November 9, 2023

Seattle U, UW Law School Deans Speak on Equity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession

Photo of Seattle University School of Law Dean Anthony E. Varona, University of Washington School of Law Dean Tamara F. Lawson, Pacifica Law Group Partner Carlos Chavez.

Dean Varona, Dean Lawson, and Pacifica’s Carlos Chavez.

Pacifica Law Group had the honor last week of hosting a conversation with Tamara F. Lawson, University of Washington School of Law Toni Rembe Dean and Professor of Law, and Anthony E. Varona, Seattle University School of Law Dean and Professor of Law. During the discussion, moderated by Pacifica partner Carlos Chavez, the Deans spoke about current efforts to increase equity and inclusion in the legal profession, including the roles law schools, law firms, government attorneys, and the wider legal community can play. The Deans also offered ideas for actions legal employers and individual attorneys may take to support students and graduates from underrepresented communities, and to create a more diverse bar.

Below are some key takeaways from the conversation.

Barriers to Legal Education and How to Break Them Down

The discussion with Deans Lawson and Varona touched first on the biggest barriers to legal education that students from diverse backgrounds face, and what can be done to help grow the pipeline of legal students from underrepresented communities.

Dean Lawson noted that finances are a significant barrier to legal education. Increased scholarships and other financial support will improve access to legal education and increase the talent pool, she said. She also highlighted the importance of confidence. “Certain communities have been told more often than others that they don’t belong [in the legal profession],” she said. Welcoming, embracing, and encouraging prospective students from underrepresented communities can have a significant impact on their confidence.

Aspiration is another significant barrier, Dean Varona explained. Many prospective law students from diverse backgrounds do not have contact as children or young adults with legal professionals, and hence do not consider law careers. It is important to find ways to reach, mentor, and inspire more young people to pursue the law.

Legal education is also physically not available to many potential students, Dean Varona added. For instance, he noted the Hispanic and Latinx communities in Central Washington, and that lawyers and law schools are primarily in Seattle or elsewhere. “Not only do [potential law students] not have access to role models, but they don’t have access to local easy legal ed,” Varona explained. He later highlighted Seattle U School of Law’s effort to launch hybrid law school hubs in Yakima Valley, South Puget Sound and Anchorage, areas where no brick and mortar law schools currently exist.

Dean Varona also noted that Washington’s three law schools (Gonzaga University, Seattle University, and University of Washington) partner with Heritage University in Toppenish, WA, on the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) Program, a law school pipeline for Latino/Latina/Latinx students and Indigenous students from the Yakima Valley. The program, which is funded by LSAC and just finished its second year, has seen Heritage University graduate students into law school programs for the first time. “It’s been very successful,” Dean Varona said.

How Legal Employers Can Increase Equity and Inclusion through Hiring

Deans Lawson and Varona also discussed the impact legal employers may have in creating opportunities and widening the pool of talented early career lawyers.

They both suggested that law firms and other legal employers take a hard look at their hiring practices and consider who those practices may be excluding. Students who come to law school with fewer privileges are more prone to struggle initially in law school, causing them to miss out on opportunities such as the Law Review or clerkships, Dean Lawson noted. “Your first grades in law school put you on a pathway, or exclude you from the pathway where you can impact the profession,” Dean Lawson added. “I would encourage us all to step out of some of the traditional stereotypes or limits or barriers that we have set in our profession, around elitism, frankly, and be willing to explore each individual.”

“You have to get to the bottom of what it is that your hiring practices are really screening for,” said Dean Varona. Traditional approaches exclude students who for reasons of personal circumstance may have struggled early in their law school careers, or may not have been able to attend an elite institution. “Is there tremendous talent among other law students that haven’t achieved those particular metrics? Of course there is.” Dean Varona explained that it is common for students who do not come from privileged backgrounds to struggle early on, but to then go on to become excellent students and achieve high marks in their second and third years. “Is that kind of student captured by the current law firm recruiting model? Largely not,” he said. “Isn’t there a talent, isn’t there a tremendous gift, as an employee, as a new lawyer, in overcoming such a set of significant obstacles and becoming a successful law student?”

How Legal Employers May Help Create a More Inclusive Pipeline of Legal Students

Deans Lawson and Varona suggested that law firms also have important contributions to make in increasing the number of students who choose to pursue legal education, and in preparing those students for success.

Dean Lawson suggested law firms find ways to support students and prospective lawyers in their development of written and oral communications skills. “We all know that your writing skills are paramount for our profession. And almost always, they’re slightly lacking [in students],” Dean Lawson noted, including as a result of COVID-related educational disruptions.

Pipeline programs that reach high school and college students need much more involvement from lawyers, Dean Varona said. Legal professionals may get involved in bar association activities, or reach out to high schools and offer to speak to students. “These small things can ripple out in such important ways that it’s easy for us to underestimate,” Dean Varona explained.

On the Need for Mentoring and Sponsorship, and Attorneys’ Professional Obligations

In concluding the discussion, Deans Lawson and Varona singled out the importance of mentoring and sponsorship for students and early career lawyers from underrepresented communities. Dean Varona pointed out that the level of mentoring needs to increase. “In many of the programs that we have set up over the last several decades, ‘mentoring light’ is what we’ve been offering, and it’s simply not enough,” he explained.

Dean Varona also noted the distinction between mentoring and sponsorship, and that the latter means connecting students and early career lawyers with concrete opportunities. “We have a professional obligation as attorneys who have licenses to diversify the profession and provide pro bono service,” Dean Varona said.

Dean Lawson emphasized the importance of DEI activities leading to concrete action and commitment in the form of scholarships, externships and internships, jobs, and other opportunities for students from underrepresented communities. The challenge for law firms and for individual lawyers is to, not just check a box by participating in a DEI activity, but to “follow through…as it relates to making a true impact in the landscape of the future of our profession.”