More Evidence of the White Bias in Legal Education

May 1st, 2016 / By

I wrote last summer about an important paper showing that non-white law students earn lower law school grades than their white classmates, even after controlling for LSAT score, undergraduate grades, and a host of other variables. That paper, written by Alexia Brunet Marks and Scott Moss, analyzed students enrolled at the University of Colorado and Case Western University schools of law.

A new study, authored by Daniel Schwarcz and Dion Farganis, documents the same effect among students at the University of Minnesota Law School. Schwarcz and Farganis’s primary research interest focuses on the educational impact of individualized feedback given to first-year law students. Paul Caron, Michael Simkovic, and Lawrence Solum have already discussed those parts of the paper; I hope to add some of my thoughts soon.

While analyzing the impact of feedback, however, Schwarcz and Farganis produced even more striking results related to race. The researchers, in fact, document a race effect that is almost twice as large as the feedback one. Receiving individualized feedback from a first-year professor, they found, was associated with a .108 rise in the student’s grade in the target class. That difference emerged after controlling for LSAT score, UGPA, and several other factors.

Being a U.S. born minority student, on the other hand, was associated with a .209 fall in the student’s grade. Once again, that association emerged after controlling for LSAT score, UGPA, and several other factors. The negative association for race was almost twice as large as the positive association for feedback.

As Schwarcz and Farganis acknowledge, statistical association does not prove causation; other variables might explain the positive relationship they found between individualized feedback and grades. It is hard, however, to imagine what those other variables might be in the case of the negative relationship between minority race and grades. And now we have two well controlled studies documenting that negative relationship. (A third study, by John Fordyce et al., is in press and I am working to obtain a copy of it.)

I look forward to discussing the pedagogic implications of the Schwarcz and Farganis feedback study; their paper offers a lot of food for thought. But I also hope colleagues will discuss their finding about the association between race and law school grades. Why are law schools failing their minority students in this way?

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  • Unemployed_Northeastern

    This is reminiscent of a study conducted by Nextions a few years ago: they concocted a research memo in which they inserted about two dozen errors of various sorts – grammatical, citation, substantive. They sent the memo to 60 law firm partners who agreed to evaluate the memo for the study. The partners were told the memo was written up by a 3rd year associate who graduated from NYU Law named Thomas Meyer. The study hinged on this: half the partners were told Thomas Meyer was white, the other half were told he was black. White Thomas Meyer received an average evaluation of 4.1 out of 5.0; black Thomas Meyer received an average evaluation of 3.2 out of 5.0. The comments are even more revealing: white Thomas Meyer received praise like “good analytical skills” while black Thomas Meyer received comments like “can’t believe he went to NYU.”

    And, erm, you may want to think about changing “felated” to “related” in paragraph three.

    • DeborahMerritt

      Wow, that was quite a typo! Thanks for the heads-up, as well as for the excellent description of the “Thomas Meyer” study.

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        This close to paging Dr. Freud;-) The Meyer study is, in a word, sobering.

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