Law school administrators tend to agree that diversity in the classroom is an asset. Students of different backgrounds contribute unique perspectives that enrich classroom discussions. Yet, achieving meaningful diversity, in terms of race and socioeconomic status, continues largely to elude law schools throughout the nation.
At Emory University Law School, diversity is a priority, the law school’s dean Robert A. Schapiro said in a July 3 statement announcing a significant donation to boost diversity. The contribution of $2.5 million came from law school’s alumnus C. Robert Henrikson, a longtime donor.
“The Henrikson scholarship has been very important to our efforts to build a diverse class of talented students each year,” Schapiro said. “This new gift will greatly extend the endowment’s current reach.”
According to the statement, Henrikson’s current donation is the largest individual gift in the law school’s history. He established an endowed scholarship fund in 2002, which has been an important source of minority student recruitment to the law school. A portion of the donation, $1.5 million, goes to the scholarship fund. The remaining $1 million will be allocated for additional financial aid and serve as a challenge grant for matching gifts that will go to Emory Law’s annual fund.
“We established this scholarship fund at my alma mater so that, in addition to receiving an outstanding education, Emory law students will benefit from an inclusive environment that values diversity and leverages differences,” said Henrikson, former CEO of MetLife Inc. and Emory board of trustees member.
Currently, about one-third of the law school’s students are from ethnic minority groups that are underrepresented in law schools.
The minority presence in law schools, particularly Blacks and Mexican-Americans, has declined in recent decades. According to a study reported in The New York Times, the percentage and number of Black and Mexican-American law students declined from 1993 to 2008, even though law schools added about 3,000 new seats for first-year students.
During that 15-year period, the number of Black and Mexican-American law school applicants remained relatively steady, but 61 percent of Black applicants and 46 percent of Mexican-American applicants were denied acceptance to all of the law schools to which they applied, compared to 34 percent of White applicants.
The Columbia Law School professor who conducted the study underscored that enrollment has declined despite both minority groups improving their college grade-point averages and their Law School Admission Test scores.
But the diversity challenge goes beyond race. The vast majority of law school students, according to a study reported in the American Bar Association Journal, come from “relatively elite backgrounds” particularly at the nation’s top law schools.
According to the study, conducted by a University of California at Los Angeles law professor, more than 75 percent of the students at the nation’s top 20 law schools come from the top 25 percent of the socioeconomic ladder. And more than half of them come from the top 10 percent.” Only 2 percent of the students come from the bottom tier.
Furthermore, the racial minorities who gain admittance into law schools tend to represent “the most privileged members” of their racial group, the study found.
Emory Law School states that it has a historic commitment to diversity, which began 50 years ago with its law school dean Ben F. Johnson and trustee chairman Henry L. Bowden. In 1962, they won a successful lawsuit against Georgia to overturn a state Constitution provision that punished private schools that integrated Blacks by revoking their tax-exempt status. Following that legal victory, Johnson spearheaded the school’s recruitment of Black students.
Today, Emory Law has one of the more ethnically diverse student bodies. “Many of these students have been the first members of their families to graduate from college and pursue a legal education,” said Joella Hricik, Emory Law’s associate dean for development and alumni relations.
U.S. News & World Report ranked Emory Law at 53rd in its 2012 Law School Diversity Index. It identifies Asian-Americans, at 11 percent, as the law school’s largest minority group.