In celebration of Juneteenth, Legal Innovators co-founders Jonathan Greenblatt and Bryan Parker hosted a webinar entitled “Diversity of Law School Deans is Changing the Approach to Legal Education.” The event featured Eboni Nelson (Dean of University of Connecticut School of Law), A. Benjamin Spencer (Dean of William & Mary Law School), Danielle Holley-Walker (Dean of Howard University School of Law), and Danya Bowen Matthew (Dean of The George Washington University Law School). Throughout the event, the panelists discussed historic changes in legal education and how the legal industry can support goals of increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession.
Valuable Programs, Ideas, and Initiatives
Addressing the narrow pool of law school applicants of color that leads to inadequate diversity among practicing attorneys requires new solutions. During the webinar, Dean Nelson advocated for establishing personal connections with prospective minority law students to discuss their goals regardless of whether they matriculate at UConn because matching them with another school ultimately benefits the legal profession. To manage this need, she recognizes the role of preparing the Missions Team so that they have the appropriate programming to address the specific priorities of this target diverse student body.
Of course, this programming costs money and is one of the ways that the law firms can contribute funding to support the overarching initiative, according to Dean Nelson. To enable the same opportunities as other more privileged students, further funding is needed so that students can have those discussions in person one-on-one and see the campus for themselves. Additionally, she advises admissions teams to perform holistic reviews by avoiding overemphasizing arbitrary metrics such as LSATs that harm diversity initiatives.
Dean Matthew added to this, noting that when it comes to admissions GWU Law is engaged in protecting, preserving, and advancing our democracy when the school admits, trains, and places students as law professors, teachers, or practitioners.
Creating a More Engaging and Enriching Experience for All Students
During the discussion, Dean Spencer offered the simple idea that the contributions of diverse voices brings perspectives to the table that may challenge traditional thinking in classrooms, “People are coming to law school to learn, not just to have an echo chamber…you just can’t get that when you have a monochromatic group of people from the same experience.” However, it does not serve classroom discussions if those diverse students do not feel the support they need that would encourage their participation.
Some of the concrete ways to create this sense of belonging is by showcasing the contributions of other venerated, diverse individuals on the walls of the university and through hiring professors who understand that importance. Furthermore, Dean Spencer clarified the importance to “find ways to infuse education about race and the law into the curriculum that everyone experiences not just as an optional thing that you take at the upper level…It doesn’t have to be this indoctrination that people are afraid of, but it’s just honest conversation and the truth.”
Implementing Strategic Initiatives
Each of the participants discussed the unique ways that their institutions have worked to reshape legal education. For instance, Dean Holley-Walker elaborated on raising money to keep tuition down so they avoid pricing out students from pursuing a legal education. She also considers accountability through tracking the data for how law firms and schools fair over time with their diversity initiatives.
At GWU Law, Dean Matthew has worked to create the Equity Institute to establish connections between students and their education in the context of history and how “we should be particularly concerned with giving our students hands-on opportunities to make society better.” As she noted, “Who puts a law school in the nation’s capital at the end of the Civil War except for someone who believes that lawyers are essential for bridging racial divides?”
Meanwhile, at William & Mary, a top initiative for Dean Spencer has been creating a Center for Racial and Social Justice focused on research in speakers they can bring to campus to educate on diversity in law. Dean Spencer also emphasized the importance of establishing a pipeline of prospective students at the high school or college level and preparing them for the LSATs which require funding from law firm partners.
Legal education has been changing and more change is needed. For instance, it is important to build the pipeline specifically for low-income, first generation, and other underrepresented groups. To help with this, Dean Holley-Walker cited the role of selective high schools and the need to intervene sooner in middle school. Institutions throughout the country are making moves in order to build this pipeline and ultimately increase diversity. From creating programs such as the National Bar Association Crump Law Camp to cultivating peer mentorship roles, the panelists highlighted some of the ways that universities can help continue to build this critical pipeline in order to create a more diverse legal workforce.