The Landscape Around the Diversity Pipeline - Articles

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Posted by: Karen Britton on Jan 28, 2009

Journal Issue Date: Feb 2009

By Karen R. Britton

With the historic inauguration of the first Black/African-American president of the United States last month, attention has been drawn to the representation of racially diverse Americans in positions of power in the federal government, to the number of lawyers named to formal positions in the new administration, and to the life and educational experiences that positioned them for selection " in other words, how they came to be "in the pipeline." This provides an interesting historical framework for the consideration of the pipeline into the profession of law for individuals of color in the U.S. and in the state of Tennessee.

In 2007, the Tennessee Bar Association Racial Diversity Task Force tried to absorb voluminous data describing "pipeline" issues, seeking information to help us understand and address the underlying challenges in achieving and maintaining a diverse lawyer population in Tennessee. This task force is now the TBA Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diverstiy. One of its stated goals is to provide association members with current data about diversity in law schools and in the profession, focusing on these critical pipeline junctures:

  • minority students in the law school admission process, nationwide and among Tennesseans;
  • employment of minority law graduates and career progression of minority attorneys; and
  • population forecasts that underscore the immediacy of the concern about underrepresentation of minority attorneys.

To understand the issues facing minorities who aspire to become lawyers, it makes sense to examine data that describe the pipeline for potential lawyers through secondary and higher education and law school, into their first jobs after law school, into attorney positions with law firms, and the extent to which these attorneys persevere to partnership ranks in law firms. This article will introduce some of important data sources that help those in legal education, legal practice and attorney recruitment identify successes and accomplishments, and recognize the significant challenges that remain.

The Law School Pipeline: Representation of Minority Candidates in Law Schools

According to the 2000 Census, U.S. citizens who self-identified as members of racial and ethnic minority groups made up approximately 30 percent of the population " but only 9.7 percent of all U.S. lawyers were members of racial or ethnic minority groups.[1] Minority representation among lawyers also lagged behind other professional groups " physicians, engineers, and accountants " as well as the civilian labor force in general.[2]

In 2007, a record 22.5 percent (or just over one in five) of all JD degrees awarded in the U.S. were awarded to minority graduates. This represents a steady increase from an average of 9 percent in the 1980s and 16 percent in the 1990s, reaching the 20 percent mark in the late 1990s. While enrollment growth overall was notable, rates of growth differed by racial and ethnic groups, and enrollment increases generally and within groups has slowed for most groups since 2000.[3] Asian representation has increased more than any other group. For instance, the total enrollment of Black/African-Americans in American Bar Association-accredited law schools nationwide increased 2 percent from 9,272 in 2000 to 9,483 in 2008. The total enrollment of Asian/Pacific Islanders in ABA law schools nationwide increased from 7,883 in 2000 to 11,176 in 2008, a 29 percent increase. Further, data shows differences in law school application patterns among racial and ethnic groups. Asian/Pacific Islander applicants are most likely to apply to a larger number of law schools, while Black/African American applicants tend to apply to fewer schools, thereby decreasing their likelihood of admission.[4]

Barriers to Law School Attendance

As law school tuition has risen exponentially, concerns about the availability of funding have also increased. Since 1990, tuition for state residents at public law schools has increased 186 percent, tuition for nonresidents has increased 148 percent, and tuition to private law schools has increased 114 percent.[5] Average indebtedness of graduates of public law schools in 2007 approached $60,000 to $90,000 for graduates of private institutions. These figures do not include undergraduate or consumer debt.[6] While federally backed student loans may be insulated from the current turmoil in the lending industry, the availability of the private loans and scholarships needed by many law students is less certain.

The cost of law school attendance, debt from undergraduate school and consumer debt, and the uncertainty about job prospects after graduation make anyone think carefully before entering law school, even in a good economy. Predictions of enrollment behavior in times of economic downturn suggest two potential outcomes: that students will seek to minimize debt by considering less costly public colleges and universities, or that applicants will gravitate toward degree programs where return on investment in terms of postgraduate earning potential can be maximized. Savvy law school applicants learn that salaries for law graduates vary widely based on type of employment setting (public or private sector) and geography (large city or rural town), and law schools provide transparent consumer information about graduate salaries to help inform their choices.[7]

There is a general uneasiness at law schools as the 2009 admission cycle moves into high gear. How will the number of applicants compare? How will students of color be represented in the national and school specific applicant pools?[8] Will students apply broadly enough to enhance their chances of admission to law school? Can students afford to attend the law schools that admit them, or afford to take the job of their dreams if the accompanying salary will not allow them to pay off student loans and live a comfortable life?

