Encouraging diversity at law schools

December 8, 2010

When asked if diversity played a role in their decisions on where to attend law school, a handful of minority law students in Indiana said while it wasn’t the biggest or only factor, it often was a consideration.

As the law school recruiting season is winding down and spring deadlines for law school applications start approaching, law school admissions offices have been paying attention to their recruiting efforts to encourage applicants of diverse backgrounds – whether they are underrepresented minorities, identify with different religions, have had different experiences in the job market, or are from different geographic locations – to apply and ultimately accept offers to attend their law schools.

In Indiana, representatives of the admissions offices of all four law schools, Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, Indiana University Maurer School of Law, Valparaiso University School of Law, and Notre Dame Law School, said diversity is something that has been important to them for a while and that they actively seek out diverse applicants through similar methods.

Yet for the students, it seems to be a matter of personal attention from the law schools and factors other than the percentage of minorities who attend that ultimately won them over.

For instance, at Notre Dame School of Law, Melissa Fruscione, director of admissions and financial aid, said the admissions office has expanded its recruiting efforts, which has helped more diverse candidates learn about the school earlier in the application process.

Because the school is reaching applicants sooner, there has been more opportunity for communication with the applicants, which has improved outreach to more qualified candidates and a more personalized and custom approach to answering the candidates’ specific questions as opposed to generic concerns.

This also is the case at Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, where Patricia Kinney, director of admissions for the Indianapolis law school, said she too appreciates it when applicants contact her with specific questions and concerns during the application process.

One student Kinney helped is Raphael Ortega, born and raised in New York City and now a 3L at the law school.

Ortega said because he grew up in a diverse environment, he couldn’t imagine life any other way.

But when he decided to move out of New York to the Midwest for a different experience in law school, which would include a lower cost of living, he expected the students would be a less diverse group than he was used to.

However, he said when he visited for an open house at the Indianapolis law school, he could see the diversity among the students, something he has continued to observe in his classes.

He added that the Black Law Student Association members at the Indianapolis law school won him over with their extremely friendly and helpful approach to answering his questions about their own experiences at the school.

While it sounds simple, he said that students he met at a law school fair who were representing other schools didn’t seem as engaged, which made a difference.

“All it takes it one experience,” he said. “I figured these were the people I would see all the time, and if I felt comfortable around them now, I would be comfortable around them later.”

A second-year, part-time student at the law school in Indianapolis, Angela Freeman, agreed.

Freeman, who worked for Eli Lilly in Indianapolis for a number of years before she decided to go to law school to become a patent attorney, also said diversity at the school wasn’t the only important factor, but it was still something she appreciated at the law school.

A bigger concern for her was how she would handle family issues and juggle her responsibilities as an older student. She said having other students going through the same things in her evening program has helped, and that Kinney helped her find the resources she needed.

Like Ortega, Freeman said she could see the diversity of the students in her classes and throughout the school, but she was also impressed with the diversity of perspectives in her classes due to the various educational and professional backgrounds of her peers in the evening program.

Latonya Brooks, a 2L at Valparaiso University School of Law who is active in her school’s BLSA chapter, also said that diversity wasn’t the biggest factor for her in choosing a school, but it was somewhat important.

Because she went to a college in the Midwest with a small percentage of minority students, she said, “diversity was not really on my mind when I was applying. It was not something I was going for, although, I didn’t want to go to an all or nothing school in either direction.”

Instead, she was more concerned about finding a school where the teachers were accessible to students.

She said this has continued to be her experience at the law school. She has been impressed that her school wasn’t trying “to weed out students – they want to let you in and keep you in.” She said that’s not to say that the school will let in just any applicant or that the professors don’t offer a challenging curriculum, but they want all students to succeed and are always available to help.

Another Valpo law student, Viet Pham, a 3L, said diversity was not initially an important factor in his decision. He said while he had lived in San Francisco before law school, known for a large Asian population, he was used to being in the minority so it wasn’t a big deal.

He chose Valparaiso because he wanted to move to the Midwest. He had friends who lived in the Chicago area and Indianapolis, so he researched a number of schools. Also, as a non-traditional student – he had graduated from college about 10 years before going back to school – he said that he has noticed a number of other non-traditional students, and he appreciates that his viewpoints and the viewpoints of others can only add to the classroom conversations.

Diann Lapin, executive director of admissions at Valparaiso University School of Law, said the admissions office focuses on the whole applicant – not just LSAT score or GPA. Those are still important, but not the most important part. She pointed out that the school’s website focuses on the diversity of its students and doesn’t mention LSAT scores of GPAs in the profile of the incoming classes.

Lapin and other representatives of admissions offices for Indiana law schools said they do appreciate when student organizations like a law school’s BLSA, Hispanic Law Student Association, Asian Law Students Association, Lambda Law, or other student organizations that focus on issues of underrepresented minority students will speak directly with students who have been accepted.

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“Our students are some of the greatest sales people for the law school that we have,” said Jay Connison, dean of Valparaiso University School of Law. “The minority students are some of our greatest sales people.”

At I.U. Maurer School of Law, members of the minority student bar associations have worked with the admissions office to not only speak with students, but also to proactively send information about their organizations. This might include a calendar of events and information about how the organization is helpful for finding a mentor and for networking with other students and alums, said Dani Weatherford, director of recruitment and admissions for the law school in Bloomington.

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Rubin Pusha, a 2L and president of BLSA, said he chose the school after he received a master’s from I.U. in Higher Education and Student Affairs. He considered moving back to the South; he’s originally from Savannah, Ga.

But he said he was won over by Weatherford and others in the admissions office and chose to stay in Indiana.

Now as a student, he enjoys working with the admissions office to contact admitted students to answer their questions. He said he experienced a bit of a culture shock when he first came to Indiana for his graduate degree. He earned his undergraduate degree at Albany State University in Albany, Ga., where about 98 percent of the students are African-American. He said that experience has helped him when speaking with students considering the Bloomington law school who may be unsure of how it might match their expectations, particularly questions they might have about being a minority at the school.

“BLSA members can answer their questions, whether they’re from the East Coast or the West Coast or the South or the Southwest, we can just have a candid conversation. A lot of people who have been admitted haven’t been here before, so we invite them to Spring Law Day,” he said.

Pusha added that the school can also help support admitted students who want to attend the Spring Law Day with financial assistance for travel costs and rides from the airport to the hotel. While at the school, students go on campus tours, and the minority student bar associations also host receptions for admitted students, which in turn offer networking opportunities with professors and other members of the legal community.

Accepted students also have an opportunity to try restaurants and the nightlife in Bloomington, “so we can show them they can have a good time here,” Pusha said.

But at the end of the day, the students agreed it wasn’t only because the schools were diverse that they chose them. It was the personal attention they received and how welcome they felt at the school, the kinds of academic opportunities they would have, and that they would be valued by their professors and fellow students, regardless of their backgrounds.•


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