Progress in Leadership and Diversity

By Gregory H. Williams

As my term as President draws to a close, I want to share with you some of the progress that we have made on the joint themes of leadership and diversity that I announced last January, reflect on other events that have occurred during the past year, and think a bit about the future. I also want to let you know more about our upcoming Annual Meeting, the truly excellent Luncheon Address we have planned, and the outstanding Plenary Session, which I am sure you will find exciting and insightful.

I am pleased to report that we have formed an AALS Racial Diversity Task Force that has begun development and discussion of a strategic plan to address immediate, short term and long term diversity goals of the Association. The Task Force is led by two of our colleagues who have distinguished personal and professional commitments to diversity. Executive Committee member David Chambers of the University of Michigan School of Law will co-chair the group with Elizabeth Hayes Patterson of Georgetown University Law Center. They will be joined by outstanding colleagues who likewise have committed their professional lives to the advancement of diversity. The distinguished members of the Racial Diversity Task Force include Taunya Banks, the Jacob A. France Professor of Equality Jurisprudence at the University of Maryland, Charles Daye, the Henry P. Brandis Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina, Assistant Dean Sandra Madrid of the University of Washington, Dean Nell Jessup Newton of the University of Denver, and Alfred Chueh-Chin Yen of Boston College. The Task Force has had initial discussions on the scope and direction of their charge and I am hopeful that within the next year they will be able to offer suggestions for the Executive Committee to consider.

David Chambers brings particular expertise to the Racial Diversity Task Force. David, along with colleagues from the University of Michigan, has recently made a substantial contribution to understanding and documenting the value of diversity in legal education with the release of their study, "Doing Well and Doing Good: The Careers of Minority and White Graduates of the University of Michigan Law School, 1970-1996." This ground-breaking study offers definitive evidence of the value and importance of considering race in the law admissions process to achieve a diverse student body. As we know, persons of color not only contribute to the intellectual environment of law schools, those students go on after graduation to make "significant achievements" in the profession and the communities in which they live. The Michigan study found that LSAT scores and UGPA "have no relationship to achievement after law school, whether achievement is measured by earned income, career satisfaction or service contributions." That is an important finding and strongly reinforces the three decades of minority admissions decisions made at the University of Michigan to create a diverse student body which will contribute to the quality of education at the law school and to our larger national community.

While the Michigan study focuses largely on the contributions law students of color make to society after graduation, a recent study conducted by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, "The Impact of Diversity on the Educational Experiences of Law Students," provides much more extensive information on the impact of diversity in the classroom as viewed by students. Approximately ninety percent of the law students in the study believed that diversity had a positive impact on their educational experience. Eighty percent believe that diversity efforts should be continued or strengthened. This is truly a significant finding and reinforces the conventional belief that all students benefit from racial diversity in the classroom.

Another of my themes this year has been leadership, especially in the area of diversity. The AALS does not stand alone in understanding the need to protect diversity gains, and it is important to note that the stars seem to be aligned as regards leadership in the diversity area. This past year three leaders of our sister organizations have made diversity a major theme of their respective terms as president. Beverly McQueary Smith of Touro Law School, who completed her term as president of the National Bar Association in July of this year, has been a forceful advocate for diversity in the profession and the law schools. Dean Rennard Strickland of the University of Oregon has made it clear that a major agenda item of his term as President of the Law School Admissions Council will be diversity, and William Paul, who became President of the American Bar Association in August, announced that diversity will be a focus of his efforts at the helm of the ABA. It has been my pleasure to work with each of these truly committed individuals this past year to advance thinking and action on the diversity agenda in Americaís law schools. In June of this year, a conference on diversity sponsored by Attorney General Janet Reno was held at Georgetown University Law Center, where we were warmly hosted by Dean Judith Areen. Later we came together at the White House to join President Clinton in his efforts to create a Lawyers for One America program and to focus on diversity and public interest issues. That work continues under the leadership of Deputy Associate Attorney General Eric Holder and his former assistant Neil Katyal of Georgetown University Law Center. The AALS is a full partner in those on-going efforts.

