The Importance of Pipelines

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court released their decision on the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) cases. They determined that Harvard’s and UNC’s race conscious admissions programs violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Holland & Knight, a global law firm based in Tampa, Fla., summed up the decision like this:

“In short, the Supreme Court found that the use of race as a plus factor in admissions violated the Equal Protection Clause because 1) it had a negative impact on applicants of other races, 2) relied on racial stereotyping and 3) lacked a “logical end point.” Given that race was sometimes the dispositive factor in admissions decisions and viewing admissions as a “zero-sum,” the majority concluded that applicants of other races were negatively impacted by the plus factor process. The majority objected to the use of separating applicants by six racial classifications, finding those classifications overbroad, arbitrary and based on stereotypes. The majority also objected to permitting race-conscious admissions practices for an indefinite period, asserting that exceptions to the Equal Protection Clause must be limited in duration.”

There were immediate reactions to the Court’s ruling that reverberated across social media and the country. There were strong emotional reactions and responses from both sides of the issue, ranging from relief and joy to deep sadness and anger. People rushed to read the opinions to try and understand the implications of this decision.  Institutions of higher learning had been watching this case closely since October 31, 2022, when the argument was made, and in fact, many had been looking closely at their admissions processes, policies, and programs as they waited. Although, the truth is, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978) and Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) are never far from the minds of admissions professionals.

On that day, however, my immediate thoughts went to the pipeline program that I started in 2017 at Duke University School of Law. I began to reflect on the importance of the program and the many like it that have allowed students from underrepresented backgrounds and communities to learn more about the legal profession. How would this decision affect these programs? Would there be an immediate attack on the legitimacy of their effectiveness and purpose? What’s next?

Those questions filled my thoughts, but then I began to lean into the success stories. I thought back over the 119 students whom I personally was able to expose to the law and the profession and was immediately reminded of the importance of pipeline programs to the future of the legal profession.

Pipeline programs have been around since the late 1800s in the form of programs like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board to the Upward Bound programs of the 1960s, the Ronald McNair program in the 1980s and the College Advising Corps in the 2000s. There have been many programs that recognized the needs of low-income, first-generation students and underrepresented minority groups. They have been used to address inequities and offer access to resources and information that often did not reach all communities. Often these programs focus on different parts of the educational journey because there are different needs for different groups.

While it is certainly true that the earlier you can reach a child, the more effective it is, it is also important to recognize that information is power whenever it is given. When considering a timeline to reaching students interested in law school, it certainly pays to catch students early in their undergraduate career.

Why? It allows students to have an opportunity to correct study behaviors, make better class selection, and understand the myriad of options they have. It means an investment of time and energy to build a safer and more accessible road to a career in the law. It means that firms and solo practitioners volunteer and show up at opportunities to extend their knowledge to the next generation. It means offering a positive example of what a lawyer does and how they operate. The future of the law depends on a diverse group of candidates prepared and ready to advance the rule of law.

Even as I pondered the importance of pipeline programs in terms of increasing the number of diverse candidates, what I have found to be the most profound for me as an advocate for pipeline work is the opportunity to witness an exchange of representation. I’ll explain!

I have seen many students reduced to tears when they sat in a session with a lawyer who looked like them or had a similar experience. I have seen eyes light up when they realize that the job in the Justice Department is possible for them because someone who has a similar story is currently working there. I have also seen an almost equal number of attorneys who are excited and proud to see students who looked like them from their alma mater pursuing law as a profession. I have seen judges’ eyes well up with hope for the future of the court when they see students of various backgrounds with an excitement for the law.

Pipeline programs offer opportunity. While who is in the program is extremely important, what they see is equally impactful. The lawyers of the future need to see current practitioners modelling collaboration and belonging. They need to see a profession that cares about the impact of laws and policies on the communities they serve. They need to see people who remember their passion and dreams when they themselves attended law school. They need to see an excitement for reaching back and pulling up. They need to see opportunity.

In August 2023, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice jointly released guidance for how institutions of education could operate under the guidelines of the SFFA decision. In these resources, it was stated that these types of programs can continue with careful understanding and language that individual applicants cannot be afforded preference based on race, ethnicity, or other legally protected categories. I was reminded that the journey to opportunity is not always dressed in equity or justice. However, it is the responsibility of those who hope to continue to see the growth of diversity, inclusivity, and belonging in the legal profession to work to offer access to the information and resources that can make it happen.

Ebony Bryant serves as the North Carolina Bar Association’s first Director of Diversity and Inclusion, a position she has held since November 1, 2022, and previously served as Associate Director of Admissions & Diversity Recruitment and Director of Diversity Initiatives at Duke University School of Law.