Why Are Evangelicals Underrepresented Among the Legal Elite?

In a recent post, I asserted that evangelical Protestants are dramatically underrepresented compared to their national demographic figures in the American legal elite.  In this post, I ask why that is the case.  Let me make clear at the outset that I want to avoid causal reductionism, particularly of the kind that leads to easy imputations of blame.  The causes of this phenomenon are surely complex.

Let me begin by offering a thesis:  An important contributing factor to evangelical underrepresentation in the legal elite is evangelical underrepresentation in student enrollments in elite law schools.  Since the American legal elite is overwhelming staffed with graduates of elite law schools, there is at least a strong association between evangelical underrepresentation in student enrollments and the upper echelons of politically important legal jobs.  Since law school pedigrees are very important to securing elite jobs, then it is likely that evangelical underrepresentation in elite law schools provides a significant explanation for evangelical underrepresentation in the legal elite.

In my last post, I asserted (based on admittedly casual evidence) that evangelicals seem to be dramatically underrepresented (again compared to their national demographic percentage of 26%) in elite law student enrollments.  I can’t improve on that assertion for now, but I can provide some evidence on the importance of an elite law school pedigree for securing elite legal jobs.

A few snapshots:  Since 1970, the law school pedigrees of the thirteen Justices appointed to the Supreme Court are:  seven from Harvard, three from Yale, two from Stanford, one each from Columbia, Northwestern, and Washington & Lee.  Attorney General appointments since 1970:  Harvard (5), Chicago (2), Yale (1), Columbia (1), Berkeley (1), George Washington (1), Pittsburgh (1), Maryland (1), Ohio State (1), and Mercer (1).  Solicitor General appointments since 1970:  Harvard (3), Yale (2), Columbia (2), Chicago (2), Berkeley (1), Virginia (1), Duke (1), George Washington (1).  Among the current active or senior status judges on the D.C. Circuit, which is the top feeder circuit to the Supreme Court (with four current Justices having come from the D.C. Circuit), the figures are:  Harvard (4), Chicago (2), North Carolina (2), Yale (1), Virginia (1), Penn (1), Michigan (1), and UCLA (1).  To put a bow on this, of the 54 elite lawyers included in the foregoing lists, only 10 did not attend a traditional Top 10 law school (and the number falls to 8 if Northwestern and Duke, traditional Top 14 law schools, are included).

To bring things closer to home, consider the JD pedigree of faculty at my current employer, the University of Michigan Law School.  On the tenure or tenure-track faculty, the figures are as follows for faculty with a U.S. JD or LLB:  Yale (16), Harvard (9), Columbia (2), Michigan (2), NYU (2), Berkeley (2), Stanford (1), Virginia (2), Chicago (1), George Washington (1), Wisconsin (1).  These figures are broadly representative of the faculty at top law schools.

Now back to evangelicals and elite legal jobs.  If evangelicals are (and historically have been) underrepresented in student enrollments at the Top 10 law schools, which is the opening of the elite pipeline, it will be no surprise that they are underrepresented in the upper echelons of legal jobs.  So why are evangelicals underrepresented in elite law school student bodies?  Let me offer five possible contributing factors:

  1.  Geography

The elite law schools all draw their student bodies nationally, but there may be overall bias (in the statistical sense) toward students from the Northeast, particularly at the two most important “feeder” schools, Harvard and Yale.  Evangelicals are 26% of the nation, but just 10% of the Northeast.  The data are here.  Further, to the extent that the elite schools draw disproportionately not just from particular states or regions but from particular sub-regions (i.e., Manhattan, large metropolitan areas, etc.) or undergraduate schools, the effect may be even more pronounced.

2. Socio-economic status

Evangelicals skew lower in socio-economic status compared to other major religious demographic groups.  Significant indicators in which evangelicals “underachieve” include  household income and educational degree achievement.  To the extent that elite law schools draw disproportionately from upper income and high educational achievement households, socio-economic status may be an important contributing factor to lower evangelical enrollments in elite law school.

3.      Anti-intellectualism

As Mark Noll chronicled in his wonderful book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, American evangelicalism has a long and unfortunate tradition of anti-intellectualism.  It would not be surprising to find that some bright evangelical college graduates decline to pursue legal educations at elite law schools because they have been weaned on a deep mistrust of Ivy League intellectualism.

