More minority students are applying to Hamline University Law School. Acceptances are up, too. But overall diversity? Down a tick from a decade ago.

"That's where the challenge remains," said Donald Lewis, dean. "Our issue is convincing the people we've accepted to come here."

Hamline's struggle is common. Law schools across the nation vie for students of color to diversify classrooms -- and ultimately, courtrooms. Greater diversity will lead to a fairer legal system, they say, and clients demand it.

Yet growth is slow, and, as a recent study shows, representation of some races has even dropped.

That has law schools and law firms working in high schools, preparing undergraduates and launching new admissions programs. Starting April 15, the University of St. Thomas School of Law will accept some students without LSAT scores, which, statistics show, are generally higher for whites than minorities. Other schools are considering similar steps.

A step ahead

Melissa Martinez transferred to St. Thomas for her undergraduate degree, in part because she hoped to earn her law degree there, too.

The 31-year-old student plans to be "an advocate, a voice for the voiceless," and law seemed a good avenue.

Because she's a St. Thomas junior and a student of color, she's perfect for the university's new Tommie Law Early Admission program, which aims to draw diversity from its undergraduate programs.

The program will accept those students based on grades and college-entrance exams -- not the LSAT.

The university joined a handful of others that got the American Bar Association's OK to waive the test for a limited number of students.

"We've seen in our own experience that those scores don't always indicate how successful students will be," said Cari Haaland, director of admissions.

Martinez was already studying for the test. It's the program's promise to integrate her, as a senior, into the law school community that convinced her to apply.

"It gets me on track," she said. "Instead of worrying senior year about what I'm going to do, where I'm going to apply, if I'm going to be accepted."

Diversity numbers stable

Despite an increasingly diverse population, the proportion of students of color in Minnesota's law schools is similar to a decade ago.

The U sits at about 16 percent, including 26 Hispanic students -- the same number as in 2004 and 1999. Students of color make up 13.1 percent at Hamline, down from 13.9 in 1999. This fall's entering class at William Mitchell was about 11 percent students of color, and 15 percent at St Thomas.

Nationwide, about 29 percent of law students starting this fall identified themselves as other than white, according to the Law School Admission Council, up from 26 percent in 2001.

But the percentage of black and Mexican-American students has declined since 1993, a recent study by a Columbia Law School professor shows.

In that time, both groups improved college grades and LSAT scores, and law schools added about 3,000 seats for first-year students, said Prof. Conrad Johnson. "These groups of students did not get any of those seats."

Johnson's study has been controversial; the Law School Admission Council points out overall growth in minority students and questions if data stayed comparable over time.

Although more minority students are enrolling at the University of Minnesota Law School, more white students are, too. Diversity looks much like it did 10 years ago.

Drawing from Minnesota

When applying to law schools, Robbie Barton heard a lot about diversity. "Miraculously, every school's website features diverse students," he said. "There's always a diverse representative on campus when you visit. They regularly talk about how important diversity is." But once he enrolled at the U in 2006, he was the only student of color in several classes.

Barton created a committee on diversity -- since grown to include professors and administrators -- to find out why and how it could be fixed. He came away believing the school needed to do more recruiting in Minnesota.

About 60 percent of the U's law students come from out of state.

"I felt like they were looking exclusively outside the state," said Barton, who is from Milwaukee and practices in California. "We have the largest Somali population, one of the largest Native American populations, the second-largest Hmong population. But those groups are not represented at the law school."

Fierce competition

Law schools fight for students of color, and often those with higher rankings or bigger scholarships win.

But schools and students recognize law firms won't get more diverse if schools simply become better at recruiting from the same limited pool of students. The pool must grow.

"The obstacle is not in the law school admissions office," Lewis said. "There are institutional, systemic barriers."

Two years ago, the U started a summer LSAT preparation program for about 25 students from under-represented populations. One student from that program's first year ended up enrolling at the U.

"Our goal is to increase that number," said Nick Wallace, law school admissions director. "As the program builds a little bit of history ... we may see some benefits further down the road."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168