Speaker shows students diverse paths to law school
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Alani Perkins will take an exam this weekend that could get her into law school, so it was perfect timing for Tuesday’s question-and-answer session with Angela Winfield at Grand Canyon University.
Winfield, chief diversity officer for the Law School Admission Council, leads its nationwide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Law Listening Tour of college campuses to try to increase law school diversity. The council also creates the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which Perkins will take.
“From my perspective, I don’t see people like me (in law),” said Perkins, a GCU student who is Black and a student leader in the GCU’s Department of Diversity and Inclusion. “Seeing her reminds me I can do anything I put my mind to.”
Winfield sat before the assembled in the College of Theology’s Howerton Hall with her guide dog at her feet.
“I am a Black blind woman,” she said. “So it wasn’t an easy pathway for me.”
Yet she attended law school at Cornell University, landed a job at a commercial law firm and was on track to be a partner.
“I looked at the industry and there wasn’t a lot of diversity. I realized my life experience could be valuable to help diversity in the profession,” she said. “I didn’t go through this without obstacles and barriers. Because I had been through this it could be very motivating and inspiring. I want to be part of breaking down those barriers.”
Winfield quit the firm and took the job with the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) six months ago to improve it. In 2020, 61% of first-year law students were white, 13% Hispanic, 8% Black and 7% Asian, with multiracial or unclassified making up the rest, according to the American Bar Association.
LSAC believes it’s important to have lawyers who look like the population and share similar life experiences.
“The primary issue is to better serve the community because the community is so diverse. It’s not just to benefit the individual. It’s a social benefit to all of us,” said Kevin Walling, Chair of Justice Studies, Government and History, who organized the event.
A number of barriers exist to diversity, Winfield said during the question-and-answer session.
“It begins with not realizing they can be part of the profession, not seeing themselves in it,” Winfield said. “A lot of students share with me that they don’t know the unwritten rules.”
Among them are when to begin study for the all-important LSAT exams and the option to supply a diversity statement along with a personal statement when applying for law schools.
“If you have lawyers in the family or you have a network that is well connected, you have that information,” Winfield said.
Perkins didn’t know about providing a diversity statement, so after the presentation the senior said will supply one when applying for law schools.
“I have experienced a lot of things other people have not. I didn’t come from the best place in Inglewood, (California). People were shot on the street every other day,” she said. “People don’t pursue law because they are afraid of the law.”
Race and ethnicity, disabilities and LGBTQ status are some areas that contribute to diversity. but also included are age, socioeconomic status and even geographical representation, such as those who were raised in rural areas.
The Law School Admission Council’s founding mission is to advance justice, Winfield said, so the LSAT exam was created as a more objective way to look at law admissions rather than “who you know or what schools you went to.”
For many students, questions centered on what it costs to attend law school or simply take the entrance exams. Winfield said her organization is limited in addressing law school’s business models, but promoting strategies for financial aid and planning that can narrow gaps are within its sights.
She also said the council has improved the way it accommodates students with disabilities. “In 2020, 99.45% received all the accommodations they requested. We changed that policy to be more expansive,” she said.
“For me as a person with a disability, this isn’t something that is an extra or a nice-to-have or even something LSAC pats itself on the back for. We are proud to this, but it’s the minimum that is required.”
The organization also is paying more attention to the stress of law school because attorneys have higher rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
“It’s a very stressful profession, and it starts with the application process,” she said.
Winfield counseled students to be clear on why they are pursuing a law degree and to come back to that when times get tough. It’s also important to carve out time for revitalization with hobbies and other outside pursuits.
One of the ways to increase diversity is in the test itself. Winfield said LSAC has a team that analyzes each question for bias. For example, in the 1960s a question regarding a regatta was on the test, and many students likely had to be of a higher socioeconomic background to know that, she said. The term was eliminated.
LSAC also encourages law schools to look at potential students who are applying “more holistically” – beyond grades. There is a score gap among races, she said, because of “societal inequity in education,” and she encouraged students to write a diversity statement.
“What we talk about in a diversity statement is your personal experiences that have shaped your perspective,” she said. “With those things, admission folks really get to see who you are.”
Attorneys are problem-solvers as much as people who can argue and rely on logic and reasoning. The test is written by Ph.D.s in philosophy, so it’s not a bad idea to take a course in that area, she said.
The Rev. Donald Glenn, director of GCU’s Department of Diversity and Inclusion, said the presentation provided key information. “We just want to supplement it by helping students find out what their resources are,” he said.
For Perkins, the session came at a perfect time.
“I studied hard for the LSAT,” she said. “This gave me a lot of insight.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.