating race into class assignments or discussions will likely lead to difficult, and even uncomfortable, conversations. Legal academia reflects the inequality otherwise manifest in the legal system: very few tenured law professors are Black. For white faculty, talking about race may run directly counter to the color blindness once expressly taught as virtuous. Leading a discussion, in a public setting, on a topic that has not been part of one’s scholarly expertise – and may not even feel a part of one’s personal experience – may lead to uncomfortable moments. But the work of antiracism requires that we give ourselves and our students the space to have brave and respectful discussions, to ask questions that will increase awareness of bias and how it manifests in the law.

Antiracism ought to inform every facet of legal education – hiring, promotion and tenure, admission, graduation – and it ought to be a through-line in the core law school curriculum. When it isn’t, we risk graduating lawyers who do not understand the origins of the law or its potential impact on clients, we perpetuate systems of inequality as if they were inevitable and deserving of maintenance, and we do a disservice to our students and to the profession, all the while undermining the commitment to equality we so proudly etched in stone.

SALT Social Justice in Action

A Virtual Series Sponsored by 

 The Society of American Law Teachers

SALT encourages law schools across the country to take affirmative steps to promote justice, eradicate racism and support their law school communities in light of pervasive injustices. SALT is proud to announce a virtual series featuring law school teachers sharing their expertise on how to educate the next generation of lawyers, support students of color and dismantle structural inequality and racism in the United States. We will host monthly panel discussions on ways to combat racism and promote equity in law school. This work will include presentations on the integration of anti-racist frameworks in classes, promoting equity and inclusion in online teaching, anti-racist faculty hiring practices, and racialized trauma and fatigue.


Promoting Equity and Inclusion in Online Teaching
 August  21, 2020  3:00 – 4:00 pm ET
Register here:  https://bit.ly/2DbiMli

 Featuring

Goldie Pritchard, Director, Academic Success Program, Michigan State Univ. College of Law
Tasha Souza, Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, Boise State University
Carwina WengClinical Professor of Law, Indiana University Maurer School of Law
Sha-Shana N.L. Crichton, Director, Legal Writing Program, Howard University School of Law

If you have questions for our panelists in advance of the event,
please submit them here: https://forms.gle/5PuV1LSznYKWQ4Gc9


Racialized Trauma and Fatigue Among Academic Activists
 September 18, 2020 3:00-4:00 pm ET
Register here:  https://bit.ly/2BDeToN

 Featuring

Nikita Gupta, GRIT Coaching Program Director, University of California, Los Angeles
Carla Pratt, Dean, Washburn University School of Law
Rosario Lozada, Associate Professor of Legal Skills and Values, Florida International University Law


Anti-Racist Hiring Practices
October 16, 2020 3:00-4:00 pm ET
Register here:  https://bit.ly/307SZ6M

 Featuring

Tamara Lawson, Dean, St. Thomas University School of Law 
Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Dean, Boston University School of Law 
Sean Scott, President and Dean, California Western School of Law
 

 After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

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