During the past year, the Standing Committee on Minority and Women Participation has been exploring ways that the Illinois State Bar Association can encourage more minorities traverse the educational pipeline into the legal profession.
The ISBA’s efforts are part of a nationwide campaign to address the underrepresentation of minorities in the bench and bar. “The legal profession faces no greater challenge in the 21st century than the critical need to diversify its ranks,” ABA President Michael S. Greco observed in a report issued last year. “A more diverse and representative legal profession will not only foster greater public confidence in the law, but even more fundamentally it will help to ensure fairness in our justice system.”1
ISBA President Irene Bahr was quick to respond to the ABA’s call for co-sponsors on a Diversity Resolution. At President Bahr’s request, the ISBA Board of Governors signed on to the resolution in June 2006.2 President Bahr then asked the Standing Committee on Minority and Women Participation to examine ways of implementing a pipeline initiative in Illinois.
A Problem With the Pipeline
During the fall of 2006, the Standing Committee began gathering information about the pipeline problem and proposals to address it. The Standing Committee found that for many students of color, the American educational system presents a barrier, rather than a conduit, to the legal profession. According to an ABA task force report, the educational pipeline is “riddled with leaks” for minority students.3 “We are losing significant numbers of potential law students and future legal scholars and practitioners of color at every point along the pipeline continuum.”
Leaks occur in a variety of ways at every level of the educational system. Among some examples cited in the ABA’s report:4
• African-American children attending state-funded pre-kindergarten programs are almost twice as likely to be expelled as other groups.
• The test score gap between students of color and white students begins as early as the fourth grade and continues through the undergraduate and graduate levels.
• African-Americans graduate from high school at significantly lower rates than whites and Asian-Americans.
• Minority students, particularly African-Americans, are less likely to attend college immediately after high school than their white counterparts.
• Students of color have disproportionately lower law school application, enrollment, and graduation rates.
• Students of color have generally lower bar exam passage rates than whites.
Strategies for Improving the Pipeline
The Standing Committee’s research culminated with a Diversity Roundtable during the ISBA’s Midyear Meeting on December attended by more than 70 participants from a wide variety of constituency groups. Participants included representatives of minority bar associations; teachers and administrators from elementary, junior high, and high schools; pre-law advisers and college-level administrators; law school deans and student development personnel; social service providers; and representatives of existing diversity programs (e.g., the Just the Beginning Foundation and the Committee on Minorities in Large Firms).
Key leaders of the bench and bar also presented their ideas and support. Illinois Judges Association President Jesse Reyes opened the program by underscoring the need for diversity in the profession. He inspired the audience with several poignant examples of the benefits of diversity outreach efforts. Likewise, the entire ISBA leadership—President Irene Bahr, President-elect Joseph Bisceglia, 2nd Vice President Jack Carey, and 3rd Vice President John O’Brien—participated in individual roundtable exchanges.
For background on the Pipeline effort, Roundtable participants heard from two representatives of the Wingspread P-20 Pipeline Leadership Consortium, a national coalition of educators dedicated to addressing pipeline issues. Amy Jarmon, Assistant Dean for Academic Success Programs at Texas Tech University School of Law, discussed the in-depth research that the Wingspread Consortium has conducted and some of its specific suggestions for pipeline programs. Ruthe Ashley, a member of the State Bar of California’s Board of Governors and head of the Bar’s Diversity Pipeline Task Force, explained how her group created a “Best Practices” manual to identify model diversity programs and encourage collaborative efforts by bench, bar, and academics.
With that introduction, Roundtable participants rolled up their sleeves and began the hard work of identifying the needs in Illinois and what programs might be most effective to address those needs. Working in small groups representing a mix of constituencies, the participants addressed a series of questions, ranging from “What level of student should we target?” to “How can the ISBA help?”
In answering the first question, some participants inquired about the ultimate goal of the program—i.e., whether it should work toward: (1) the specific goal of promoting legal careers for minority students, which would suggest that the ISBA should concentrate its efforts on providing role models and encouragement to junior high, high school, and pre-law students; or (2) a more general goal of helping students develop the skills necessary to succeed in law and other academically demanding careers, which would suggest that the program should target reading and writing programs for grade school and pre-school students.
A majority of the participants appeared to favor the broader mission of promoting academic success and leadership skills for all minority students. They cautioned, however, that pipeline leaks are part of a larger societal problem and some of the obstacles—e.g., lack of food/clothing, parental supervision, and educational support—are beyond the expertise of the legal community.
Participants observed that there is an “incredible array” of pipeline-related programs that already exist in Chicago and elsewhere in the state. But there was a general consensus that these programs offered a piecemeal, and sometimes inconsistent, solution to the problem. Accordingly, the overriding theme that emerged from the discussions was the need for integration, institutionalization, and continuity. In other words, instead of “reinventing the wheel” by duplicating programs that were already in existence, the ISBA could help to pull together a comprehensive package of existing programs that address the variety of needs that exist along the entire spectrum of the educational pipeline.
Participants ultimately identified a number of ways in which the ISBA is well-situated to address the pipeline problem. First, and foremost, the ISBA has the resources (committees, staff, Web site, etc.) to act as a clearinghouse to coordinate the wide variety of programs that already exist and to develop additional programs, if needed, to fill any unmet needs. Second, the ISBA has a strong membership base that can provide the human capital to help implement these programs. Third, the ISBA can use its political influence to advocate for legislative funding and programs that will address poverty and educational issues beyond the reach of the ISBA.
The Next Steps
At the end of the Roundtable, ISBA President-Elect Joe Bisceglia gave his enthusiastic support for the development of a pipeline initiative. He suggested that during his term, the ISBA can provide a leadership role by creating a Diversity Task Force charged with assembling information, finding ways for the ISBA to partner with educational and other institutions, and identifying funding sources.
The Standing Committee concurred with President-Elect Bisceglia and issued a report recommending that the ISBA appoint a task force that would carry out the following tasks:
• Serve as a clearinghouse and coordinator of information – The task force should assess the existing diversity programs and create a matrix that links the existing programs to the needs and skills of the various grade or age levels. The matrix and program descriptions should be posted in an appropriate place on the ISBA’s Web site and in other forms as the task force deems appropriate to encourage participation by ISBA members, as well as local bar associations and law firms, throughout the state.
• Establish partnerships to implement promising programs—The task force should identify programs that would benefit from the ISBA’s involvement and establish the appropriate partnerships (with the judiciary, educators, service providers, etc.) to implement those programs. These programs may include those that are already in existence, as well as new programs needed to bridge gaps that the task force identifies in its matrix.
• Advocate for funding/programs to be carried out by others—To the extent that the task force identifies needs that cannot be effectively addressed by the legal community on its own, the task force should urge the ISBA to lend its resources (whether direct funding or political influence) to those organizations or institutions that are better situated to address those needs.
• Assessment – The task force should devise a way to evaluate the effectiveness of current and future pipeline initiatives.
• Funding – The task force should identify monetary resources needed to support pipeline initiatives.
The Standing Committee further recommended that membership on the Diversity Task Force include representatives from the wide range of constituencies that participated in the Diversity Roundtable, as well as other constituencies that identified during the Roundtable as critical to a pipeline initiative.
As President-Elect Bisceglia has indicated elsewhere in this newsletter, he already has taken steps to put these recommendations into action.