My three years of hard work in law school comes to an end in a few weeks. Soon I’ll go into my study hole and prepare for California’s first two-day bar exam. Before the panic of bar prep sets in, I wanted to look back on my experience as a student here at Santa Clara University, School of Law. For me the experience has been nothing short of life changing. I’ve learned so much and challenged myself to such an extent that it is hard to remember exactly who I was before this. It has been a thrill to have the opportunity to be a student again, to be part of a vibrant academic community, to spend my days absorbing new information daily and preparing myself for my new career path. My ability to even attend law school at about $47,000 per year is an insane privilege – to be in the position where I could quit my job and take on this student loan debt. I stand here in this school thanks in large part to social structures that have favored me because of my white skin and “middle-class” socioeconomic background. With my attempt to disclaim any expertise in the area, here are my observations of race and law school.
The SCU Law Admissions profile of the 2014 class, lists various statistics meant to show some transparency in the admission process and possibly to entice future students to see themselves in the applicant pool. The 2014 class consisted of 127 full-time students, which is roughly half the typical first year class size. This small class size has been cited as the reason throughout my time at SCU Law for changes in curriculum, student services offered, and changes in graduation requirements. Under a section simply labeled “Demographics” the statistic “Minorities 47%” is included right under the percentages of men and women (50% each). The admissions profile doesn’t break down the considerations of the “minorities” statistic. There is no explicit mention of the race of admitted students, or what other factors might have labeled a person as a minority for these purposes. I wonder just how all encompassing that category is, is it considering racial groups, disabilities, and sexual orientations? The second sentence of the website vaguely references races with the general term “diverse” and then quickly breaks any tie to racial diversity by focusing on the work experience of admitted students.
My impression from law school was that is was not a diverse place. Not diverse in terms of socioeconomic, racial, age, or gender. The incoming first year law student class is split into 2, never to interact until the second year. My impressions of the class are that it is mostly white, wealthy and young. My study group for that first year was a key to my academic success and maintaining sanity during the stressful new experience. I was one of four students, and the group itself felt like a safe space to discuss the controversial and complicated issues we were faced with in our classes. The group was comprised of one woman of color, a man of color, and two white women. We reflected the promoted demographics on the admissions site.
In Grutter v. Bolinger the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions policy that in part considered the racial background of applicants as Constitutionally permissible. The Court found that the “law school’s narrowly tailored race-based admission program was not prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause because it furthered a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow form a diverse student body.” The plaintiff in the case, Barbara Grutter, applied to the law school in 1996 and after being placed on the waitlist, brought a legal claim that the school violated the 14th Amendment by discriminating against her on the basis of race. This legal battle to challenge affirmative action programs in law schools was decided by a 5-4 Supreme Court split in 2003. I applied for law school 10 years later, not truly prepared for what was a surprising lack of diversity for a university in the Silicon Valley. If this space is really one of the most diverse law schools in the United States, then it is troubling that arguments against affirmative action continue to have so much traction in legal rulings and educational policies.
The admissions profile for the 2016 class appears more promising with 52% “minorities,” in the demographics profile. Would it undermine university goals to be more transparent about the racial identities of the admitted students instead of lumping presumably all “non-white” students into a single statistic to be promoted as progress? As I enter the legal profession I see a genuine lack of inclusion at most “big firms,” and goals to promote diversity as secondary at best. From my own experience in interviewing with “big law” the racial and socioeconomic preferences don’t appear to be so coded or hidden. I have personally encountered questions such as “so your mother was an employment lawyer, correct?” or statements like “the firm really values legacy applicants” that make it clear that the system and its top players seek to maintain the racial and socioeconomic status quo of the elite of the profession.
From my own observations law school has been less diverse than my other education and work experiences in Silicon Valley. My own cohort of law students doesn’t fully reflect the diversity of experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds found in the broader Bay Area. The professors that I have learned from are even less diverse. Advice that I received from a professor to “ask my parents” for a job, show that while there are concerted efforts on campus to support students – those efforts may still largely be focused on an exclusive group of socioeconomic elites.
It feels wrong that the first time I am encountering these critical legal cases about race is in my last semester of law school. This should have been incorporated throughout my legal education. I still find it appalling that first year property law glazes over the use of the term chattel without explaining that black persons were included in this category, and that property law continues to weaponize white male landowners against minority groups. (See Facebook founder and Hawaii land disputes).
 “Our student body is among the most diverse in the country, and includes students with work experience in engineering, business, high tech, and more.” http://law.scu.edu/admissions/2014-class-profile/
 Valerie Njiiri, Grutter v. Bollinger: Race As A Factor in Public Higher Education Admissions Policies, 55 Mercer L. Rev. 797, 800 (2004).