A professor’s bold proposals to make legal education more inclusive

An article by Assistant Professor Tiffany Atkins L’11 in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law offers actionable steps for law schools to demonstrate their commitments to diversifying the profession for a new generation of students.

Assistant Professor Tiffany Atkins L’11

As the oldest members of the most diverse generation in United States history begin to enroll in law school, an Elon Law professor is calling on the legal academy to begin “getting serious” about diversity by creating a stronger culture of inclusion and activism.

Among Assistant Professor Tiffany Atkins’s recommendations outlined in a new article for one of the nation’s top specialty law journals:

  • Revise an influential standard established by the American Bar Association that guides the way law schools teach.
  • Require cultural competency professional development for law school faculty
  • Seek new approaches to the recruitment and retention of faculty of color
  • Adopt common learning outcomes in law school course syllabi
  • Enhance experiential education opportunities to better prepare students for the practice of law; and
  • Employ curriculum mapping as an accountability tool

“#ForTheCulture: Generation Z and the Future of Legal Education” appears in the newest issue of the Michigan Journal of Race and Law.

“Making intentional structural changes in legal education, including requiring learning outcomes around cultural competence in all law schools and conducting curriculum mapping projects to ensure significant satisfaction of those outcomes, is a start,” Atkins writes. “Doing the cultural work of legal education reform will require much more reflection and imagination. We must consider all aspects of the law school experience and how to create an environment where all students thrive.

“This reimagining will require much more effort but doing something ‘for the culture’ means acting for the benefit of a shared culture, which includes our social justice-minded Gen Z law students.”

In her article, Atkins brings attention to common traits among Generation Z – those born between 1995 and 2010. They tend to be hands-on learners, with a strong aversion to student loan debt for an education that hasn’t provided practical skills. Atkins notes that the legal profession and law schools have not evolved as rapidly as they perhaps should have given the qualities valued by these students.

Faculty should be trained in cultural competency to better address questions of race and equity that can arise in a classroom, she writes. Law schools should also consider new approaches to hiring faculty, she writes, with an eye toward bringing more professors of color into the academy.

With nearly half of Generation Z identifying as students of color, Atkins writes, it’s important for professors to look like the student body and to serve as models for where a legal education can one day lead.

Atkins points out that Generation Z is “more tolerant, social justice-minded, and more ethnically diverse than any previous generation.”  As such, students will bring to law school a distaste for traditional norms, and expectations for equity and representation in the classroom. They also are motivated by the desire to make a difference for others.

“For many law students, their professors are the first lawyers they have ever met,” she writes. “Without the presence of role models and mentors of color to represent the various career options for future JDs, the opportunities for young lawyers of color may feel more elusive and limited.

“To increase diversity in the legal profession, we must increase the overall representation of racial and ethnic groups in legal academia, and to do that, law teaching must be presented inclusively to all law students as a viable career choice with a clear path mapped out.”

Atkins published her article with support from a 2019 Legal Writing Scholarship Grant, a collaborative program of the Association of Legal Writing Directors, the Legal Writing Institute, and LexisNexis. The grant program reflects the organizations’ commitment to the professional development of faculty “to enable gifted educators to explore scholarly ideas and produce scholarship which will assist others in the field of legal research and writing.”

The Michigan Journal of Race & Law has been consistently ranked among the nation’s best specialty journals as a forum for the exploration of issues relating to race and law.

Atkins graduated from Elon Law in 2011 as the recipient of the David Gergen Award for Leadership and Professionalism. She taught in the Legal Method & Communication Program from 2016-2018, then spent a year at Wake Law’s Legal Analysis, Writing and Research program before rejoining the Elon Law faculty.

Prior to her entry into legal education, Atkins worked for several years in Greensboro at Legal Aid of North Carolina. She is a graduate of UNC Greensboro’s Political Science and African-American Studies programs.