A reader emailed this question: “Are there any studies on law school outcomes and racial disparities? I ask because the scammers will be ready to yell that they shouldn’t be blocked from providing access to legal education for under-represented minorities. . . . Wondering if some racial minorities are disproportionately impacted by the scam?”
Race is a sensitive subject, so I'll adopt my ponderous (rather than Swiftian) mode. I can't claim comprehensive knowledge, but the answer to this reader's final question is "yes." The evidence I've found shows: (1) Black and Hispanic law graduates bear more debt than White graduates, although Asian graduates carry less. (2) Graduates of all three minority groups are less likely to pass the bar exam than White graduates. (3) Some law schools, especially those with poor outcomes, play upon “access” and “anti-elitism” themes to attract minority tuition dollars to campus. These are warning signs that minority law graduates, as a group, are suffering even more than White ones.
Before looking at the data, let's posit that access to the legal profession is vitally important. We have struggled with this issue since the late nineteenth century, when bar associations began to choke access routes for men without the proper race (White), religion (Protestant), and provenance (Northern European). Women, of course, weren't even in the game. But today we face a different troubling reality: Although we have opened the profession to aspiring lawyers of all races, and minority lawyers make distinguished contributions at all levels of the legal system, minority law students bear a disproportionate burden of the financial risks in our high-tuition, high-stakes system.
Here is a brief recap of the evidence:
Race and Debt: NALP and the American Bar Foundation have been conducting a national study of lawyers admitted to the bar in 2000. That study, After the JD, provides the most comprehensive evidence we have about the careers of new attorneys. Only 4.5% of the Black lawyers in that study graduated from law school debt-free; for Hispanic lawyers, the figure was 6.0%. White lawyers were three times more likely than their Black and Hispanic classmates to graduate without law school loans: 17.3% of them did. Asian students were the most successful at avoiding loans, with 19.9% graduating debt-free. (See Table 10.1 on p. 81 for all debt figures reported here.)
Among students who borrowed, Blacks and Hispanics shouldered slightly more debt than Whites at graduation. Median debt for these groups (excluding those without loans) was $73,000 for Hispanics; $72,000 for Blacks; and $70,000 for Whites. Asian students had the lowest debt, with a median of $60,000. Remember that all of these figures are for students who graduated in 2000; the numbers would be considerably higher today, after the last decade's ramp-up in tuition.
These racial differences in debt load persisted for years after graduation. At the seven-year mark, almost half of Asian lawyers (46.8%) had paid off their loans; more than a third (37.0%) of White graduates were similarly debt free. But far fewer Black and Hispanic lawyers shared that financial fortune: Just 17.0% and 28.9%, respectively, were debt-free. Black and Hispanic attorneys were also more likely to struggle with supersized debts: 15.1% of Black attorneys—more than one in seven—still owed more than $100,000 seven years after law school graduation; 10.5% of Hispanic graduates fell in the same category. For Asians and Whites, the percentages carrying these large debts were just 6.9 and 7.7.
Bar Passage: California, the state that administers the most bar exams, reports pass rates by race. For July 2011, the pass rates for first-time test-takers were:
- White test-takers: 75.4%
- Asian test-takers: 67.3%
- Hispanic test-takers: 55.3%
- Black test-takers: 45.7%
- Other minority test-takers: 59.0%
California allows graduates of unaccredited law schools, as well as apprentices who "read the law," to take the bar exam, but those differences do not account for the racial disparities. The same California report breaks down bar results by educational preparation--with the same racial patterns in each group.
New York, the nation's second-largest administrator of bar exams, reports similar racial disparities in bar passage. A study reviewing New York's July 2005 exam reported the following pass rates for first-time takers:
- Caucasian/White test-takers: 86.8%
- Asian/Pacific Islander test-takers: 80.1%
- Hispanic/Latino test-takers: 69.6%
- Black/African American test-takers: 54.0%
- [No “Other” group reported]
Candidates who fail the bar can retake the test, and many pass on subsequent attempts. But both the California and New York data show that race differences remain even after retakes. A national study from the 1990s reaches the same conclusion.
How many of these minority graduates, who will never practice law, owe law school debt? How high is that debt? I have not been able to find statistics on that—the debt figures reported above cover only graduates who passed a bar exam. But individual law schools know how many of their graduates fail the bar and how much federal debt they owe.
Marketing to Minority Students: On this final issue, we can look to the school that proudly claims to enroll more minority students than any other law school--none other than the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law. Cooley's large minority enrollments, in fact, play a significant role in Cooley's self-designed ranking system. “By ranking according to first-year class size, first-year minority enrollment, and first-year minority enrollment percentage,” Cooley declares, “schools are ranked on their ability to provide access to law school, particularly for minorities.” Coincidentally, these factors allow Cooley to claim that it ranks second nationally among law schools.
Cooley touts its idiosyncratic ranking system--and its own high score--by stressing access and anti-elitism. The school features a photo of a thoughtful Black football player beside the headline: “If the NFL practiced elitism, over 70% of today’s quarterbacks would not be on a roster.” Cooley encourages minority applicants--as well as White students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds--to compare themselves to quarterbacks who ascended from modest college programs to NFL success. "Law schools," Cooley warns applicants, "allow themselves to be victimized by a pecking order based on elitism . . . . This self-perpetuating caste system should be replaced with an objective view that considers opportunity and academic rigor to be positives . . . ."
The bottom line, of course, is that students should shun "caste system" schools and embrace Cooley. It's an appealing message for minorities and underprivileged Whites, but it's one that glides quickly over Cooley's steep price (just raised 8.5%), the average debt of $115,364 carried by 87.7% of their graduates, and the school's very poor employment outcomes. In this case, "access" is just another word for “unemployed and saddled with debt.”
Other schools may not play as explicitly on these access, anti-elitism, and caste system themes. But all schools need to think about the ways in which our tuition spiral has affected minority students. Black, Hispanic, and Asian law graduates--on average--have more difficulty passing the bar than White graduates. Even when they surmount that hurdle, Black and Hispanic students carry heavier debt loads into practice. We have made law school a much riskier, and much more expensive, investment for all students--but the newest entrants to the profession seem to shoulder the greatest risks.