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VOL. 121 | NO. 45 | Thursday, February 23, 2006

U of M Law School Recruits Minorities Despite Funding Concerns

By Andrew Ashby

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"I think once you have a higher number of minorities in law school, particularly urban law schools like the University of Memphis, then you'll have a pipeline for firms to hire more minority attorneys."
- Lee Harris
Law professor and former commercial litigation
attorney for Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC's Memphis office

A program that helps minority students get into University of Memphis and University of Tennessee-Knoxville law schools could be in jeopardy.

The Tennessee Institute of Pre-Law is funded through 2006 but faces an uncertain future unless Gov. Phil Bredesen's 2007 budget is passed this spring, said Dr. William Arnold, director of interagency grants and academic programs at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

TIP started as a result of a 1968 discrimination lawsuit against Tennessee that accused the state of maintaining a segregated higher education system even after its legal desegregation in 1956. State funds directed to minority programs as a result of the lawsuit are scheduled to end June 30, Arnold said. TIP's goal is to increase the number of black law students in Tennessee.

Even with TIP's future looking murky, Yolanda Ingram, local TIP director and dean of student affairs at U of M's Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, said she will continue recruiting minority students.

"It's just kind of a wait-and-see situation right now," she said.


Recruitment forges on

"(The Tennessee Institute of Pre-Law) has enhanced minority students' ability to perform well. In turn, it has lowered the University of Memphis' attrition rate, and our retention of African-American students has been higher than it had been prior to the program. Not only are we getting more African-American students, they're also graduating, which is the goal."
- Yolanda Ingram
Local Tennessee Institute of Pre-Law director and dean of student affairs
at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law

The local TIP program selects 20 students from more than 100 applicants to participate in eight weeks of summer classes with a final exam. Professors evaluate the students' work to determine who should be admitted to U of M's law school.

The program also helps minority students improve LSAT scores, which are one of the main criteria for law school admission.

"Nationally and in Tennessee, African-American students have scored lower on that exam overall than majority students," Ingram said. "This has basically been an opportunity for those students to prove themselves to gain admission to law school."

The program also exposes students to a law school environment.

"It has enhanced their ability to perform well," Ingram said. "In turn, it has lowered the University of Memphis' attrition rate, and our retention of African-American students has been higher than it had been prior to the program. Not only are we getting more African-American students, they're also graduating, which is the goal."

In 2005, 21 percent of the University of Memphis law school's enrollment consisted of minority students, with most being black.


It starts with hiring practices

Lee Harris, who has taught contract law and poverty law for one semester at U of M and worked in the commercial litigation department at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, describes himself as a huge proponent of diversity in law firms and law school.

While he's been impressed with minority recruitment funding in Memphis, he says the city has a long way to go when it comes to minority hiring practices in law firms.

"There are many firms, I believe, without big-time minority partners, and I think that's a little discouraging, particularly in a city which is majority minority," he said. "I think we need to get to the point where every law firm can boast minorities among the partnership and reach out and diversify their ranks.

"I think once you have a higher number of minorities in law school, particularly urban law schools like the University of Memphis, then you'll have a pipeline for firms to hire more minority attorneys."

Organizations such as TIP, law firm-sponsored scholarships and U of M's chapter of the Black Law Students Association appear to be effective minority recruitment vehicles.

"Right now, our diversity is sponsored by the state of Tennessee, and our funding is always in jeopardy," Harris said. "The firms here in Memphis could reach out and help. Some firms are doing just that, but we could always use more."

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