The Threat to Diversity in Legal Education: An Empirical Analysis of the Consequences of Abandoning Race as a Factor in Law School Admission Decisions

Linda F. Wightman

The use of affirmative action policies in school admissions has been a continuing source of controversy. In the wake of Hopwood, it is unclear if their continued use will even be possible. In an effort to inform the debate, Professor Wightman has engaged in a comprehensive empirical analysis to examine the impact of abandoning considerations of race and ethnicity in the law school admission process. Using data obtained from students who applied to law schools in 1990-1991 and from Fall 1991 first-year law students, she examined the likely effects of an admission policy that relied exclusively on LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages. Countering arguments that affirmative action policies merely reallocate minority students among schools, Professor Wightman's study indicates that such a "numbers only" policy would result in a sharp increase in the number of minority applicants who would be denied access to a legal education, not just at the schools to which they applied, but to any of the law schools included in the study. In striking contrast to the decline in admission rates, Professor Wightman found no significant differences in the graduation rates and bar passage rates between those minority students who would have been accepted to law schools and those who would not. Thus a "numbers only" policy would deny a legal education to many minority applicants who were fully capable of the rigors of legal education and of entering the legal profession. Professor Wightman also examined whether any of several factors, such as socioeconomic status, could serve as an effective proxy for race and ethnicity in order to achieve a diverse student body. None of the factors she studied indicated satisfactory results. In short, Professor Wightman's study shows that affirmative action policies are likely a necessary prerequisite to maintaining a diverse yet capable law school student body.

This article appears in the April 1997 Issue: Volume 72, Number 1