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Excerpted From: Sarah J. Schendel, Listen!: Amplifying the Experiences of Black Law School Graduates in 2020, 100 Nebraska Law Review 73 (2021) (221 Footnotes) (Full Document)


SarahJSchendelIn the fall of 2017, over 41,000 new students started law school in the United States. Less than one-tenth of those students--3,535 to be exact--were Black. To arrive at this point, many Black students had to overcome challenges unique among their law school peers. Black students are more likely than white students to be the first in their families to go to college. They are more likely to have been discriminated against through discipline during elementary and secondary school. The standardized testing they had to conquer to get into college was mired in racism and classism was the LSAT. Even before entering law school, Black college graduates have accrued, on average, nearly $25,000 more in student debt than white graduates.

While in law school, the challenges continue. Many Black law students see few-- if any--faces that look like their own standing behind the podium. In the classroom, Black students often experience cognitive dissonance when they are confronted with an “intellectual mismatch of the world's racial realities on the one hand and the racial silence-cum-neutrality of their legal education on the other hand.” A recent study found that twenty-six percent of Black women in law school see their schools doing “very little” to create an environment supportive of different racial and ethnic identities. In contrast, only 5.5% of white men see their law schools failing in this way. When they arrive at internships and summer jobs, Black law students may find themselves in environments where they continue to be in the significant minority. If they appear in court as student attorneys, they may be mistaken for defendants, clients, or staff. They are less likely to find judges, attorneys, or mentors who understand their experiences. In the professional sphere, they face microaggressions, implicit bias, and discriminatory dress codes. Due to a lack of financial assistance from their families, Black law students are “far more likely to work during law school” and therefore are less likely to have the privilege of focusing solely on their education. Upon graduation from law school, Black law students are more likely than their white peers to have over $120,000 in law school debt. Black law students starting law school in 2017 faced some, if not all, of these challenges.

Then came 2020.

[. . .]

At the time of writing, the United States remains in the midst of both the pandemic and a national reckoning with racism. The two also remain inextricable, as “the pandemic is exposing and exacerbating the deep inequities that have long shaped American public education.” This survey is but one small collection of the experiences endured by Black law school graduates in 2020. These graduates represent a new generation of law students who may have different expectations and demands of legal education and of the profession. These graduates experienced a lack of support that impacted not only their own health and careers but also will continue to impact a public that desperately needs more qualified, hard-working, and diverse attorneys. The Author intends to follow this community of graduates through the coming years to learn more about the ways their health, families, and career paths were impacted by 2020.

It is the Author's hope that the discussions, wounds, failures, and passions unearthed in 2020 continue to contribute to change in the years to come. For too long, “[l]egal education has failed ... minorities. This shouldn't be surprising, since the entire American system of restricting admission to the practice of law has long been designed, explicitly or implicitly, to exclude minorities.” While facing our own pandemic-related challenges, many of us in legal education may have failed to adequately protect or advocate on behalf of the Black law school graduates of 2020. It is too late to change their experiences. But we must listen to the challenges they faced, work to help them recover from these wounds, and pledge to invest in the safety, success, and futures of Black law students and lawyers. If we undertake this challenging work and heed the call for change ringing clearly in the voices of these survey respondents, we have the potential create a stronger, more vibrant, engaged, and powerful legal community--one that our country desperately needs.

Associate Professor of Academic Support at Suffolk University Law School.

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