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 William C. Kidder

William C. Kidder, The Struggle for Access from Sweatt to Grutter: a History of African American, Latino, And American Indian Law School Admissions, 1950-2000, 19 Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal 1-41 (Spring, 2003)(190 Footnotes)



At the same time that affirmative action programs were taking root at American law schools, other demographic trends were transforming the structure of opportunity to attend law schools. Applications to ABA law schools increased sharply between 1960 and 1975, particularly between 1968 and 1973. Chart 4 indicates that LSAT administrations, a close proxy for application trends, jumped from 23,800 in 1960 to 133,316 in 1975, a stunning increase of 460%. Total ABA first-year enrollments increased from 17,031 to 39,038 between 1960 and 1975, a more modest increase of 129%. In other words, the demand for legal education skyrocketed, even relative to increased supply. This jolt was most pronounced between the late 1960s and the early 1970s. For reasons that will be discussed shortly, these trends would soon have a substantial impact on opportunities for students of color.

The baby boom--the dramatic increase in American birth rates following World War II--contributed significantly to the sharp increase in law school applications during the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to the simple effect of increased numbers, baby boomers approached adulthood n an era when higher education was available to a much larger segment of society. A legal education was more attainable because of the G.I. Bill, Cold War educational competition, a strong economy for educated workers, and increased funding for state universities and student grant and loan programs. Further, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many young men were motivated to apply to law school because they opposed the war in Vietnam and were seeking draft deferments.

A second factor driving the increased competition to law schools in the 1970s was the steady rise in applications from women. In the 1950s and 1960s, law schools adopted policies and practices that excluded women. In those days, it was not seen as contradictory for the legal education establishment to advocate racial desegregation, yet support discrimination against women. For example, in 1951, the AALS Special Committee on Racial Discrimination was able to get 85 of 102 member law schools to vote in favor of a resolution, without enforcement provisions, opposing racial discrimination in law school admissions. Yet the AALS Special Committee was careful to note:

The suggestion has been urged upon the committee that if the Association condemns discrimination in admission on ground of race, then it should go further and condemn discrimination on grounds of sex or religion. The committee does not believe this is so.

Discrimination against women is now not a serious enough problem in fact to be worth Association action. Where it exists, it carries no invidious implications.

Likewise, in 1964, Erwin Griswold of Harvard Law School assured students and alumni, "[T]here could never be a great influx of women into the school ... because the policy was never to give any man's place to a woman." This institutionalized policy of male privilege was also reflected in the Harvard Special Summer Program, the first significant affirmative action outreach program in legal education designed to encourage African Americans in the South to apply to law school. In 1966, Harvard's assistant dean coolly remarked that "women suffered heavily when selections were made" regarding admission into the program because admitting a substantial proportion of women made no sense in light of the "relatively low proportion of women" at Harvard and other law schools. In 1968, ten ABA-accredited law schools, including Notre Dame, still had zero female students. Other schools in the mid-1960s, like Columbia, placed ceilings on the number of women who could enroll.

In the 1960s and 1970s, feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, and other social forces put pressure on law schools to open their doors to women--that is at least White women from middle- to upper-class backgrounds. At the same time, these same forces contributed to the substantial expansion of the pool of female applicants. Chart 4 reflects this transformation, with 1064 women first-year students at ABA law schools in 1965 (4% of total enrollments), compared to 3542 in 1970 (10%), 10,472 in 1975 (27%), and 15,272 in 1980 (36%). This trend has continued, with 18,592 women in 1990 (42%) and 21,499 in 2000 (49%).

Prior to the application explosion resulting in part from the aforementioned factors, only a few law schools, including Ole Miss and Tulane, relied extensively on the LSAT in law school admissions decisions. These schools likely adopted such policies as a pretense for maintaining segregation, which is consistent with other pro-segregation maneuvers by Southern universities during that period. The more common practice at that time, however, was for schools to weigh undergraduate grade point average (UGPA) more heavily than the LSAT. This fact was reflected in a 1965 survey of eighty-eight law schools, which reported that a majority of law schools, including Boalt, Harvard, Pennsylvania, and Yale, relied on UGPA more than the LSAT. For example, prior to 1961, Boalt Hall admitted virtually all applicants with at least a B average in college; the LSAT was only used as a factor for applicants with less than a B average. Likewise, in the early 1960s, the University of Texas Law School admitted all applicants who had a 2.2 UGPA and took the LSAT, regardless of their test scores.

The increased demand for legal education in the 1970s, illustrated in Chart 4, brought the competitiveness of law school admissions to dizzying heights, particularly at elite schools. This trend led to the LSAT becoming the centerpiece of the admissions process because schools were looking for an efficient method for sorting thousands of applications. Applications o Boalt Hall rose from 706 in 1960, to 1490 in 1964, to 2340 in 1969, and to 4958 in 1972--a sixfold increase over that span. Whereas 68% of Boalt applicants were admitted in 1960, only 12% of a much stronger pool were admitted in 1972. By 1972, those admitted to Boalt under the "regular" (i.e., non-affirmative action) program had a median LSAT in the 97th percentile. The 5000-plus applicants to the fall 1970 incoming class at Harvard had a median LSAT of 640 on a 200-800 scale, and those accepted had a median score of 695. At another unidentified law school, the entering class in 1969 had a median UGPA of 2.3 and a median LSAT of 503, but only three years later these figures rose to 3.0 and 600.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the LSAT was firmly established as the most influential factor in law school admissions decisions. While in 1961 only eight ABA schools had entering classes with a median LSAT of 600 or above, by 1972, it was estimated that more than 100 ABA schools had entering classes with median LSAT scores of 600 or higher. Moreover, in 1961, the median LSAT score at 81% of law schools was below 485, whereas by 1975, 510 was the lowest mean LSAT score of any ABA school. By 1980, the LSAT mean for students entering the University of Illinois College of Law (679) had caught up to the LSAT median for Harvard's class in 1969.

The increased competition during the 1970s was most severe at elite law schools, partly because these schools grew much less than other law schools. Total J.D. enrollments at ABA law schools increased 53% between 1970 and 1980, due both to the expansion of existing law schools and twenty-five additional schools obtaining ABA accreditation. By contrast, total enrollments at a dozen elite law schools--Boalt Hall, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Michigan, NYU, Pennsylvania, Stanford, Virginia, and Yale--grew by only four percent between 1970 and 1980.

n overlooked irony amidst all these trends is that while critics argued that affirmative action meant admitting "unqualified" and "unprepared" students and led to the "general debasement of academic standards," admission standards were relatively more relaxed during the 1950s and early 1960s, when White men maintained virtually total control over access to legal education. For instance, at the University of Michigan Law School, the students of color in the entering class of 1971 had equivalent index scores to Michigan's White male-dominated class of 1957. Yet nationally, these White males of the 1950s and early 1960s, the majority of whom would have been denied access to an ABA education under the more extreme competition that was the norm by the early 1970s, apparently performed well enough as the judges, professors, government officials, and law firm partners of their generation. Likewise, a recent study of minority (mostly African American) alumni of the University of Michigan Law School found that they were equally successful as Whites in terms of income and career satisfaction and that they also had significantly higher civic service contributions than their White classmates.


Legal Education Before Affirmative Action
The Rise of Affirmative Action
The Rise of the LSAT
Stalled Progress
The Fall of Affirmative Action
Contemporary Admission Environment

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 24, 2004  
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