Making the Pipeline Work—A Book Review

Written by Hazel Weiser

There aren’t many African American attorneys.  At the beginning of the new millennium, only 3.9% of attorneys identified as African American, according to an ABA studyIn total, in 2008, there were 759,200 attorneys in the United States.  A young male African American attorney is becoming even rarer.  These are facts, despite pervasive media images, like Steve Harris and Lisa Gay Hamilton playing the attractive Eugene Young and Rebecca Washington on The Practice or Blair Underwood as Jonathan Rollins, the first African American attorney on L.A. Law .  (You can tell when I stopped watching television!)   Much of the literature on the impact of race within the legal profession deals with the absence of African Americans and how diversity slowed since the mid-1990s when legal challenges to affirmative action, especially those notorious ballot initiatives, began to take effect.  See, “A Disturbing Trend in Law School Admissions.”

Now there is important new research that can add a very human narrative to the diversity challenge. The results of this research, when  combined with practical tools such as the ABA Presidential Initiative on Diversity’s Next Steps, April 2010 and committed leadership from college presidents and law school deans, can be used to pry open the doors of the legal profession to African Americans.

The End of the Pipeline: A Journey of Recognition for African Americans Entering the Legal Profession by Dorothy H. Evensen and Carla D. Pratt (faculty members at Penn State and proud SALT members) is a “must” read for every law school dean, law school admissions officer, and pre law college adviser.  Reading this book will deepen our knowledge about the roadblocks African American students face academically, economically, and culturally in order to cultivate an understanding of what help individuals and institutions can provide to these aspiring students along the way.  Reading this book, although fraught with indignities and disappointments, is essentially optimistic, because it makes diversity more likely by identifying institutional and programmatic choices that can make achieving diversity more feasible.

Evensen and Pratt’s research examines the stories of twenty-eight African American attorneys who graduated from law school after 2000 as the new millennium began.  Each participant passed the bar and is working in the profession.   Using an analytic/interpretive research methodology, Evensen and Pratt interviewed these “successful” pipeline travelers.  The stories reveal what at first appear to be very specific and individual paths through high school, college, law school, the bar exam, and into practice.  But Evensen and Pratt found patterns and organized these stories into categories in order to understand what works to navigate through the often difficult and circuitous pipeline.   These stories illustrate how much power a teacher, family member, or friend can wield with a comment or a casual attitude—whether encouraging or not.  These personal histories also reveal just how much our colleges and law schools have to restructure themselves as institutions to compensate for the educational inequities that isolate and alienate especially poor African Americans.  If we want to have a diverse profession, we need to shake up the cultures of our law schools.

Then Evensen and Pratt tested the credibility of their preliminary findings by interviewing a second set of African American lawyers who attended a National Bar Association young lawyers’ conference.  Since so few of the initial lawyer participants had gone through actual pipeline programs, a third cohort of upper-level law school students was interviewed to discern what the benefits of pipeline interventions might be.  All of their narratives are seen through the lens of critical race theory (which is beautifully explained and made accessible to any reader in Chapter 2).

At some point each of the participants was “recognized” as having the potential, and this recognition “served as the impetus that motivated or enables these lawyers to enter the pipeline leading to continued education and employment.”  Some of this recognition was formal—testing into a gifted program in elementary school or tapped by a teacher as someone special.  Much of it was quite informal:  avoiding the wrong path, assumptions made by elders that one would succeed.  These forms of recognition began as external, but get internalized and allow a person to gain “an enhanced vision, a heightened attention to the affordances in his or her environment that, if pursued, would increase the probability of achieving the position aspired to…”.  All of the participants acknowledged that they benefited from affirmative action policies and programs, especially when it came to applying to specific law schools that had diversity goals.  The LSAT score, which acts as such an effective gatekeeper despite its unreliability, looms as an overwhelming shadow in many of these narratives.  Mentors were important, too, whether individuals or African American student organizations at both the college and law school levels.  Of course, each participant also spoke about the hard work; the implicit and disappointingly explicit racism; ignorance about how law school operate; and mentors who knew how to get through.

The organization of the book allows the reader to listen to the stories first, organized in the categories of Evensen and Pratt’s pipeline research, and then again using critical race theory to illustrate the hegemonic structures that create a different reality for African Americans.

Chapter 3 contains individual responses to the research data from authors who are committed to diversity.  Each essay illuminates an aspect of diversity scholarship: Grutter influences in the admissions process; K-12 affirmative action; the role of historically black colleges or universities; the impact on performance of racial and ethnic student organizations; academic support within law schools; identity theory; and mentorship.  These mini-essays are wonderful places to begin to educate deans and admissions officers,  pre law advisers, and colleagues who serve on the admissions committee so that they understand their role in opening access to the pipeline.   Chapter 4 concentrates on hearing from current law school students who participated in pipeline programs, as another way of validating the initial categories devised from the first group of interviewees.  Chapter 5 is technical and helps explain the methodologies used by the authors.  And Chapter 6 describes the St. John’s University pipeline project and ends with a provocative essay about whether the pipeline can even be repaired.

Buy this book for your dean as a holiday gift!

The End of the Pipeline: A Journey of Recognition for African Americans Entering the Legal Profession is an important contribution to the literature of diversity, which can provide conviction and gravitas to each law school’s examination of structures and policies that interfere with the admissions and success of African American J.D. candidates.