Katz Law Building

The Katz Building, which houses Penn State’s law program, on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 in University Park, Pa.

Four law school deans from around the country — Danielle Conway, Browne Lewis, Camille Davidson and Renee Hutchins — sat down with moderator Wende' Ferguson Thursday to discuss how to best improve diversity within their student bodies and equitable career outcomes for Black law students.

The virtual conversation titled “A Briefing With Black Leaders: A Conversation with Black Women Who Serve As Law School Deans” aimed to explore the benefits of Black women in academic and legal spaces and the challenges experienced by Black women in such spaces.

Less than two percent of attorneys are Black women and 14% of ABA-accreditted law schools have Black women as deans, according to Penn State Law at University Park’s website.

The discussion was hosted by Penn State Law at University Park and Dickinson Law’s Black Law Students Associations.

Ferguson, assistant dean for student services at Penn State Law at University Park, opened the discussion by introducing each of the panelists by asking what progress each has made with their schools in terms of diversity and the challenges that have come with each effort.

Hutchins, a Yale Law School graduate and dean of the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law who has clerked for United States Circuit Court Judge Nathaniel R. Jones, spoke first and said UCD “is committed to the diversification of its student body.”

She further added having a makeup of students that represents America is part of UDC’s identity as a school.

UDC is one of six historical Black colleges and universities that has a law school, according to Hutchins, and she said the challenges that reflect her school are reminiscent of the challenges reflecting the greater landscape of advanced education for Black individuals.

“We have to start looking at the whole applicant to law school,” she said.

Law school applicants are primarily graded off of their standardized test scores and their grades, and that has a greater chance of singling out Black students and other minority students, Hutchins said.

Lewis, who specializes in artificial intelligence law while serving as dean of the School of Law at North Carolina Central University, said she implemented a similar strategy at her institution.

She said she focuses on outreach programs to Native Americans, Black men and veterans — three groups that traditionally do not have much of a presence in law school student bodies, Lewis said.

Davidson, dean of the Southern Illinois University School of Law and Georgetown Law graduate who specializes in legislative reform, said she focuses on making people feel valued and on other aspects of diversity.

“Diversity is more than just race,” Davidson said.

The first project she undertook when starting at SIU was publishing a faculty-wide anti-racism statement — in an effort to show to the community the welcoming nature of the college.

“I think our first class had four Black people,” Davidson said.

That was more a function of the school’s makeup, where most of the student body came from those who already knew of the college, according to Davidson, but she said she sought to appeal to surrounding, more diverse, areas in the coming years.

“We need to introduce ourselves to a population that doesn't know we exist,” she said of the school's student body.

Conway, dean of Penn State Dickinson Law School, one of Penn State’s two law schools, spoke to the progress that it has already made, citing percentages that make up the student body.

“We have 21% of students who identify as LGTBQ, 38% are students of color and 47% are women, all numbers we hope to continue to see,” Conway, who received her J.D. from Howard University, said.

Conway said Dickinson Law established an antiracism pledge, and it has been integral in creating the American Association of Law Schools’ Clearing House program — designed to drive racism out of law schools.

As a result, Conway said she is authoring a 10-part series on how to best go about the task and succeed in creating a school that is “anti-racist in all functions.”

The conversation moved to the process of transitioning Black law school graduates into the workforce and how making integral connections is not always an opportunity afforded to them, according to Ferguson.

Hutchins went first and said she believes the stereotypical definition of smart needs to be changed.

“We are getting [toward] a hiring world where the traditional boxes do not need to be checked any longer,” Hutchins said.

The onus is partly on the students to make the connections necessary, Hutchins said, not just by the traditional means of law journals and clerkships.

Lewis echoed Hutchins’s statements and said she believes the skills needed presently are evidence of a changing workforce.

She also advocated for students leaving their comfort zone and finding solace in people they share backgrounds with.

“Don’t be nervous if a mentor doesn’t look like you — you need to put yourself out there,” Lewis said.

Ferguson then posed a question regarding programs in place to assist students of color interested in applying to law school and passing the bar exam — the exam graduates must take to practice law.

Conway, as part of Penn State Dickinson Law, referenced the effect of the Council on Legal Education Opportunity on Penn State for the last two years. CLEO programs enable students in marginalized communities to have opportunities before law school as a means of preparation.

CLEO will now operate a permanent program at Penn State, enabling access to programs, funding and resources, which have been absent for a number of years, Conway said.

Davidson said she made her students’ ability to pass the bar exam her first priority at Southern Illinois.

With the help of Barbri, a program specifically geared toward helping students pass the bar, Southern Illinois was and still is able to give its students the proper resources and funds to pass, which was missing in previous years, Davidson said.

“We did a total overhaul,” Davidson said. “Incoming students have a curriculum in both their third and first years to introduce them and teach them to pass the bar.”

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