Law schools experiment to increase ethnic diversity

The industry-wide problem needs more than money

Since 2013, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, one of London’s elite Magic Circle law firms, has supported a very particular kind of scholarship. The Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme is named after a young black British man murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993, and is open only to black men from low-income households. Importantly, to redress the industry’s huge racial imbalance, it offers more than money.

While there is £3,500 in financial assistance for each scholar, “the money is helpful but the more interesting element is the development programme and the mentoring”, says Annette Byron, a partner at Freshfields who leads the firm’s scholarship schemes and diversity and social mobility programmes.

The scholarship includes everything from an in-house development course and mentoring to an interview for a training contract, the final stage of a legal education.

The need is certainly there. For example, according to research which the National Association for Law Placement published in 2016, African-American lawyers make up only 4 per cent of associates and 1.4 per cent of partners in New York City law firms.

At the University of Minnesota Law School, programmes include one designed for prospective students from groups historically under-represented in law school. It helps undergraduates and recent graduates with preparation for law school admissions and practice for LSAT exams (part of the admission process in countries such as the US and Canada). The programme is free; a $100 deposit is required but is refunded on completion.

While the university also offers scholarships that are funded by law firms, “the scholarships are usually in tandem with a work opportunity for students as well,” says Sarah Rohne, the University of Minnesota Law School’s employer relations director.

Cordella Bart-Stewart, executive director of the Black Solicitors Network in the UK, sees enthusiasm for studying law among young people from the African and Caribbean communities, but she says they can drop out during their studies because they are unable to attain the standards needed for training contracts and tutelage.

President Obama at Chicago Law School © AFP

This may be, she says, because of time constraints. She cites research suggesting that African and Caribbean students are more likely to be working part-time to support their studies or have to spend more time travelling to their schools because they are living with their parents.

She sees a need not only for academic support but also for assistance in developing softer skills. “It is not enough that firms might offer scholarships,” she says.

“It’s the practical things that help retention and progression, which is a big problem for minorities, like mentoring, peer-to-peer support and improving social skills.”

Purely financial scholarships still have their place. Since last March, Durham and York universities and the London School of Economics have been granting bursaries to undergraduate law students from underprivileged backgrounds through a scheme funded by law firm Hogan Lovells.

A block of flats in Tower Hamlets, a poor but diverse part of London © Getty

At New York’s Columbia Law School, a programme established by Baker & McKenzie in 2015 offers a $50,000 scholarship to Masters of Laws students from outside the US and western Europe who can demonstrate academic achievement and a need for financial support.

Some argue that efforts to encourage more diverse students to become lawyers need to start before they have applied to university. “If you wait until university level, the breadth of students choosing a career in the law has already narrowed,” says Sarah Gregory, inclusion and diversity partner at Baker & McKenzie.

She explains that, in addition to scholarships, the firm places a strong emphasis on making outreach efforts among students aged 16 and up and “giving them a bit of insight into what it’s like to work in a law firm”.

Like others, she sees the need for universities and law firms to work together to increase diversity in the legal profession. “What’s important for the sector is relying on the universities to change the dynamic but also reaching out and doing other things to speed up the process of change,” she says. When it comes to diversifying the legal world, money is necessary — but much more is needed too.

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