4.      Anti-elitism

Closely related to the last point but a little different is the possibility that a spirit of anti-elitism keeps some evangelicals away from elite law schools.  It is a mainstay of evangelical teaching that one should avoid pursuing “worldly” status at the expense of godly virtue.  Consider a bright young evangelical college graduate who is weighing a scholarship at the local state law school against a non-scholarship admission to a top ten school.  She balances her desire for a more prestigious degree against her desire to avoid debt and stay close to friends, family, and church.  It would not be surprising to find that, compared to her peers from other traditions, she is more likely to decide that the prestige value of the degree does not merit foregoing the scholarship to the state school.

5.      Alienation from the legal profession

Finally, I wonder to what extent the phenomenon of low evangelical representation at elite law schools is just part of a wider phenomenon of evangelical alienation from the legal profession more generally.  Are eligible evangelicals disproportionately not enrolling in law schools of any variety and opting instead for other sorts of careers?  I don’t know the answer, but it would not be surprising to learn that evangelicals have disproportionately not pursued legal careers because of a variety of attitudes, perspectives, or biases.  Just to throw out a few possibilities:  “practicing law requires unethical compromises;” “law is the province of liberals;” “trial lawyers are ruining America.”

My intuition is that each of these five stories has something to do with it, although I’m unsure how much weight to put on each.  I’m also pretty sure that there’s a lot more to the story, and would welcome reader comments with other perspectives.

I’ve posted some follow-up thoughts on whether it matters that evangelicals are underrepresented here.

17 responses

  1. Is it a problem that evangelicals do not attend Ivy League Law Schools, or is it a problem that Ivy League Law Schools are important. I think that the second is the problem and we should be working on that problem.
    But if you are going to ask the question, one of the possible reasons might be that Ivy League Law Schools are inhertantly communist institutions, and evangelicals generally are viscerally opposed to communism. Why would they go?

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  2. This article misses the most likely reason: elite law schools discriminate against evangelicals during the application process.

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  3. It would be interesting to find out how many grads of elite evangelical colleges such as Wheaton and Calvin go to law school, and to elite law schools, compared to grads of other elite liberal arts colleges. That would control for the IQ’s and wealth with the elite law school applicant pool.

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  4. I agree with your list above but you need to add one more category. I’ll call it Persecution. Anyone attending these schools knows, going in, that they will experience intense religious bigotry and outspoken hostility to the Gospel.and genuine Christ followers. This is ironic since many were founded with intent to spread the Gospel message, remember “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae”?

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  5. Romans 6:14…..
    For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

    Evangelicals believe that the law is a burden that no one can bear.

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  6. “practicing law requires unethical compromises”
    We have a winner. I’m an evangelical with a post-graduate engineering degree. Lawyers have a well-deserved reputation — after all, you do what you must to defend your client, within the letter but never the spirit of the rules of representation (which, themselves, were written by other lawyers with an eye toward ensuring lots of fun ethical loopholes). Choose, deliberately, to make your career as a professional liar? No thanks.

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  7. Valin, that’s silly. “The law” in the New Testament almost always refers to the Jewish law. There are some Biblical reasons why Evangelicals may not be as inclined toward the legal profession – for example, Paul can be reasonably read as disparaging civil plaintiff’s side work and promoting informal ADR among Christians. But there is no blanket admonition against work in the legal field. There’s even scriptural encouragement for some types of legal practice. For instance, Evangelical prosecutors read Romans 13:4 as endorsing their work.

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  8. I am an evangelical state law school graduate, UGA Lumpkin School of Law. I agree with each and every one of your 5 reasons for there being so few evangelicals at elite mostly Northern law schools. I think the practice of trial law is a difficult road for a Christian to venture down. I now practice transactional law (real estate, probate, will drafting, business entity creation), and I enjoy my quality of life much more than my Christian brothers and sisters of the law who still go to court. I think law school hardens the soul, and trial practice does so even more. I was active in the Christian Legal society in law school, and most of the students in that organization struggled with whether or not to stay in Law school, and a few quit school. This is an adversarial profession, and at times it is a very unpleasant business. I have been blessed to practice what I call “Happy Law.”

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  9. Or maybe it has something to do with the sinful standards of the legal profession that turns off Christians from that profession.

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  10. That raises another possibility. Many evangelicals are unused to having to live among people who disagree strongly with their position, and retreat from the World. That is perhaps true of Liberals too, except they control the World. I am thinking of some of the evangelicals who go to Bible colleges, or take an Amish-like attitude. This attitude of being unwilling to engage one’s adversaries would also make them hate law school by the very nature of law.