In mid-October, Carl Monk, President-Elect Elliott Milstein and I participated in ABA President William Paulís Colloquium on Diversity in the Legal Profession. The objective of the Colloquium was to "develop one-year action plans and lay a foundation for longer-term programs to increase diversity." The Colloquium was attended by approximately ninety persons representing law firms, bar associations, corporate counsel and included around twenty-five legal educators. We met to "address the disparity between the racial and ethnic composition of our profession and that of our country." The Colloquium centered its discussion on eight goals for the legal profession:

  1. Ensure the full and equal participation or racial and ethnic minorities in the legal profession.
  2. Ensure that elementary, secondary school and college-level minority students are exposed to the law as a positive social force and a possible career path.
  3. Increase the number of minority students who apply to law school.
  4. Increase the number of minority students who attend law school.
  5. Increase the number of minority students who graduate from law school.
  6. Increase the number of minority students who pass the bar exam.
  7. Increase the recruitment of minority lawyers.
  8. Increase the retention and advancement of minority lawyers.
Each of these goals is critical for the legal academy. We must concern ourselves with the diversity and strength of our applicant pool, the experiences our students have while they are in law school, and the opportunities our graduates have in the profession.

While the results of the two-day colloquium will be reported later in more detail, a number of special concerns were in the forefront of thoughts of the legal educators attending the Colloquium. First, almost all agreed that we must continue to resist efforts to dismantle the gains made in increasing the number of underrepresented minority students in our law schools accomplished under Bakke. Reacting to opposition to diversity is not enough; we also need to begin major efforts to increase the pool of young persons of color prepared to enter the profession. Most of the recommendations strongly suggested that we concentrate efforts not only on developing pre-law institutes as some of our member schools have undertaken, but that we also begin to create programs for K-12 either on our own or in partnership with industry, law firms, and other professional organizations. Some schools have begun such efforts, but unfortunately the scope and extent of these programs are not well-known. I am hopeful that we can begin efforts to create a clearinghouse for information on those programs and other "best practices" that can be used to enhance diversity in our nationís law schools.

I was moved by ABA President Paulís personal as well as professional commitment to diversity. He and his wife have made a $100,000 commitment to a scholarship program that along with additional contributions by ABA sections and members is soon expected to grow to $1 million. The ABA Legal Opportunity Scholarship Fund is designed to encourage racial and ethnic minority students to apply to law school and to provide financial assistance to ensure that these students have the opportunity to attend law school for three years. The awards will be renewable if satisfactory performance in law school is attained.

I also have been heartened by the leadership that I have seen exhibited by other leaders facing attacks on their diversity efforts. President Lee Bollinger of the University of Michigan has continued to be steadfast and adamant on the importance of diversity in university admissions. Dean Jeffrey Lehman deserves our support for his leadership in resisting efforts to overturn the diversity programs that have made the University of Michigan Law School a leader in promoting diversity in their student body. The AALS was pleased to file an amicus brief in the Michigan case. While the cases against the University of Michigan were scheduled to go to trial this fall, a panel of the 6th Circuit allowed minority students and organizations to participate as interveners in that case, recognizing the broad implications of the outcome of the case. Another university president, Michael Adams of the University of Georgia, also deserves recognition for his adamant view that he will continue to permit the use of race in the admissions decision at the University of Georgia as long as Bakke v. California remains good law. Unlike some who feel that we have done enough to promote diversity, President Adams, a Georgia native, remembers the days in the not so distant past when Georgia public schools and public places were segregated by race. President Adams recognizes that it takes more than three decades to overcome the vestiges of a society segregated by law and that "all of us have a responsibility to deal with the legacy of segregation as an issue in both academe and government."

Unfortunately some university leaders and trustees have allowed some of the successful challenges to the Bakke decision to influence school policy in spite of Bakkeís continuing validity.

This past fall, many law schools received interrogatory style letters that appear designed to challenge efforts to enhance minority admissions to law schools. This type of initiative further reinforces the need to be prepared to respond to challenges to our efforts to ensure that the legal profession is truly reflective of American society.

