Why is Diversity Important?
The great NAACP lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston wrote, “A lawyer's either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Law schools are trying to select social engineers, not parasites.
Law schools know that they are producing society's leaders.
Their graduates will go on to be presidents and presidential advisors, members of state and federal legislatures. Even "local" law schools produce leaders -- if not of the country, then of the county. Judges, heads of major corporations, members of zoning boards, all tend to be lawyers. Knowing that it is important to have many different viewpoints in running our society, admissions officers work to ensure that no major segment of American society will be disenfranchised by lack of a voice in the governing groups.
Law schools are producing lawyers to serve clients. Those clients come from all segments of society, from all races and ethnicities. They may not speak English at all, or may speak it very poorly. Their cultures may be so different from ours that they need substantial help in understanding and securing their rights. Some will be poor; some will be gay or lesbian; some will be old. Knowing that it is important to produce lawyers who will empathize with these clients, the admissions officers work to admit applicants who understand and will vigorously represent these often disenfranchised people.
What about affirmative action?
There are many different justifications for affirmative action. The simplest is that it is merely the most visible part of diversity admissions. Minority racial groups are easy to see and identify, so their place in diversity admissions receives more scrutiny than other types. Moreover, since the groups thus identified are more likely to be victims of discrimination, there is a greater need for minority lawyers, and they tend to be recruited and admitted in larger number than, say, Russian immigrants.
Another justification for affirmative action was mentioned in "The View from the Admission Office:" the need to compare backgrounds and achievements which may not be comparable. If a person grew up in a ghetto and achieved a B average, is that person less qualified to attend law school than a person who grew up in a wealthy suburb and achieved A's? Law schools will often factor in work during college, a lack of cultural opportunities, or a single-parent family background in evaluating a person's accomplishments.
Finally, affirmative action may be viewed as reparations for past harm. The harm may have been caused by the law school in particular, the government the law school represents, or society in general. Immigrant groups, African Americans, even people from rural areas ("hicks" and "rednecks") often suffer discrimination in their daily lives. Admissions officers may be charged with helping to remedy these past or present actions by offering opportunities to qualified members of minority groups.
Bad and Good Advice
If your prelaw advisor isn't making an effort to learn about the diversity you offer before advising you about schools, you're getting bad advice. If the advisor answers your questions with statements like, "That doesn't really matter much," you're getting bad advice. If the advisor knows you have some diversity to offer and still suggests schools where your gpa and LSAT meet the medians, you're getting bad advice.
But before you start blaming your advisor, please remember that work experience, activities and internships rarely count for much by way of diversity. Diversity is more a matter of your life circumstances than of particular achievements, unless those achievements are noteworthy enough to make the newspapers.
When I'm looking for a client's diversity, I often start with my definition of "mainstream" -- straight, white, born in the U.S. with English as the first language, middle class, from a middle-class neighborhood, under the age of 30, with no physical, emotional, or financial obstacles to overcome. I try to learn how the client differs from that definition, and how those differences affected the client's life, especially with regard to academic achievement. I then advise the client as to the effect those factors could have on the chances of admission at different schools, suggesting schools that are especially interested in the diversity the client has to offer.
I will not answer e-mail about the validity of affirmative action. If you have any doubts about the ongoing racism that permeates American society, you might find compelling proof in some of the articles on Dr. Vermilla Randall's web site. Dr. Randall is a professor at U. of Dayton Law School. Minority readers will find many other useful resources on this page. Click here for Race and Racism in American Law.