Fewer Asian Americans Going to Law School, Study Finds

California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, left, shakes hands with then-Gov. Jerry Brown at Liu’s swearing-in ceremony. (Office of the Governor of California photo)

(CN) — The Great Recession over a decade ago set off a number of trends for law school enrollment across the United States, according to a study that shows women outnumbered men and enrollment for Asian Americans has declined more than any other ethnic group.

By coincidence, the study authors released their findings on diversity in law school just as the U.S. is in the midst of a new economic crisis due to the novel coronavirus.

The American Bar Foundation-sponsored study explores who is going to law school and how those trends have played out over the last decade.

The study authors found Asian American student enrollment declined by 28% from 2011 to 2019, based on American Bar Association data. Looking at Law School Admission Council data, admissions dropped by 16%.

Overall, law school enrollment took a steep drop across the board beginning in 2011 and began to tick back up in 2017. But that could be short lived due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Data shows that while women have outpaced men in enrollment across all demographic groups, they are enrolled in lower-ranked schools with lower rates of bar passage and post-graduation employment. The same goes for black and Hispanic students, meaning they have a more difficult time passing the bar exam and finding work after they graduate.

That could be further exacerbated in the post-Covid-19 world if the bruise from the economic recession lingers longer than expected, according to California Supreme Court Associate Justice Goodwin Liu, a study co-author.

“The world has turned upside but let’s not forget that it’s only been three months,” said Liu during a video media briefing. “The world may look quite different in another 90 days or nine months, so we can’t speculate too much.”

The study authors say it is unclear how the increase of women, black and Hispanic students in law school over the last decade will translate to the workforce if they are enrolled at lower-tiered schools, based on the nine-year average U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Trends show decreases for most other groups, including Asian Americans, white and black students at lower-ranked schools, while Hispanic enrollment has jumped, from a little over 9% in 2011 to over 12% in 2019.

Law School Admission Council numbers showed an increase among Hispanic students by about 5%, while the rest of the groups saw decreases.

According to American Bar Association data, change in first-year enrollment by race/ethnicity over the same period shows a 20% decrease for black students, 22% for white students and 28% for Asian Americans.

The findings will play a significant role in how the legal profession looks at diversity in recruiting efforts said Priya Purandare, executive director for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association

“Asian Americans are the fastest growing population in the nation, which makes this trend in decline of Asian Americans in law school all the more significant and frankly alarming,” said Purandare.

Thursday’s study is an outgrowth of the 2017 study “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law” and showed that starting in 2000, Asian American lawyers in the U.S. grew from 20,000 to 53,000 — roughly 5% of all lawyers across the country.

Attorney Susan Shin with New York-based Weil Gotshal said there has never been a problem with recruiting Asian American candidates into the legal profession. But attrition cuts into any real progress to partner levels, which Shin called an abysmal percentage of those Asian American attorneys who make it that far in their careers.

“The most dangerous thing is to just assume this population, Asian Americans, is fine the way it is because one metric is fine,” said Shin.

International students, a group that may be most impacted by current travel restrictions due to the pandemic, saw a significant increase over the last decade, and are comprised of 40% of Asians according to the study authors. That same increase coincided with the decrease of Asian Americans and highlights the need to distinguish between foreign nationals and Asian Americans.

The data shows that there is a pipeline issue that needs to be addressed with earlier intervention at the high school or undergraduate level said Purandare.

Specifically, there is a wide difference between students regarding when they start thinking about law school.

Only 45% of Asian students thought about law school during high school or earlier, versus 68% of black students, 56% of Hispanic and 54% of white students.

Going to law school became a thought after college graduation for 28% of Asian American students, according to a survey among 2,727 first-year lawyers at 44 law schools.

Liu echoed this sentiment when he said there were few Asian American role models he could look up to when he was growing up.

Along with early intervention to show students that a career in the legal profession is a possibility, Liu said popular culture plays an important role.

In the 20 years the legal drama “Law & Order” was on TV, Liu says he never once saw an Asian American cast as a prosecutor, defense attorney or judge.

“This is not possible and realistic, because there are Asian Americans in the Manhattan DA’s office and in the courts. But it speaks to the kind of societal expectation that it’s not quite the norm that Asian Americans are not believable in those roles,” said Liu.

The full study, “Who’s Going To Law School? Trends In Law School Enrollment Since the Great Recession” was co-authored by 2019 Yale Law School graduates Miranda Li and Phillip Yao, and will be published later this year in the University of California Davis Law Review.

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