Employment Considerations

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) has tracked employment of JD graduates in its annual reports, JOBS & JDs, for 34 years. The most recent report, on the Class of 2007, showed a decreased differential between minorities and nonminorities in employment in general and in private practice employment in particular. Employment of law graduates in general was strong in 2007, with 91.9 percent of law graduates employed nine months from their graduation from law school[9] and minorities reporting employment at a rate just two percentage points less than nonminorities (90.3 percent and 92.4 percent respectively.[10] The finding that 55 percent of minority graduates reported employment in private practice compared to 57.6 percent of non-minorities marks a significant closing of an employment gap that measured 16 percent in 1982 and 7 percent in 1997.[11] Public service jobs, which historically attracted more minority graduates, were reported in almost equal percentages by minorities and nonminorities at 29 percent and 28 percent respectively.[12] Significantly more minority graduates accepted jobs with law firms of 101 attorneys or larger than nonminority graduates (50 percent to 38 percent respectively).[13] Geographic choice clearly plays a role in this outcome, since larger firms are generally located in larger legal markets. Fifty-five percent of private practice positions accepted by Black/African American graduates and 61 percent of those accepted by Asian/Pacific Islander graduates were located in the 20 cities offering the most jobs in general.[14] These outcomes reflect recruitment challenges for legal employers in Tennessee.

Geography in general is an important factor in employment decisions for all parties in the recruitment process. About three-quarters of law graduates accept their first job in the region of the country in which they attend law school.[15] Many law students say they attend law school in Tennessee for the quality of the legal education available here and the appealing sense of the lifestyle of its citizens. But many lawyers trained in Tennessee leave the state for postgraduate employment, either voluntarily or because of lack of opportunity to stay. While several states retain the majority of the graduates who studied there, only 53 percent of the new attorney jobs accepted by 2007 law school graduates in the state of Tennessee were accepted by graduates of law schools located in Tennessee. This is a significant reduction from the average of 61.5 percent in the 2000s, and a high of 68 percent in the year 2000.[16] Many students want to practice in Tennessee, but fewer entry level attorney jobs are reported each year.[17] Since it is difficult for a student from another state to qualify to pay resident tuition at public law schools in Tennessee, there are strong financial incentives for them to pursue employment outside the state, particularly given the limited number and scope of jobs available in Tennessee.

Consider this information in the context of recruitment of minority law students. The three ABA-accredited law schools located in Tennessee reported enrollment of 102 minority students in their 2008 entering classes " 21 percent of total first-year enrollment of 492 students at the three schools. Minority students constituted between 11 percent and 27 percent of the 2008 entering classes.[18] This 21-percent average approximates minority first-year enrollment nationwide of 22 percent in 2007. The 102 students of color enrolled in law schools located in Tennessee were just 1 percent of the 10,992 minority students enrolled in all ABA law schools.[19] To the extent that minority students come from other states to attend law school in Tennessee, they are more likely to leave the state for employment at graduation absent recruitment efforts to encourage them to remain. To the extent that employers in Tennessee actively recruit or accept applications from law students nationwide, there are opportunities to capitalize on the attractiveness and vitality of our state as a selling point. As law schools in Tennessee are increasingly successful in diversifying their student and graduate populations, recruitment opportunities should flourish.

Early Pipeline Issues

Much has been written about the impact of early childhood education on educational attainment and persistence to advanced and professional degree programs. Early score gaps that distinguish minorities and nonminorities are not easily closed, notes one expert in this field, "... if the pool that feeds the pipeline is only partly filled from the beginning, and leakage from it starts early and continues along the way."[20] Nationwide, the percentage of 25-to-29-year-olds with a bachelor's degree or higher increased for all racial/ethnic groups, but the gaps between White/Caucasians and Black/African Americans and Hispanics has widened.[21]

The research report Measuring Up 2008 assesses performance in higher education opportunity and effectiveness in individual states, in the United States, and in comparison to other nations.[22] The analysis of outcomes highlights the uneven distribution of higher education opportunity and achievement when race, income and geography are considered and identifies the increasingly racially diverse younger generation of Americans as "at risk" in comparison to residents of other nations.

The National Picture

High school graduation rate has decreased for all racial and ethnic groups since the 1980s.[23] The national "on time" graduation rate for Black/African Americans and Hispanics continued to fall significantly short of the "on time" rate for all students.[24] While college attendance has increased among all racial and ethnic groups in the last three decades, gaps in enrollment among racial/ethnic groups remain.

