DEI Legal Fellowship Lawsuit Casts Shadow on BIPOC Law Student Opportunities

A longtime conservative legal strategist challenged race-conscious college admissions in the Supreme Court and won. Now, he's challenging diversity fellowships, too.
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Updated on October 9, 2023
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  • The American Alliance for Equal Rights sued two law firms over their diversity-based fellowships.
  • Less than 5% of practicing lawyers are Black. Diversity fellowships aim to help more BIPOC individuals enter the field.
  • AAER says the fellowships offered by Morrison Foerster and Perkins Coie are discriminatory.
  • Experts say removing diversity legal fellowships will lead to greater financial and social barriers for BIPOC students hoping to enter the field.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ended race-based affirmative action programs in university admissions, conservative legal groups are targeting institutions unrelated to the ruling, raising concerns about diversity in the legal sphere.

Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), created by legal activist Edward Blum, took Harvard and the University of North Carolina to court over their affirmative action admissions programs. The Supreme Court heard the case this year, and on June 29, it overturned affirmative action in university admissions — undoing a 40-year precedent.

Blum founded an additional group, the American Alliance for Equal Rights (AAER). After his win in the Supreme Court, the AAER sued law firms Morrison Foerster and Perkins Coie in August for their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) fellowship programs.

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), less than 5% of practicing lawyers are Black. Other racial minorities make up about 10% of the field. In contrast, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that about 14% of the American population is Black. The number of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) lawyers does not reflect the general population — a problem DEI fellowships aim to help with.

Perkins Coie reports that 66% of its fellows are racially diverse with 13% being Black — a much more representative number. Fellowships are often coveted opportunities for students of all races and backgrounds to further their studies and careers while receiving some compensation. In a field where racial minority groups are underrepresented, these opportunities can be especially impactful for BIPOC students in legal studies programs.

After the AAER filed its suit, Morrison Foerster quickly changed the requirements for its DEI fellowship. Previously, the fellowship called for students who are members of historically underrepresented groups in the legal industry. Now, Morrison Foerster recognizes students with a demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

On Oct. 6, the AAER dropped their lawsuit against Morrison Foerster.

“Being a leader in the effort to remove barriers and create opportunities in the legal profession has made us a target, but Morrison Foerster’s commitment is steadfast and unshakeable,” Morrison Foerster said in a statement.

Blum told Bloomberg Law the AAER is satisfied with Morrison Foerster’s changes to its “illegal” program. Perkins Coie, however, hasn’t altered their DEI fellowship and is standing its ground.

As a firm, we have been a leader in efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession, Perkins Coie spokesperson Justin Cole told BestColleges. Our commitment to those values remains steadfast. We will defend this lawsuit vigorously.

Morrison Foerster did not respond to BestColleges' requests for comment prior to publishing.

With Perkins Coie planning to fight the lawsuit, there's no precedent yet — but what would the end of diversity legal fellowships mean for law students?

'Going Back in Time'

DEI fellowships often provide critical financial assistance, making legal education more accessible for BIPOC students who may face financial constraints. Minority students are more likely to struggle with financing their education than white students. This often forces them to take out larger student loans with higher interest rates.

Jean Lee is the president and CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of people from underrepresented groups in the legal field. According to Lee, these fellowships are considered a step toward equity, ensuring that talented individuals can pursue a legal career regardless of their financial circumstances.

Many students of color have had a significant financial need. Fellowships help alleviate some of that financial burden that is oftentimes a barrier to entry for many of the Black and brown students, Lee told BestColleges.

Fellowships from law firms like Perkins Coie offer stipends to help ease that burden. But in a sphere where BIPOC students are already underrepresented, attacks on affirmative action and DEI fellowships can slow down that progress even further.

I think that a lot of people of color are going to be deterred from receiving an education, especially an education that they think will really prepare them for the type of career they want, the University of California, Los Angeles' Black Law Student Association President Michael Stallworth told BestColleges.

The amount of job opportunities that people of color will have will be very slim, even more slim than what it is now. It feels like we're going back in time.

Loss of Diversity in the Field

Stallworth shared that in one of his classes, he is the only Black man. At times, he's felt isolated. And he's not alone — an article in the National Black Law Journal highlights similar sentiments. Removing the financial aid that DEI programs and fellowships provide risks making that isolation worse. Shrinking diversity in educational spaces ultimately means less diversity in the legal field, according to Lee.

In order for you to serve your consumers and your constituents, you need diverse people, Lee said.

DEI fellowships aim for better equity, and while Lee says they don't solve the problem, removing them takes away a platform for BIPOC law students.

Jared Turner, co-president of the University of Pennsylvania's Black Law Students Association, told BestColleges, The benefit to diversity programs is bringing more people to the table and being able to understand a diversity of perspectives, and that's really the thing that's disheartening to me with the lawsuit.

ABA says diversity is necessary to make sure that laws are made and navigated in a way that benefits all people. The public's perception of the legal profession affects their perception of the law. A lack of diversity in court contributes to a greater sense of distrust toward the entire legal system.

A diverse legal profession is more just, productive, and intelligent, according to ABA.

Discouragement and Minimization of BIPOC Success

The Perkins Coie fellowship does require its DEI fellows to fall into a diverse group — whether that be based on race, sexual orientation, or disability.

However, according to Lee, this does not necessarily put limitations on fellowships or other educational and career opportunities for white, heterosexual, nondisabled people. But the AAER states in its lawsuit that some of its members have been harmed by Perkins' racially discriminatory fellowships.

But Lee said the assumption that the acceptance of Black students into schools, fellowships, or jobs comes at the expense of white students is not a fair argument.

These decisions that they're glomming onto to say that [DEI programs] are somehow taking something away, well, they weren't yours in the first place. So why do you think that you would have gotten it over this other person? Lee said. There is a racist assumption that somehow you are better than that person who is Black, Hispanic, Asian, multiracial, etc.

Stallworth and Turner both noted that these cases and the rhetoric around them have left students discouraged.

People who are trying to reduce candidates to a diversity hire or to an affirmative action hire are reducing the greatness of the holistic person, Turner said. One person's success does not have to be to another person's detriment. I think that diversity-based programs, both in education as well as in the legal sphere, are an attempt to help people in groups who have historically been disadvantaged.

Blum did not respond to BestColleges' request for comment as of publication time.