Law Schools

Study Finds 'Lopsided' Concentration of Socioeconomic Elites at Law Schools

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Corrected: The vast majority of American law students come from relatively elite backgrounds, especially at top law schools, according to a study by a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

More than three quarters of the students at the nation’s top 20 law schools come from the top one-fourth of the socioeconomic population, and well over half of the students at these schools come from the top 10 percent, according to the study by UCLA law professor Richard Sander. Just 2 percent come from the bottom quarter.

“Across the spectrum of law schools, there is a lopsided concentration of law students towards the high end of the socioeconomic spectrum, which becomes more lopsided with the eliteness of the law school,” Sander wrote in his study, published the Denver University Law Review (PDF).

Sander based his findings partly on data from the American Bar Foundation’s After the JD study, using law grads’ answers to questions about the jobs and educational level of their parents to create a socioeconomic scale.

Racial diversity in law schools makes only a modest contribution to socioeconomic diversity, Sander writes, since the most privileged members of all racial groups are disproportionately over-represented in law school.

Sander says law schools could be contributing to the concentration of socioeconomic elites, in part by charging high tuition and awarding grants and scholarships that are not tied to financial need. Schools also could be, in effect, giving preferences to those in higher socioeconomic classes with three policies:

• Giving legacy preferences.

• Failing to take into account that grade point averages at private colleges are more likely to be inflated than those at public universities.

• Favoring students with “interesting” records. Students who took a year off from college to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, or who nearly qualified for the Olympic ski team, are much less likely to come from lower-income backgrounds, he says.

To improve socioeconomic diversity, Sander suggests law schools could eliminate policies that may prefer advantaged applicants, and they could tie financial aid policies to student need.

What about socioeconomic affirmative action? Sander says “mild” socioeconomic preferences could be used as at least a partial substitute for racial preferences. But he dislikes large preferences, citing his prior research suggesting that large minority preferences used by law schools nearly double the bar failure rate among African-American law graduates.

UCLA School of Law turned to socioeconomic affirmative action beginning in 1997 when it was banned from using race-based affirmative action by voter initiative, Sander says. The socioeconomic program produced a class that was more than a third nonwhite, though a majority of the nonwhites were Asians. The 1997 admittees went on to achieve the highest bar passage rate in the school’s history.

Richard Kahlenberg, author of a book on the neglect of class matters, analyzed Sander’s study in an essay for the Denver University Law Review and in a column for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Low-income students of all races have been the invisible men and women of American legal education,” Kahlenberg writes. “In the nonfiction realm, Richard Sander may be their Ralph Ellison.”

Hat tip to Legal Ethics Forum.

Prior coverage of Sander: “Law School Grades More Important to Career than Elite School, Researchers Say” “Divorcing Law Grads, Stressed Over $190K in Debt, Victims of ‘Education Hoax’ ” “Will Calif. Supreme Court Provide Bar Data for Controversial Study? “Law Prof: CA Bar Swayed by Liberals”

Date of UCLA Law School program corrected on Oct. 7.

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