  • 73 percent of White/Caucasian high school graduates enroll in college the next fall, compared to 58 percent of Hispanics and 56 percent of Black/African-Americans.
  • Students from families in lowest income groups enroll in college at a rate of 52 percent, compared to 78 percent of those from middle income families and 91 percent of those from families whose annual income exceeds $100,000.
  • Racial and ethnic disparities that exist in preparation for and access to college are also noted in college completion rates.[25] White/Caucasian students completed a bachelor's degree at a rate of 59 percent while 47 percent of Hispanic students, 41 percent of Black/African-Americans and 39 percent of Native Americans complete a bachelor's degree in six years.[26]


The Tennessee Snapshot

The report card on Tennessee illustrates other challenges ahead. The population of Tennessee is expected to increase by 19 percent by the year 2025, slightly ahead of the projected national increase. Economic and social benefits accrue when a state's residents and workforce are well educated, and access to law school feeds from high school and college achievement. Measuring Up 2008 provides pertinent data about Tennesseans on these measures, including comparisons of White/Caucasian majority students and the two largest minority populations in Tennessee, Black/African American and Hispanic.[27]

High School Credential. In the population of 18-to-24-year-olds in Tennessee, 90 percent of White/Caucasians hold a high school degree compared to 81 percent of Black/African-Americans and 59 percent of Hispanics.[28]

College Opportunity. Tennessee has experienced one of the sharpest increases of any state in changes in college enrollment by age 19, yet a 9-percent gap in enrollment of 18-to-24-year-olds in college persists between White/Caucasian and all minority groups in college enrollment immediately after high school.[29] This gap is greater between White/Caucasian and Hispanic students (20 percent) than between White/Caucasian and Black/African-American students (8 percent).[30] Twenty-nine percent of Black/African-American young adults in Tennessee are enrolled in college compared to 37 percent of White/Caucasian.[31]

College Graduation. White/Caucasian Tennesseans have graduated from four-year institutions within six years at a higher rate (53 percent) than the largest minority groups in Tennessee " Black/African-American (41 percent) and Hispanic (49 percent).[32] Tennesseans pay the smallest share of personal income to attend four-year public colleges and universities of any state, but there is a relatively low state investment in financial aid to low income students.[33] For every dollar in federal Pell Grant aid to students, the state spends just 16 cents.[34] Since undergraduate students borrowed an average of $4,591 in 2007, a significant share of the financial burden falls to families to pay outright.[35] To the extent that race and ethnicity coincide with lower family income levels, significant barriers to attending college and professional school result.

Bachelor's Degree Holders. While the percentage of Tennesseans holding a bachelor's degree has increased to slightly above the national average, 25 percent of White/Caucasians aged 25 to 64 hold a bachelor's degree or higher compared with 12 percent of Hispanics and 15 percent of Black/African-Americans.[36]

What Lies Ahead

The U.S. Census also projects population growth and change in addition to measuring the status quo. Projections of interest include:

  • The Hispanic population of the U.S. is expected to nearly triple, and by the year 2050, one of every three U.S. residents will be Hispanic. Black/African-Americans population will be 15 percent of the U.S. population, compared to 14 percent today. Asian citizens will constitute 9 percent of the nation's populace compared to 4 percent today.[37]
  • Minorities will be the majority among children by the year 2023.[38]
  • The number of people who identify themselves as members of two or more races is expected to triple by the year 2050.[39]
  • The working-age population, currently 34 percent minority, is expected to be 55 percent minority in 2050.[40]

When these projections are compared to the population of attorneys in the largest law firms in the United States, the gap between the demographics of the future population of the U.S. and the population of lawyers in training is apparent. NALP tracks demographics of its more than 1,100 law firm members, which are usually the largest firms in U.S. and Canadian markets. In 2008, minorities account for 6 percent of partners in the nation's largest law firms and women account for almost 19 percent of partners in these firms, marking only marginal changes over the past 16 years NALP has tracked this information.[41]

While women constitute almost half of currently enrolled law students, minority women account for less than 2 percent of partners nationwide.[42] It is only in the ranks of summer associates that the presence of minorities and women in law firms is proportional to their presence in law school. As studies conducted by NALP and the NALP Foundation show, women and minorities leave law firm jobs at a higher rate than male and nonminority colleagues. Strategies to enhance integration and retention are critical to the resolution of this disconnect.[43]

Distribution of Diverse Attorneys in Tennessee

The "three states of Tennessee" reference is appropriate when considering the diversity profile of Tennessee lawyers. The vast majority (80 percent) of diverse attorneys in Tennessee are Black/African-American. Most minority attorneys work in Middle and West Tennessee (42 percent and 46 percent respectively). There are nearly as many minority law students enrolled in law school in Knoxville at last count as minority attorneys identified as working in East Tennessee. There is clearly potential for networking and mentoring opportunities across the state to cultivate minority students and encourage them to remain in the state after graduation.[44]


The pipeline to a career in law can begin at virtually any age. While tools and resources to inform future students about legal education and practice are increasingly accessible, a sizeable challenge remains " to link lawyers who can model success and/or offer opportunities to students to develop skills and gain the practical legal experience they need to flourish in the law school experience. In a profession where careers can thrive or falter because of personal skills and relationships, these critical, career forming personal connections cannot begin too soon.


