Diversity, equity, and inclusion are imperatives for the members of the legal profession, who must embrace and reflect the communities they serve. The School of Law's mission to prepare lawyer-leaders encompasses the goal of ensuring that the law school is a place where diversity, equity, and inclusion are practiced and instilled as professional values.
In spring 2022 the School of Law engaged in a diversity audit, seeking input from students, faculty, staff, and alumni. The goal of the audit was to understand what the law school was doing well and what could be improved to make the school a more diverse and inclusive place.
“Before we could make grand plans outside the building and develop pipeline programs, we needed to do some internal work,” says Jan Baker, associate dean for DEI. “It was refreshing to allow people the space to say, ‘Here’s what I see is wrong.’ People were very vulnerable and candid, which we needed.”
Once the audit was complete, several initiatives were underway.
One was the creation of a new full-time staff position. In December David Mahatha, who has a doctorate in organizational leadership, started as the law school’s first director of DEI.
Mahatha already has ideas to improve the law school pipeline, including meeting with middle and high schools, historically Black colleges and universities, and community colleges. He also touts the importance of helping current students find their sense of belonging.
“It starts with asking ourselves how law schools create access for diverse populations and marginalized people,” Mahatha says. “And, once you get them here, how do you make sure they’re included so they stay?”
The university’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is working with unit diversity officers on a shared equity leadership model, which emphasizes DEI is not the responsibility of one or two individuals but the responsibility of all. The School of Law is committed to that effort, which was clear to Mahatha before he even started.
“One of the things I was really happy about when I heard about this position was that this would not be the DEI role. Everybody would be involved because that’s the only way it can be effective and sustainable,” Mahatha says. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a collaborative effort. The beauty of this work is that everybody can be a part of it.”
Mahatha’s isn’t the only new position. South Carolina Law is proud to announce third-year student Briana Richie as the school’s inaugural Law Diversity Fellow.
“This is something that I’ve been working toward since I stepped foot on campus,” Richie says. “I am really excited to have an official position and to be able to do something specific for the school.”
As a fellow, Richie will collaborate with the law school’s faculty and staff DEI committee in addition to leading DEI initiatives of her own. She is already engaging with current and prospective students from underrepresented backgrounds and planning new programs to help the law community thrive.
“The way I approach legal problems is one in the same with how I approach problems in my personal life,” Richie says. “If I can bring my full self, I’m not hindering my own creativity.”
She wants to create that same atmosphere for others, too. The Law Diversity Fellowship and the law school’s other DEI initiatives have improved her outlook.
“Knowing that the school is taking a diversity initiative seriously makes me feel more empowered to be here,” Richie says. “Knowing the school thought there was an advantage to having a student voice makes me feel like I do belong.”
Part of that belonging for future diverse law students comes from ensuring they have access to opportunities designed for them, bearing the challenges they face in mind.
In 2021 the office of Career and Professional Development (C&PD) piloted Judicial Scholars, a diversity initiative providing 1Ls – with backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the legal profession – opportunities for paid internships within the South Carolina Judiciary. Designed in response to data showing a lack of diversity in judicial clerkships nationwide and in unison with the School of Law’s strategic plan, the nine-week summer program provided one student an opportunity to intern with judges in each level of South Carolina’s courts.
“We hope this program gives students opportunities to build meaningful relationships with South Carolina judges and attorneys, exposure to a variety of practice areas, and professional development opportunities,” says Elizabeth Crane, director of C&PD. “Ultimately, we hope to enhance law student academic education by providing students with increased opportunities to become ingrained in the South Carolina legal profession.”
The pilot program was successful, and C&PD is excited to expand the program in summer 2023. Current 1Ls interested in applying can look forward to an information session in early spring 2023.
Other DEI initiatives included a new Law School Student Advisory Council, which was instated in 2022. Content regarding DEI was added to the Student Handbook, and 1L students were quizzed on that material. The law school undertook mental health first aid training, offered to key student leaders, staff, and members of the 1L faculty who encounter new students in their first semester. A joint initiative of Student Affairs and the Office of DEI, they hope to make it a regular offering.
“I want the law school to be a community where everybody feels like they’re embraced,” Baker says. “Where people can be vulnerable, be angry, be concerned and know that, with confidentiality and utmost respect and compassion, those things will be addressed.”
These aren’t the only steps South Carolina Law has taken, but they indicate progress in guaranteeing that every person entering the law school feels welcome. It may be a difficult journey, but the South Carolina Law community is dedicated to moving the needle.
“I have been in this field long enough to know that it’s going to be a long road. One program is not going to make everyone feel included,” Mahatha says. “Things aren’t going to change overnight – they never do – but every day we’re moving forward.”