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Downturn In Law School Enrollment Led To More Diverse Classes, But Reasons Aren't Clear

Saint Louis University School of Law in downtown St. Louis
Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio

Even as law schools nationally are suffering from waning enrollments, some are seeing a boost in the number of minority students. That’s according to a new study that will be in the spring edition of the Saint Louis University Law Journal.

Overall, law school enrollment dropped nearly 25 percent between 2010 and 2013. But as the number of law students overall was dropping, the percentage of students of color rose at less-prestigious law schools by nearly 5 percent. Most of that growth, however, was concentrated in schools with lower average scores on the LSAT exam. In fact, the percentage of minority students at elite law schools like Washington University dropped slightly over that same time period.  

Saint Louis University assistant professor of law Aaron Taylor conducted the study of admissions data to verify a common accusation -- that lower-ranked law schools simply accepted more minority students to keep the doors open, rather than out of any kind of commitment to diversity.

"If schools are enrolling these students to fill seats but, at the same time, putting support services in place in order to ensure that these students are successful, then I have no problem with it. In fact, I see it as an opportunity," Taylor said. "However, if schools are simply enrolling these students for their financial aid eligibility, and for those tuition payments then, of course, that is terrible."

Taylor said his study could not prove the school's ultimate motives behind admitting more black, Hispanic and Asian students. Schools that did it from a commitment to diversity likely have programs in place to ensure that those students graduate, he said.

"It’s not a look around, and one of you won’t be here anymore," Taylor said. "It’s a look around and ensure that all of you are here in the end." Taylor said student graduation rates and bar exam results will be the best indicators of a school's real motives.

Local Results

At Washington University, which is in the top 20 percent of law schools when ranked by LSAT scores, the percentage of minority students enrolled dropped 14 percent between 2010 and 2013.  Katherine Scannell, the associate dean of admissions, was not on campus in 2010 and did not feel comfortable commenting on minority recruitment that year. But she said minority recruitment is a constant effort.

Saint Louis University, which Taylor's study places in the fourth quintile of law schools, saw its percentage of minority enrollment grow nearly 8 percent over that same time.

Taylor, who has been at SLU since 2011, said he believes the school was enrolling those students out of a commitment to diversity, not just solely for economic reasons. The same year he joined the school, SLU Law School hired a director of diversity services and two other staff members of color.

"Those things, to me, signal a commitment to not only improving diversity, which is what we saw in the admissions numbers, but also ensuring that those students are successful while they are here," he said.

The president of SLU's Black Law Students Association, Sheree Davis, had a slightly different take.

"I think there is an attempt, but I don't think it's a strong attempt to increase diversity," said Davis, a second-year student. "There's not a lot of talk about diversity with the students. We were supposed to have a diversity week, and we didn't." 

The Asian Law Students Association is not active on campus, Davis said, and the Hispanic Law Student Association is struggling to find and retain members. She would like to see the university commit to hold a diversity week; encourage more dialogue around issues of race and create outreach programs to speak to minority students who might be interested in law school.

Why The Numbers Matter

Research has shown that the racial make-up of a police department can make a difference in the way they work in a community. The same is true for law.

"A lot of people think that laws are cut-and-dried, and that there's a great amount of objectivity when it comes to the application of the law," said L. Jared Boyd, the chief of staff to St. Louis treasurer Tishaura Jones and the president-elect of the Mound City Bar Association. "But life experiences certainly affect the ways that laws are applied, and without the life experiences of a large segment of the population, I think you do lose some perspective."

The need for alternate perspectives starts with the drafting of the laws, Boyd said.

Taylor, the SLU law professor,  said he was most concerned about the drop in minority enrollment at the highest tiers of law schools. Although the actual difference in quality is marginal, the difference in perception of quality is vast, he wrote in his report, and it can lead to minority students being denied career opportunities available to students who graduate from more prestigious law schools.

"We should not just be questioning the lower median LSAT schools about why they’re enrolling more black and Hispanic students," Taylor said. "We should also be questioning the schools at the higher end about why they aren’t enrolling more back and Hispanic students."

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.