1. Comments by James G. Leipold, NALP Executive Director, at presentation "Diversity in Legal Education: A Statistical Primer," NALP Diversity Summit, 2006, Chicago.
2. Comments by James G. Leipold, NALP Executive Director, at presentation "Diversity in Legal Education: A Statistical Primer," NALP Diversity Summit, 2006, Chicago. As the Law School Admission Council noted on its Web site (, "No single minority group in the United States accounts for more than 4 percent of the lawyers in the United States."
3. Total Minority JD Degrees Awarded, 1983- 2006, American Bar Association,, March 4, 2008.
4. Law School Admission Council, Analysis of Number of Applications per Applicant, October 2007.
5. Law School Tuition 1985-2007, American Bar Association,
stats.html, March 4, 2008. Tuition and fees at a private law school averaged $32,367 annually in 2007. Tuition and fees for a state resident at a public law school averaged $15,455 and for a nonresident at a public school, $26,691.
6. Average Amount Borrowed for Law School, 2001-2006, American Bar Association,, March 4, 2008.
7. Law schools measure and report starting salaries reported by their graduates. A salary range of $120,000 for graduates in the same graduating class is not uncommon, reflecting the differences in public sector salaries and salaries in the largest law firm markets.
8. In the decade of the 2000s, more than 9,000 Black/African American applicants were in the applicant pool to ABA law schools each year. The number of Black/African-American applicants who identified Tennessee as their state of permanent residence topped out at 254 applicants in 2004. In 2007, the last year for which state specific information is available, the 180 Black/African-American applicants from Tennessee in the national pool constituted 15 percent of law school applicants from Tennessee.
9. National Association for Law Placement, JOBs & JDs: Employment and Salaries of New Law Graduates, Class of 2007, p. 9.
10. Ibid, p. 47.
11. Comparisons of data from several years from annual JOBs & JDs reports.
12. National Association for Law Placement, JOBs & JDs: Employment and Salaries of New Law Graduates, Class of 2007, p. 50.
13. Ibid, pp. 55 - 57.
14. Ibid, p. 59.
15. Ibid, p. 67.
16. Ibid, p. 69 each year in annual JOBs & JDs reports.
17. The number of newly minted graduates reporting employment in Tennessee has fluctuated between 300 and 400 in recent years. Hiring of lateral attorneys and former judicial clerks has likely affected the hiring of law graduates of ABA law schools immediately following graduation.
18. Data from Web sites, the University of Memphis, University of Tennessee, and Vanderbilt University law schools, Dec. 9, 2008.
19. First Year JD and Total JD Minority Enrollment for 1971-2007, and press release, "Law School Enrollment Statistics for 2007-2008 Show Only Slight Changes,", March 4, 2008.
20. Comment, James G. Leipold, NALP Executive Director, 2006 NALP Diversity Summit, Chicago.
21. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2008 (NCES 2008-031).
22. Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education is the most recent in a series of assessments and research reports prepared by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. For the complete report, go to
23. Ibid., p. 7
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid.
27. Measuring Up 2008: The State Report Card on Higher Education, Tennessee, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. For the complete report, go to
28. Ibid., p. 6.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid.
31. Ibid., p. 3.
32. Ibid., p. 9.
33. Ibid., p. 7.
34. Ibid., p. 3.
35. Ibid., p. 7.
36. Ibid., p. 10.
37. James G. Leipold, "The Rate of Change," NALP Bulletin, October 2008, pp. 22-23. Full text available at The U.S. Census Bureau issued a press release dated Aug. 14, 2008, with 2050 demographic projections, which can be found at
38. Ibid.
39. Ibid.
40. Ibid.
41. NALP press release, "Law Firm Diversity Demographics Slow to Change," Oct.10, 2008, available at
42. "Improving Diversity at the Partnership Level," Patricia Patrick and Irene Reed, NALP Bulletin, December 2008, pp. 18-19.
43. NALP press release, "Law Firm Diversity Demographics Slow to Change," October 10, 2008, available at
44. Data compiled by the TBA and provided to the Board of Professional Responsibility in September 2007. All data is self reported. Law school enrollment data is for the 2007-2008 academic year, as reported in the ABA/LSAC Guide to Law Schools, 2009 Edition.�

KAREN REAGAN BRITTON Dr. KAREN REAGAN BRITTON is director of admissions, financial aid and the Bettye B. Lewis Career Center at the University of Tennessee College of Law. She is a former president of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) and is the chair of the NALP Research Advisory Group. This article is submitted on behalf of the TBA Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity.