In the Spring of 2018, Justice Sonia Sotomayor visited the University of Houston law center, where I teach, and inspired our entire community. She shared some of her life experiences, and included the struggles that she encountered in college as she received feedback on her writing. We came away understanding that much of her success in law school could be credited to the work that she put in to strengthening her writing skills during her undergraduate studies. She was a brilliant student, but needed support to achieve her goals at the next level.
That same summer, I taught legal writing in the University of Houston’s award-winning Pipeline program for the first time. The program selects forty to fifty historically underrepresented and first generation undergraduate students to spend the summer in Houston learning about law school and the legal profession. I was energized to have the chance to work with undergraduate students who could build their skills before having them tested in the competitive law school environment.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests and conversations around race that have happened this summer after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, I have been thinking about diversity in the legal field and the place of pipeline programs in increasing that diversity. Pipeline programs come in various forms. They target students earlier in the educational pipeline to try to give them educational support, information, and encouragement that will help keep them in the pipeline towards law school. This summer our pipeline programs moved online, as much of the rest of the education realm did. While students didn’t get to be in actual law school classrooms, they still experienced law professors, law classes, and virtual networking and mentorship.
How does this fit in with appellate advocacy? The same lack of diversity that affects the legal profession as a whole is magnified in the appellate bar and the judiciary. As an extreme example, those arguing before the Supreme Court are predominately white and male. The percentage of women arguing before the Supreme Court has hovered around 20% a term. When an African-American woman argues before the Supreme Court, it is newsworthy.
In the United States, 5% of attorneys are African American and 5% are Hispanic or Latino, while African Americans make up 13% of the overall population and Hispanic or Latino 18.5%. 2% of attorneys are Asian, while they make up 6% of the total population. On the other hand, 86% of attorneys are non-Hispanic Caucasian, while they make up only 60% of the overall population.
Pipeline programs are attempting to shift these numbers over time to have higher levels of representation of the underrepresented groups.
How can you be involved? There are several ways. First, many pipeline programs are free or low cost to the students, so programs need sponsors. The ABA provides resources related to various pipeline programs here.
Second, programs also need mentors and placements for their students. The ABA Diversity Site has a Pipeline Directory where you can find local pipeline programs and diversity initiatives.
Finally, when you have an opportunity to mentor a prospective law student, be a good mentor. Many of these students are first generation college students and your experiences can be valuable to them.
Pipeline programs are valuable tools to increase the diversity of our profession, and it has been fulfilling to get to work closely with students and encourage them along their educational journey. Many of us can demystify some of the law school process and help students identify areas to grow in as they prepare for law school.