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Excerpted From: Melanie D. Wilson, A Reckoning over Law Faculty Inequality, 98 Denver Law Review Forum 1 (September 20, 2020) (65 Footnotes) (Full Document)
As lawyers, we tend to think of ourselves as the defenders of justice - for the rich and poor, Black and white. Indeed, this ideal is engraved above the entrance to the United States Supreme Court with the words “Equal Justice Under Law.” Many aspiring students choose law school, seeking a path to public service and hoping to become advocates for social change. But, before you can become a lawyer licensed to defend justice, most states require that you obtain a law degree. In the United States, earning that Juris Doctor degree generally requires admission to one of 203 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. Because there are so few, law schools are selective when choosing students and even more particular when hiring faculty. “[A] handful of elite law schools” produce the vast majority of law faculty. Law professors also tend to share other common indicators of success. Most served on law review during law school, ranked in the top 15% of their graduating class, and many landed a prestigious judicial clerkship following law school graduation. Often, law faculty complete competitive fellowship programs after clerking as further preparation for the rigorous law teaching interview process. Furthermore, Ph.Ds (in addition to law degrees) are commonplace among law faculty credentials. In short, the practice of law is a highly selective profession, and law teaching is even more exacting.
Given that equal justice under law is a common refrain among lawyers and law students, one would hope that law schools are warm and welcoming places for all who can overcome the steep law faculty hiring hurdles. Especially considering that law school faculties are overwhelmingly ideologically “liberal,” one might also think that race and gender diversity would be valued and that law faculties would take special care to recruit underrepresented faculty and ensure their success.
Not so. Not only are most law professors credentialed with degrees from a few, highly ranked law schools, but law schools are also filled with white, male professors. The ratio of men to women lawyers is nearly 2:1, and eighty-six percent of lawyers are white. Only 5% of lawyers are African American; another 5% are Hispanic. The numbers are similar in legal academia with almost three-quarters of all law faculty identifying as white, and a strong majority are male. Unequal Profession: Race and Gender in Legal Academia, Dr. Meera Deo confirms that legal academia is anything but welcoming or fair for women of color. Reporting results from her first-of-its kind, formal empirical study of law school faculties, Deo documents the many, common challenges facing women of color law faculty. Dr. Deo's work reveals that white, male faculty thrive, while women, particularly women of color, experience multiple barriers to success.
In the wake of George Floyd's death, law schools across the country vowed to act to defeat racism in society, within the legal profession, and inside their own walls. To deliver on that commitment, law schools must hire and proactively work to retain more faculty of color. As Deo's book reveals, the status quo is inadequate. This change will be difficult. The stories Deo shares in Unequal Profession reflect our entrenched conscious and unconscious bias in favor of white, male law professors. Thankfully, Unequal Profession also gives us tools and strategies to achieve a more just law school experience for both students and faculty.
Part I of this review provides an overview of the structure and purpose of Unequal Profession and introduces its accomplished author.
Part II briefly discusses Deo's findings, explaining why they are so powerful.
Finally, Part III demonstrates why Deo's research matters so much, especially now, as we sit at the precipice of a new, dedicated fight for racial justice in America.
[. . .]
Over the course of my life, I've often heard friends, politicians, businesses, and law schools talk about improving inclusivity and increasing diversity. But this time feels different. If it is different, Deo's book is more important than ever. Unequal Profession could not be more timely or relevant. We are in the midst of a racial reckoning with ongoing national protests over unjust killings by police. A Black woman has just been named a vice presidential candidate for the first time. Law schools across the country have vocally declared that Black Lives Matter and that law schools are committed to actively improving the environment for students and faculty of color. Yet, women of color law faculty--among the most highly accomplished lawyers in the country--still face significant challenges, struggles, and discrimination that their male colleagues and their white female colleagues do not confront and sometimes may not even notice. While white men benefit the most from current institutional structures that favor whiteness and maleness, men of color benefit from male privilege, and white women (like me) benefit from white privilege. Law schools won't change until those of us who profit, wholly or partly, from the benefits of our privilege take part in genuine self-reflection about changing the systems and procedures that keep us in preferred positions of power and influence.
Unequal Profession shows us why we owe it to ourselves and our marginalized colleagues to engage in this introspection and to challenge the status quo, even if changing involves a reckoning over our own privilege and control. Deo offers practical suggestions for improving the experiences and day-to-day lives of our marginalized faculty colleagues. As lawyers, we know that solving a complex problem begins with a full appreciation of the pertinent issues, and this book provides a definitive resource for that understanding and for improving inequality in legal academia. If law schools are serious about attracting more minority students, and diversifying our faculties and the legal profession, then Unequal Profession should be assigned reading for a faculty retreat or a series of faculty dialogues.
Melanie D. Wilson is Dean Emerita and Lindsay Young Distinguished Professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law.
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