While I urge us not to lose sight of the fact that Bakke v. California is still good law, we cannot totally rely on legal cases to support our diversity efforts. We cannot ignore the fact that there is substantial public opposition to affirmative action. We have to be cognizant of the fact that anti-affirmative action referenda passed in both California and Washington. We need to think about ways we can carry our message of the value and importance of diversity to the public. We first need to make it clear that persons of color are still woefully underrepresented in the legal profession. Today approximately 30% of the American population are people of color, yet over 90% of the legal profession is white. We also need to provide concrete information that shows the societal value of enhanced diversity in our institutions. As mentioned above, the important findings by Professors Chambers and Lempert deserve great attention. This past year, we have seen the publication of a number of other books and studies on the impact of diversity that deserve national attention. I am pleased that a number of schools across the country have undertaken studies to assess the views of students and professors on efforts to create diverse classes. This information provides useful data and reactions as we continue to communicate to our constituencies and the public at large exactly why we seek to enhance diversity in the law schools and the legal profession. I hope schools will continue to gather this information and disseminate it widely.

As I mentioned in my January presidential address, not all of our concerns about diversity are external. There are internal issues that we need to address as well. As regards students, we have to recognize that we may have relied too heavily on the LSAT score in both our admissions decisions and our public discussions about admissions to law school. Those who seek to oppose affirmative action and diversity often argue that the exclusive criteria in university admission decisions should be grades and test scores. Of course it has long been clear that standardized tests used for undergraduate admissions are more highly correlated with parental income and parental education than virtually anything else. But we have failed to make this shortcoming of our "test meritocracy" clear and in fact many law schools have relied excessively on the use of the LSAT. As the Law School Admissions Council has cautioned us for years, the LSAT is designed to be simply one of many factors in the admissions decision. LSAC has patterned a program after our AALS Resource Corps to send LSAT experts into schools around the country to have frank discussions on the undue reliance on the LSAT. I urge our member schools to consider alternative admissions models and procedures.

Beyond the admissions decision, we often overlook the fact that our task is not solely to create a diverse student body by virtue of that process. We must also nurture and develop the skills and abilities of everyone in our student bodies. Success or failure in law school most often depends on how much time and effort students devote to developing their own skills and abilities, but I daresay that almost every law school in the country has recognized faculty and administrators have a great role to play in enhancing the culture of learning. We have to recognize that law faculty, law school staff and administrators have a special obligation to ensure that law school culture and climate is conducive to the learning and professional development for all of our students. This means that we must develop our abilities to teach to diverse populations and ensure that the legal academy is friendly to a diverse population. Some recent studies have found that while unmet financial aid is a key factor in whether a person stays in school, other significant factors include faculty attitudes and low expectations, gender, ethnic isolation and absence of mentors and peer support. 1

It is my hope that the Annual Meeting will be an opportunity to reflect on these issues. Walter Dellinger, the Douglas Maggs Professor of Law at Duke University and author of the Associationís brief in the Michigan case, will be our Annual Luncheon speaker. Professor Dellinger has been involved in civil rights issues for many years and recently served as Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department of the United States. The Annual Luncheon will be followed by a panel moderated by Deborah Merritt, the John D. Drinko-Baker and Hostetler Chair in Law at The Ohio State University. The panel will reflect on the events of the past year and what the future holds for efforts to enhance diversity in the profession. Professor Merritt will be joined by Chai Feldblum of Georgetown University Law Center, Phoebe Haddon, the Charles Klein Professor at Temple University School of Law and co-president of SALT, Gerald Torres, the H.O. Head Centennial Professor at the University of Texas, and Bill Lan Lee, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. The panelists will discuss the importance of diversity in higher education, recent challenges to achieving that goal and ways to overcome those challenges. The session will be interactive and lively with panelists responding to questions and innovative ideas. I am certain that the program will be provocative in raising new issues and proposing solutions.

As I end my year, I am even more aware of the critical importance of the issues of diversity and leadership which will continue to be significant issues for the legal academy and the profession for quite some time. While we need to seek permanent solutions to resolve the fight against affirmative action, we must not lose sight of our goal to promote and encourage diversity efforts in the professoriate and the legal profession.

I leave you with a quote from Marian Anderson and a final thought. In 1956 she said, "There are many persons ready to do what is right because in their hearts they know it is right. But they hesitate, waiting for the other fellow to make the first move - and he, in turn waits for you. The minute a person whose word means a great deal dares to take the open-hearted and courageous way, many others follow." In the 1930s, a few Howard University Law faculty led by example in fighting institutional racism in this country while pursuing their mission of educating aspiring African American Lawyers to promote justice and equality. If those few law professors could accomplish so much with so little, what can we do now?


* This article appeared in the November 1999 AALS Newsletter

Back to top