Monday, October 15, 2007

Affirmative Action At Law Schools

Does affirmative action work? An explosive study that suggests it does not is pitting the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights against the State Bar of California in a battle over admissions data that could determine once and for all if racial preferences help or hurt minority students.

"Currently only about one in three African-Americans who goes to an American law school passes the bar on the first attempt and a majority never become lawyers at all," says UCLA law professor Richard Sander.

In an article published in the Stanford Law Review, Sander and his research team concluded several thousand would-be black lawyers either dropped out of law school or failed to pass the bar because of affirmative action.

Known as the ‘mismatch’ effect, Sander claims students who are unprepared and whose academic credentials are below the median are admitted to law schools they are unqualified to attend. If those same students instead were to go to less elite or competitive schools, more would graduate, pass the bar and become lawyers.

You'd think the Bar would want to prove affirmative action's success with statistics. You would think, but you'd be wrong.

Recently, a California bar committee voted 5-3 to turn down Sander’s request to use bar data collected over the last three decades on student test scores, law school admissions, academic performance and bar passage rates....

"There is no answer but to give him the information," says black civil rights attorney Leo Terrell. "What is the state bar afraid of? We need to know."

Interesting. Apparently his previous research was "controversial" because it dared to question the value of affirmative action programs. Apparently, too many black law students drop out of law school, or fail to pass the bar exam, and then have huge law school debts and no lucrative law career with which to repay them. Damn Mr. Sander for pointing that out!

The Board of Governors of the California Bar may reconsider Sander’s request during its November meeting, but for now no one can say whether affirmative action actually does what's intended.


Anonymous said...

"If those same students instead were to go to less elite or competitive schools, more would graduate, pass the bar and become lawyers."

Nonsense. It's not the competition that keeps minorities from passing the bar - it's basic skills. Competition matters in law school because everything's graded on the curve. The bar exam isn't. Period. Either you understand the legal issues and can write about them or you can't.

Too many law schools, wanting a "diverse" population, admit minority students who don't have the necessary skills in writing and analysis. Professional school is not the place to learn how to write; if you didn't learn that in college, you're going to be in trouble all through law school. You may graduate - someone has to be at the bottom of the class, after all - but you won't be able to pass the bar, which is graded blind. The exam readers don't care about your race or your background and they don't know your name.

Admitting students with low LSAT scores and low college GPAs does them no favors, especially when they take out huge loans that will take them years to pay back while working as something other than lawyers.

Darren said...

You're right that the bar is not graded on a curve, but going to a lesser competitive school probably means that the instruction is at a more "understandable".

Example: I'm very proud of my own academic achievements, but one course stands out--Advanced Econ. I signed up for regular econ, but because of my GPA was placed in Advanced Econ (they can do that at West Point). I could have learned in the regular econ course--a lot of people with lower grades than mine certainly did--but the Advanced Econ was above my head. As a result, on the 22-page final, I left 8 pages completely blank and on several more put only a few partial-credit-begging formulas and/or scribbles. I learned *nothing*.

Another example: I showed my Linear Algebra textbook to someone who used to be a Course Director for linear algebra. He said the textbook was graduate level, certainly not for a first linear algebra course. The course was taught in line with the textbook. I got a 60% in the course, which earned an A because it was the highest grade (I think), but I didn't really learn anything.

I think you can see the parallels to the law school article.

Anonymous said...

I get what you're saying, Darren. The question is whether learning a law school subject in a "more accessible" manner actually translates into students having sufficient grasp on it to do well on a bar exam question on that subject, as opposed to just understanding well enough to succeed in that class.

Another question is how analogous math is to the kind of analysis needed to do well on the bar. It's not enough to grasp a concept - you also have to be able to *express* your understanding clearly. A person who is brilliant at math may be able to do complex problems without necessarily being able to explain his reasoning to someone else: he simply has to solve the problem. That doesn't work on most law exams, which want to see the applicant's thought processes. A conclusory response about which way the issue would probably be decided, without supporting analysis, gets you bupkis on the bar. That's where the basic writing skills also make a difference.

Ellen K said...

At some point we have got to get it through someone's head that if you want a colorblind society, then the blank that says "race" is never on the form. Look at their grades, look at the courses taken, look at the achievements. I am tired of paying high prices for my three college kids, mainly to subsidize students who should not be in college. And I say this regardless of race, because there are just as many white kids who belong in a good trade school rather than college. It's a four year recess. And the kids who want to learn have to endure these oafs and struggle to get the classes they need due to aimless counseling and overcrowding at the lower levels.