Law schools can play a vital role when it comes to diversity.
Many law firms have programs to recruit diverse talent, but Lee Fisher, dean of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University in Cleveland, and Brant Lee, assistant dean for diversity and social justice initiatives and professor of law at the University of Akron in Akron, said this work starts with law schools.
“Diversity is critical to the success of our law schools and legal education in general because law schools should reflect the diversity of the population we serve,” Fisher said. “America is becoming increasingly diverse in all aspects, including race, culture, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation. If our students are not well-versed and well-trained in diversity and if our legal population doesn’t reflect that, I believe we failed in our mission of legal education.”
Not only does a diverse professional population support the community, but Lee explained diversity in the classroom also boosts learning opportunities.
“It enhances the learning experience for everyone,” he said. “It is important, especially in law, to have different perspectives in the classroom. When we’re debating and learning the ins and outs of legal rules, it’s about getting all sides of the story. That speaks to any of the big social divisions where we aren’t understanding each other.”
Diverse classrooms allow students to learn from each other, Fisher said, which enhances the law school experience.
“Students don’t learn from faculty, they learn from each other,” he noted. “If the student population is not diverse, then their learning is not as deep and enriching as it must be for them to be both lawyers and leaders in their community. That is why we do our best to recruit diverse students, staff and faculty.”
At the University of Akron, diverse students are generally recruited through one of their two pipeline programs, one that is a statewide program and another which recruits 20 rising sophomore and junior undergrads to the University of Akron for a month on campus getting an introduction to the law school experience.
For Cleveland State, diverse students are recruited and engaged with while enrolled through several programs like the Dean’s Diversity Council, the Cleveland-Marshall Alumni Association’s minority outreach committee and many informal networking events hosted by diverse alumni.
Brant noted retention of diverse students is as important as recruitment. That starts with feeling like they’re supported, he added.
“Law schools will emphasize their tutoring programs in terms of retention, and that is very important, but research shows what matters, along with academic and financial support, is whether the student feels a sense of belonging,” he stated. “You can hit a lot of obstacles, and if you want to get through them, you want to feel welcome. If you don’t that’s where you’re at risk of dropping out.”
Brant added addressing the sense of belonging helps everyone, as many students feel out of place that might not be an obvious minority.
“Having a broader welcoming mat helps everyone,” he said.
But following graduation, these diverse students also enrich the legal community, both educators said.
“Lawyers are often represented in elected office and they become executives, leading to them being pillars of their community,” Lee explained. “There is a lot of natural leadership qualities that come out of being a lawyer. When you’re looking for people to step up into leadership positions and understand these things, it helps when your local community can relate.”
Fisher said, “Once they graduate from law school, we remind them that law school is not just about learning the law, but also living justice, meaning that each of them must advocate for social justice, equality and equity. If they don’t understand diversity and haven’t experienced diversity, it’s much more challenging to achieve that.”
The future of the law community depends on a diverse workforce, Fisher said.
“First, we have to acknowledge that the current legal community is not sufficiently diverse,” he said. “That means law schools, in particular, have a responsibility to recruit and enroll a more diverse student population and to make sure the legal profession is, in fact, more diverse and representative of the clients we serve.”