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  11. Read Ron Unz’s article in the American Conservative. Admissions officers are using the “White” affirmative action category to sneak in lower scoring Jews (Jewish academic performance has fallen significantly in the last 10 years). He provides hard data. After Affirmative Action, pro Jewish discrimination, and wealthy/legacy admits, the remaining Whites are as little as 7% of the student body.

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  12. I am an evangelical and lawyer & attended NYU and grew up in rural Oregon, and followed the standard track of big law firm before jumping off that bandwagon. The factor that most resonated with me was hostile environment. The unthinking condescenion from both faculty and fellow students was enormously isolating, and that same attitude continues in the big law firm environment. Why work where 90% of your colleagues think you are crazy, and being known as an evangelical Christian materially hurts your career? Many, including me, jump off the track that would lead to elite jobs and look for something that is a better fit for values.

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  13. Prosecutorial Indiscretion:…I don’t disagree. The law, as far as a government and populace is concerned, is quite important. At the same time I submit that the law, in its current state, does comprise an unbearable burden. One of the reasons that so many lawyers are necessary is that the law is too complex for a lay person to understand, much less follow all of the time.

    My comment about the burden of law holds true, I think, when held under the light of the complex and heavy burden that the government places at the feet of its citizens. We are required to pick this mantle up under threat of force.

    As an Evangelical myself, I can attest to the frustration with most laws. (Not all laws, mind you, but most.) When the Library of Congress states
    “At the reference desk, we are frequently asked to estimate the number of federal laws in force. However, trying to tally this number is nearly impossible.” you can surmise that most laws on the books are extraneous.

    This is an impossible burden.

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  14. Erasmuse: Many evangelicals are unused to having to live among people who disagree strongly with their position, and retreat from the World. That is perhaps true of Liberals too, except they control the World.”
    Evangelicals do not have the luxury of living among people who agree with them. They live in a secular world, often very hostile to them. There is no excape. Rich Liberals can move to the Upper East Side, or Washington DC, or Los Angles, or San Francisco, or or or. One can live in one of those gettoes for years without meeting a Republican. Any Republican there knows to keep his head low.

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  15. I think that most of the issues are described above., I’ll add one more that influenced me personally. For most of the reasons above, I had no interest in working the elite track, and went through a decidedly non-elite law school.

    But I am also, as are many of my Christian cohort, very practical- and abhor debt. My kids went all the way through to their PhD’s at less impressive schools (particularly undergrad) so we could pay as they went, which I also did with law school as an adult- and there are far less costly alternatives than the top 20 list. Everyone is well-employed, and graduated with zero debt. You can’t do that at Yale unless you are a trust fund baby.

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  16. Not only do evangelicals not have the luxury of separating and isolating, it is against what most evangelicals are taught. We are told to be in the world–to be living examples of God to those around us. You can’t isolate yourself and do that.
    We do have a large number of home school families and stay-at-home moms, but that’s about raising Godly children–and most of those children end up going to public high schools, or public activities. They are being prepared to be out in a secular world.
    But it does mean that we think often think of certain places as openly hostile, and many either do not feel called to be a missionary in those places, or ignore the call they receive. Lots of young people choosing a college might aim for somewhere they do not think will hate them as much.

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  17. I come from what might be described as an evangelical protestant background and attend a top 10 law school. As for Professor Crane’s post, I agree with the five reasons he lists. I would add that there are at least some evangelicals who want a “Christian” law school experience and choose to attend law schools associated with evangelical universities, regardless of the cost or likelihood of obtaining full-time employment upon graduation. However, this would perhaps fall under fourth or fifth categories.

    As for the Dave F’s comment, I don’t think elite law schools are inherently communist. If anything, there is a lot more law and economics scholarship going on at several top law schools, especially at the University of Chicago, than I ever expected going in. On the other hand, I do think the faculty and students at top law schools tend to lean more to the left than the country as a whole. I suspect that is for some of the reasons Professor Crane lists in his post.

    As for Becky’s comment about top law schools discriminating against evangelicals in their admissions practices, I do not think that is true at all. Law schools are much less holistic in their admissions practices than most people realize. The way the U.S. News rankings are structured, and the fact that law schools and law school applicants place such importance on those rankings, gives law schools tremendous incentives to maximize the median LSAT scores and GPAs of their incoming classes. If an evangelical applicant has the scores to bring up a top law school’s median LSAT or GPA or both, I think a law school is likely to pick that applicant over a less qualified non-evangelical applicant. If you want support for that claim, all you have to do is look at the over-representation of graduates from BYU at some of the top law schools. Experience and intuition tell me that Mormons are similarly situated to evangelical protestants in the minds of secular liberals from the northeast.

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