When did you decide what you wanted to be when you grew up? The decision to go to law school may be happening sooner than you thought.
According to a 2018 study by Gallup and the Association of American Law Schools1, over half of law students reported deciding to go to law school before becoming undergraduate students. Nearly half of all Black law students reported making that decision before high school.
These findings underscore the importance of early education in efforts to diversify the legal sector. To be most effective, these programs must reach young people before they make vital career decisions.
Street Law has long championed early pipeline programs as an essential tool toward building pathways to careers in the legal profession for young people of color. 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of its Legal Diversity Pipeline Programs, which connect volunteer legal professionals from law firms, corporate legal departments, and ACC Chapters with young people currently underrepresented in the legal profession.
This year, Street Law is excited to expand its work toward creating a more equitable and diverse legal profession by partnering with the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). Together, the organizations will work to build a model early education pipeline program that will 1) cultivate the aspirations of young people of color with an interest in the law and 2) increase access to high-quality learning environments for minoritized students at law-themed high schools across the United States. The project is supported by a grant from LSAC.
To learn more about this crucial new project, we connected with two experts in early education pipeline programs. Angela Winfield is LSAC’s Chief Diversity Officer, and Joy Dingle is the Director of Legal Diversity Pipeline Programs at Street Law, Inc.
Q: Students of color are making crucial career decisions often as early as high school. Why is it important to reach these younger students through programs like Street Law’s Legal Diversity Pipeline?
AW: Think of the remarkable impact that “Girls Who Code” and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) have had on increasing grade school and junior high school students’ interest in pursuing STEM degrees in college. By the time students graduate from high school, many have already set their post-secondary education sails. They know what they want to study in college. For those of us who love the law and understand the unique capacity that a legal education can give an individual to do good, we must be just as enthusiastic and proactive in pitching a life in law to students in high school … and even younger!
Let me explain what I mean by “the unique capacity that a legal education can give an individual to do good.” There can be no doubt that of all professions, lawyers have a unique ability to positively impact people’s lives. Their successful arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States have elevated the lives of millions of people, and an exponentially greater number of lawyers improve the daily lives of individuals and families one at a time. Every chance I get I tell young people that whether they want to change the world or change a life, they can do it as a lawyer.
JD: A 2018 study by Gallup and the Association of American Law Schools highlighted some significant issues. Over half of law students surveyed reported that they made their decision to go to law school before undergraduate students. Nearly half of all Black law students reported making that decision before high school. Only “26% of undergraduates with no parent with a bachelor’s degree”—or first-generation college students—consider attending law school.
The legal profession has a unique opportunity to make early introductions and interventions that help these students stay on track and reach their goals. If we are not proactive, students may lose their way or be swayed by other professions that welcome them and recognize their drive and talent.
Members of the next generation will have more than one career in their lifetimes. A better understanding of the law and its impact on their daily lives may influence their career decisions for years to come. The number of careers where holding a law degree is an advantage continues to grow. Countless opportunities are available in business, politics, diplomacy, publishing, and the sciences.
Q: What challenges do early legal diversity pipeline programs have to overcome to reach younger populations?
AW: There are many challenges for early legal diversity pipeline programs. Throughout U.S. history, there are a number of examples in which equal access to justice and fairness have not rung true, particularly for minoritized groups and individuals. Indeed, in some cases, the law was leveraged against minoritized people. The poverty that is more prevalent in diverse families and communities, the suspicion that arises from decades of seeing the law used against them and not for them, the inertia that many times results from hopelessness, the systemic racism prevalent in education and other institutions, and the educational lifetime consequences of being underserved are all obstacles that must be overcome. And they can be overcome with persistence, determination, and investment from organizations that both provide effective interventions that expand the type and quality of opportunities available to minoritized students and that can change the trajectory of a student’s educational and career journey.
JD: One of the greatest challenges is raising awareness that pipeline programs exist. The approaches and targeted audiences may differ, but all of us are working to support young people in their journey to fulfilling and impactful legal careers. We need young people and those who support them to know what is available. The legal profession does not engage enough parents in its outreach—especially those from lower income communities. When we do not understand their hopes and challenges, we cannot fully understand their children’s. Effective communication starts with respect and trust.
Although safeguarding and privacy policies serve an important purpose, they can prevent legitimate organizations from maintaining contact with students and tracking where they end up. We know we are making a difference for young people interested in the law and sometimes cannot document our impact as fully as we would like.
Q: What is unique about Street Law and LSAC’s approach to early legal education in this project?
