Choosing a Law School: A Guide for African American Applicants

choosing a law school

Credit: BigStock

At this time of year, most are taking a deep breath after filing taxes, finalizing an Easter outfit, or looking ahead to Memorial Day. Law school applicants, on the other hand, are stressed. Law school seat deposits for this fall’s 1L classes are due soon. Anyone would be stressed when facing a decision that could not only cost roughly $150,000, but could also determine future career prospects. With the cost, the pressure, the rankings, and other concerns to consider, it’s understandable that April causes anxiety in law students.

While all law students feel pressure to make the right choice, African American law students face additional pitfalls. Despite this reality, while many sources list factors that applicants should consider when choosing a law school, few of them mention the factors that matter to students of color. Read on to learn about the things African American applicants should consider when choosing a law school.

Why the Law School Experience is Different for African Americans

Let’s be clear: spending three years learning completely new skills and terms is frustrating for all students. But for students of color, the situation is compounded by several factors.    First, despite any claims to the contrary, racism remains a problem in America and in American law schools. Just last year, a tenured professor at a highly-ranked law school publicly stated that Black students always finish in the bottom of the class at her school. Second, beyond the explicit bias, law schools continue to exhibit milder forms of bias, such as when professors write exams that ask students to justify slavery or segregation. Whether active racism or passive prejudice, biases distract students from their studies and create additional anxiety beyond the stress normally associated with law school.

Finally, bias in law school and in America in general causes Black students to experience stereotype threat. Stereotype threat affects women, people of color, and other outsider groups. The threat causes these groups to avoid “weak” behaviors such as asking for help for fear that they will validate stereotypes about their group. So, while all law students are afraid of failure, researchers have found that African American law students are “hyper-primed” for stereotype threat, which increases their risk of poor performance.

All of this is not to say that Black students should avoid law school or apply only to Howard. (Although, really, truly, you should apply to Howard.) But it does mean that Black students need to consider different factors than their white peers when choosing a law school.

Factors African American Law Students Should Consider When Choosing a Law School

All prospective law students should consider factors such as affordability, curriculum offerings, job placement, and the like. But to counter the pitfalls listed above, African American applicants should consider the following factors as well.

Location. Some law schools have diverse student bodies. Others do not. Granted, law school doesn’t provide much time for socializing. However, law school is isolating enough for people of color without adding the extra stress of not being able to find the make-up or hair care products you need or not being able to attend the worship services you want. Also, lawyers of color tend to cluster in certain cities. Take time to consider which city is best for you before making a final decision.

Black Students Feelings of isolation reinforce the fears that support stereotype threat. So, before deciding on a law school, take a moment investigate how many African American law students are there. (You can find this information here and here.) Check quality as well as quantity. Is there an active BLSA chapter? What sort of programs does it sponsor? Do the Black students seem to get along? Answering these questions will help you determine if you will have a support system on campus.

Black Faculty.   A recent study found that law students of color were more likely to receive lower grades from professors of the opposite race and gender. Because most law school exams are graded anonymously, the results seem baffling. However, the difference may be explained by the fact that students of color are more likely to seek help from professors of color. Before you send in that seat deposit, go to the school’s website.  Count the number of people of color on the faculty. African American law students should seek out law schools with professors who are committed to helping Black students.

General Atmosphere.  Once upon a time, the only way to get the “feel” of a law school was to visit in person.  Visiting is probably still the best way to see if the students of color seem overly depressed, anxious, or stressed.  But if you can’t visit, do your research. Look at the school’s social media accounts. Check the news section of Google for information. If there have been any racial incidents, did the school take swift action? Do the white students at the school protest in solidarity with Black students?  If you can, reach out to the BLSA chapter to ask about life at the law school. Find out as much about student life as you can before you make a deposit.

Law school takes lots of time, money, and effort. But if you choose wisely, the time, money, and effort will pay off in the future. If you need help with choosing a law school or other issues related to law school, consult The African American Attorney Network. The Network exists to help African American lawyers and law students connect. Sign up for a FREE law student account on The Network to find a mentor to help you through law school.