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Legal Profession Can’t Leave Black Graduates Behind

May 10, 2021, 8:00 AM

Many 2020 law school graduates (and law school deans) sighed in relief as they received news of an increased first-time bar pass rate throughout the country. Alongside the much-needed positive news, however, was a lurking question: With 19% of J.D.s opting not to take the exam (up from 12% in 2019), who was at risk for being left behind?

A forthcoming article collects the responses of 121 Black law students who graduated in 2020, focusing on how their career plans were affected by a summer of pandemic and anti-Black violence. The stories are harrowing.

The Bar, Postponed

Through the first-person accounts of graduates, the survey sheds light on systemic issues that may have made it especially difficult for Black grads to sit for the exam last year. While the bar passage data does not include the racial demographics for the 19% who opted out, there is reason to be concerned about who may have been hit hardest.

Black law school graduates pass the bar exam at a rate lower than their white colleagues, due to factors including possible bias in the test, unequal educational opportunities, and a greater likelihood that they must work during law school and bar exam study for financial reasons.

Before even beginning their legal studies, Black law students are already more likely to have accrued nearly $25,000 more undergraduate debt than white grads. This gap only widens: at graduation Black law students are more likely than their white peers to have over $120,000 in law school debt.

As the study period extended over months (with exams canceled mere days before), students were affected differently. Postponed exams meant postponed results, delayed job start dates and first paychecks. Setting aside months to solely focus on studying was a significant financial strain; having this period extended was untenable.

When one graduate’s exam was “pushed back two whole months, I was forced to scramble for housing… [and] incurred many unforeseen costs.” The already precarious financial situation of many Black law school graduates made them particularly vulnerable.

Moving Online

Graduates also faced financial stress in the form of needing to find a quiet place to study and take the exam virtually, as well as securing certain computer specification requirements. These challenges threatened to be a greater barrier for graduates who live with roommates, including Black Americans who are more likely to live with multiple generations of family.

One graduate’s experience shows how bar exam delays, financial woes, and the pandemic combined to make focusing on studying nearly impossible: “I had only planned financially for the summer and was forced into distress by the delay ... . I had two family members contract Covid … . This has been the worst possible time to study because there is no space where I can be alone.”

The bottom line is that the varied financial challenges of 2020 impacted some more than others. Graduates with financial stability were able to withstand these changes and challenges, while more vulnerable test takers were burdened with additional anxieties and potential derailment of their career plans. For the lucky candidates “with the resources to wait, the delay paid off” in the form of higher bar passage rates.

Facial (Mis)Recognition

One of the most shocking aspects of an unexpected shift online was the issue of facial scanning software that could not reliably register BIPOC faces. The impact of the image-matching problems on Black test takers and the panicked steps they took to respond are staggering. Graduates reported in the survey that the software “never recognized my face from my picture,” or “was unable to verify my identity/face for both days of the exam.”

In anticipation of this frustrating barrier some graduates in the survey “purchased a special extra bright light ... to take the exam” or “re-organized the area where I was taking the exam to make sure there was enough light to show my face … . I was so terrified of being flagged simply because the system couldn’t pick up my face because I’m black.”

The impact of this dehumanizing experience on Black graduates cannot be overstated; it’s impossible to know how this might have impacted their bar exam performance and, ultimately, passage.

Looking Forward

Just as the pandemic laid bare the inequities in the country’s economy, housing, and health-care systems, it also revealed the biases and flaws in attorney licensing that many in the legal field had been warning of for years.

If we want to move forward as a profession, we cannot forget the class of 2020. Hiring attorneys and clients alike will likely miss these much-needed lawyers—and notice a lessened diversity in a field already struggling to reflect the country’s demographics.

All attorneys have a role in working in changing the educational and political systems that left graduates vulnerable to the pandemic. Firms and organizations should commit to paid internships, eliminating one way the racial wealth gap is maintained. Everyone can advocate for student loan forgiveness which is a racial justice issue. Attorneys can support diploma privilege and to rethink the bar exam in their states.

The work is challenging for all but the graduates in the survey have spoken up and we need to heed their call. If we follow their lead, we have the potential to create a stronger, more powerful legal community—one that our country desperately needs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Sarah J. Schendel is an assistant professor of academic support at Suffolk University Law School in Boston where she teaches legal analysis and methods, academic excellence, and professional responsibility. Prior to joining the law school, she worked as an immigration attorney.

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