AW: To ensure success in higher education and in law school we must support the development of students’ networks, confidence, skills, resilience, and knowledge. One of the many challenges in early education is the way some students are taught and expected to learn with limited resources and an underlying stereotype that they lack ability because of who they are and where they are from. This project is unique because it centers on the students, on their needs and experiences, to inform an effective and inclusive curriculum. The project will develop a model for strengthening education outcomes and pipeline outcomes at a law-themed high school by providing interventions tailored to the needs specific to the students and school. The project folds in the importance of 1) cultivating the aspirations of young people of color with an interest in the law and preparing them to consider law-related careers to help diversify the legal profession, and 2) increasing access to high-quality learning environments for minoritized students at a law-themed high school.
This early legal education project goes beyond increasing diversity in the pipeline, by injecting equity in skill development. The end goal is to ensure success in the law school pipeline regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and other historically marginalized identities. As Ashok Regmi, the executive director of Street Law once said, it is about “equitizing the law school pipeline.”
JD: The depth of LSAC’s research is significant. LSAC has years’ worth of data on student outcomes. Using this as a starting point, we can begin to figure out what is missing for underrepresented students early in their education and create appropriate interventions. Street Law is known for its curriculum and learner-centered teaching strategies. Working together, our respective organizations can address the legal diversity gap on multiple levels. There is limited research on youth with a budding interest in the law. What we learn can benefit others in the pipeline space and the legal profession as a whole.
For a long time, there has been a disconnect between K-12 education, post-secondary education, and employment. By looking at what is working well early in the pipeline, law schools and employers will have an opportunity to appreciate the needs and unique contributions of future legal professionals. It will be easier for law schools and employers to connect and extend those best practices to their recruitment, admissions, hiring, retention, and promotion practices.
Q: How could this strengthen the efforts of legal organizations striving to increase equity and diversity in the legal field?
AW: Both Street Law and LSAC have a laser focus on advancing law and justice by encouraging diverse and talented individuals to study law. This is our raison d’etre. Working together to meet students at an early age is crucial because this is what we have to overcome. More than 18 percent of the U.S. population is Latinx, yet just 5 percent of all U.S. lawyers are Latinx. Thirteen percent of the U.S. population is Black, yet just 5 percent of U.S. lawyers are Black. Six percent of the U.S. population is Asian, yet just 2 percent of U.S. lawyers are Asian. More than 5 percent of U.S. adults identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or something other than heterosexual, yet less than 3 percent of lawyers are openly LGBTQ+. And perhaps the most shocking statistic of all, 26 percent of the U.S. adult population lives with a disability – that’s 61 million adults – yet less than 1 percent of law firm associates and partners report having a disability.
The good news is that organizations like Street Law and LSAC and our DEI programs are having an impact. Total applicants to law schools for the fall 2021 class were up 13.1 percent. More importantly, Hispanic/Latinx applicants were up 12.8 percent and Black/African American applicants were up 11.5 percent, while applicants identifying as genderqueer or gender fluid were up 50.7 percent.
JD: Many campus and work climate surveys indicate that law students and lawyers from BIPOC, lower income, and other marginalized communities feel less supported and recognized than their classmates and colleagues in the mainstream. By deepening understanding and challenging stereotypes early in the pipeline, schools and employers can use this information to develop and apply more just and culturally competent practices that help entire organizations thrive. Decision-makers gain the opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of someone whose life experience may be different from their own. Early outreach lets the legal profession take a more active role in changing the processes and structures that exclude underrepresented people.
Youth and career development require a lot of people and resources if they are going to be effective. We need to change our thinking around this. The study I mentioned earlier states that “50% of undergraduates considering law school have at least one parent with an advanced degree.” We rarely question the time, money, and attention invested in this group during childhood. When we invest in groups that enjoy less privilege and access to opportunity, we take a stand for equity.
Q: Can early legal diversity pipeline programs benefit students who don’t pursue careers in the legal sector?
AW: Absolutely. Early legal diversity pipeline programs can guide individuals and explain that whether or not they pursue a JD and become a lawyer, an understanding of legal concepts and how the law impacts individuals, small businesses, and global enterprises can benefit anyone and any career. It can give individuals an advantage in their chosen profession. For example, many law schools offer a Master of Science in Laws (MSL), Master of Legal Studies (MLS), and a Juris Master (JM), which can help people navigate the legal landscape in whatever their chosen field, without actually practicing law. These degrees often can be earned in one year. Admission requires a bachelor’s degree. There are also certificate programs. The bottom line is that knowledge of the law and how it impacts individuals and businesses is a professional advantage.
JD: Our partner teachers and school leaders tell us regularly that the skills and confidence that students gain from participating in the Legal Diversity Pipeline Program is critical to their success after high school. Students have an opportunity to sharpen their critical thinking and reasoning skills, writing, and public speaking in a welcoming and supportive learning environment. They are often pleasantly surprised by how well they learn legal concepts and engage in legal simulations. The experience helps some students begin to believe that they can navigate real-world issues and advocate for themselves and others.
1“Highlights from Before the JD: Undergraduate Views on Law School"
Image: Headshots of Q&A participants Angela Winfield and Joy Dingle against a dark patterned background