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Research Spotlights Disparities for Women of Color in Law School

June 15, 2020, 10:25 PM

A new study is offering data to back up what many have believed for years: that disparities exist in the educational and social experiences for women of color in law school.

Women of color are less likely than their peers to have a positive view of race relations at their law schools, according to the study from the Center for Women in Law and National Association for Law Placement Foundation. They’re also more likely to seriously consider dropping out, the study found.

The groups say the report highlights diversity issues for lawyers in training who are also often underrepresented in the profession. Previous studies show that people of color account for less than 8% of equity partners at law firms, a share that drops to less than 1% for Black women.

“It is my hope that by shining a light on our viewpoints and experiences we can open a productive dialogue that seeks to address disparities and challenges facing women of color in law,” said Cisselon Nichols Hurd, senior counsel Shell Oil Company and a member of the center’s executive committee.

The research results come against a backdrop of protests surrounding the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota. Law firms have joined corporations and other organizations in issuing statements about police brutality, racism, and systemic bias, but some attorneys have said that more action is needed.

The study is based on a survey of more than 4,000 students from 46 law schools. That includes about 2,600 women and 770 women of color.

“I think there has been some thought anecdotally that this has been going on for some time,” said Veronica Vargas Stidvent, the center’s executive director. “This is not a recent phenomenon at all. I can tell you from my own experience of 20-plus years ago going to law school, there was some thought there were some very different perceptions and experiences from women of color, students of color, than other cohorts.”

Drop Outs and Debt

The study attempted to quantify the differences of those experiences.

About 40% of women of color surveyed said race relations at their law school are “positive.” That’s significantly fewer than among white males (70%), minority men (59%), and white women (58%) who participated in the study.

Although nearly all groups gave their law school experiences high ratings, women of color (82%) were least likely to do so. They were also most likely to have “seriously considered” dropping out of school, with nearly one-third responding in the affirmative.

The study also identified financial disparities among the different groups surveyed. Women of color expected to finish law school with an average $105,000 in educational debt, slightly less than the $109,000 average for men of color. Loan amounts were lower for Whites, about $75,000 for men and $77,000 for women.

Law schools “can use this data to intervene and develop strategies to support this cohort and advance their success, both in law school and beyond,” said Fiona Trevelyan Hornblower, president and CEO of The NALP Foundation.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ralph Chapoco in Washington at rchapoco@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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