Throughout his career, Leonard M. Baynes ’83 (’82LAW), now dean of the University of Houston Law Center, has earned multiple accolades for his diversity efforts. Chief among them is the creation of pipeline programs to help high school and college students from underrepresented backgrounds prepare for law school. Most recently, he created the University of Houston Law Center’s Pre-Law Pipeline Program which, in less than five years, has helped dozens of students gain entrance into law school and earned the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award three years in a row. Prior to becoming dean at the University of Houston, Baynes was a law professor at St. John’s University School of Law in Queens, where he headed the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights, which also has a successful pipeline program. Baynes has always been dedicated to fostering diversity – first when he practiced corporate law, then when he moved into academia. Below, he talks about why he’s passionate about diversity and inclusion efforts and how his MBA prepared him to run a law school.
How have you used your law and business degrees together?
I practiced corporate law for a while, and then I became an academic more than 25 years ago. My MBA also helped me teach courses such as property law, where you have to look at the valuation of things. But where my MBA has proven extremely instrumental is in the higher education administration. Being dean of the University of Houston Law Center is like running a small business. I have 60 or so faculty members, 100 staff members, 800 students, and a budget of about $40 million. I'm able to really go back and use everything I learned at Columbia Business School—managing people, looking at the budget, marketing and branding the school. I was always using the MBA in the prism of law, and now it’s more like the opposite. I just love it.
Throughout your academic career, you’ve developed a real passion for diversity and inclusion. Can you talk about the path that led you there?
A lack of diversity is something I've experienced throughout my career—whether it's through being a practicing attorney or being in academia, it’s something I've always worked on. When I went to Columbia, it was relatively diverse—both the Business School and the Law School. But when I got into the profession, there was not a lot of diversity. I became very involved in various affinity organizations. Because I was isolated, they were a way for me to connect with other people who had similar concerns. I was often one of the first people of color in a position. At my first academic job, at Western New England University School of Law, I was the first person of color to get tenured. Even now, I’m the first African American dean of University of Houston Law Center. Since I've been in academia I've always wanted to make sure that I'm able to increase the pipeline of talented people from diverse backgrounds.
Why are pipeline programs so important?
I always tell people, “you don't know what you don't know.” There are a lot of really smart students out there who don't have access to information. Maybe there’s no one in their household who can tell them what they need to do to prepare for law school, or they may not be able to afford to take the LSAT prep class. They may not know what they need to write in their personal statements. They may not know how special they are. Often our students face many challenges—they’re from single parent households, or they didn't speak English right away, or they had to learn English on their own, or they're working three jobs and going to college full time. That shows a lot of character, drive, and persistence. But if no one's telling them those are important traits to have, they may not recognize it. If you look at the demographics—in Texas, non-white residents are expected to outnumber white residents by 2022. A pipeline program makes good business sense because we have to have qualified, talented students. Without pipeline programs, we won’t be able to get the kind of students we want in order to maintain our high ranking.
A recent survey by the American Bar Association found that between 2007 and 2017, the percent of African American and Hispanic attorneys rose by 4 to 5 percent—a very small amount. Why has it historically been so hard to achieve diversity in the legal profession?
Law schools often focus like a laser on the LSAT. This privileging of the LSAT makes it harder for law schools to consider other real-life and work experience of applicants. This makes it harder for law schools to admit students of color in the numbers that would increase the diversity of the overall legal profession.
Why is diversity in the legal profession so important?
There have been so many studies that show the benefits of diversity. In the legal field, it helps us make sure we consider all aspects of a problem, and it helps lawyers provide more effective representation to people from a legal standpoint. Also, if you don't have a diverse team and diverse lawyers, there may be clients that you're overlooking—and that’s bad for business. You have to have the diversity to make sure that you really are inclusive of everyone in your market. Many law firms and schools are doing what they can. Our pipeline program is a significant investment.
What do you see as the future of diversity and inclusion programs?
Going forward, we have to think through more opportunities for people of color and women. For example, at law firms, women make up almost half of all summer associates, but only 20 percent of partners. We really have to keep having this conversation to make sure the profession remains and stays vital and is diverse so they're able to use the best talent wherever it is. There’s going to have to be continued emphasis on this.