Diversity in Law and Accounting Schools: The Pipeline Problem

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By Carolina Vargas

The tax community is facing a pipeline problem—how does it attract a diverse pool of talent to pursue tax and accounting careers? The answer may start with law and accounting schools and programs.

Companies are increasingly focused on initiatives aimed at developing a more diverse workforce, tying a more inclusive office to a better bottom line. Those efforts can include expanding their pipelines of potential talent to more diverse job candidates.

Fifty-one percent of corporate tax departments and 40 percent of accounting firms said creating a pipeline of diverse job candidates is the biggest issue they face in hiring a diverse workforce, according to a recent Bloomberg Tax survey of more than 400 tax and accounting professionals.

The number of minority students in law schools is already rather low, according to a diversity index published in U.S. News & World Report. The numbers are lower still for minorities interested in tax law, according to law schools contacted by Bloomberg Tax. If programs aren’t in place to encourage minorities to pursue tax law, the problem spreads to the professional world, observers said.

‘Bad Rap’ for Tax?

Alice Abreu and Richard Greenstein, professors at Temple University Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia, have been studying how the field of tax is seen as benefiting the rich, concerned mainly with raising revenue. Minorities entering law school want to pursue law to work on social justice issues—the exact opposite of the tax world’s reputation, according to their research.

“Viewing the tax system only as an instrument of taking may contribute to the creation of a tax bar that is more white and less diverse than the bar in general, and that may, in turn, contribute to the existence of a tax system that disproportionately favors the relatively non-diverse population of taxpayers at the top of the income distribution,” Abreu and Greenstein wrote in an abstract of their yet-to-be released study shared with Bloomberg Tax.

Abreu’s experience as a minority backs up her study. She originally went to law school to pursue a career in social justice as a juvenile or criminal defense lawyer—and was scared to even take a tax class, but quickly discovered that tax is representative of society’s shifting values. “The tax system embodies the core of our most fundamental values,” Abreu said.

Students don’t see tax law as a public interest, Anthony Infanti, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in Pittsburgh, told Bloomberg Tax.

“I think that there is a general misperception among students who are interested in the social justice aspects of law that tax has nothing to do with social justice—which, of course, couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Infanti said.

A big part of increasing diversity in the field of taxation is “combating the preconceived notion of what students think they want to practice,” Infanti said. In order to help change this perception, schools should communicate to minorities how the tax field is important, he said.

Mariana Diosa-Gomez, a third-year law student at Temple University, agreed, saying that she encounters this negative perception of tax from her friends. She said that her classmates don’t understand why tax law is worth pursuing, with one of them asking, “Why would you take partnership tax in your last semester—shouldn’t you be taking it easy?”

Brandin Travis, a third-year student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said he wouldn’t have thought twice about pursuing tax had he not seen firsthand how tax law affects more than just the rich. A scandal in his community is what ultimately led him down the path of tax—his grandmother’s pastor had gone to jail for filing fraudulent tax returns.

“It left a lasting impression, because I was used to people going to jail for more violent offenses—you know gun violence, domestic violence—but to hear about someone going to jail for tax fraud it kind of piqued my interest,” said Travis, who grew up in low-income and urban areas of Birmingham, Ala. “A lot of minority students, especially within the black community, come to school with the goal of focusing on social justice or being a litigator,” he said.

The School Effort

Law school and accounting programs are attempting to recruit minorities at a younger age and create mentorship programs that will expose and attract students to the field of tax.

McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, is attempting to expose minority students to the accounting profession starting with high school. Its efforts include summer programs, such as Discover Yourself in Accounting Majors and Careers (DYNAMC).

DYNAMC is aimed at African-American, Latino, and Native American juniors and seniors, students who are the first in their families to attend college, and any students who have overcome social or economic hardships. The hope is that exposing these young students early on will help dispel negative perceptions and show them the opportunities available to them.

These types of resources should be available before, during, and after school, tax practitioners said.

“You also have to make sure that you’re providing resources, particularly for first-generation students, to help them acclimate and take advantage of the resources to graduate and to be candidates for these great jobs,” said Charles Enriquez, director of recruitment and scholarship at McCombs.

Loyola Marymount University has found that an alumni mentorship program is extremely helpful, especially for law students who don’t have connections to the tax world.

“If we give people mentors or contacts in the profession and help them take advantage of those who are out there and willing to help, that helps a lot,” Jennifer Kowal, professor of law and director of the Tax LLM Program at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told Bloomberg Tax.

Reginald Lamar Streater, a third-year law student at Temple University, told Bloomberg Tax that law schools would benefit from having more people of color as panelists at law school events and as faculty. “There are social barriers that a person of color can open for another person of color, especially from the same community,” he said.

“I think that as more law professors ourselves represent a diverse group, the more we are able to bring that out and attract a diverse group of students to our field,” Abreu said.

Convincing Parents

There are other deterrents for minority students.Enriquez said a big part of encouraging students to pursue the accounting field is convincing the parents of many first-generation students.

“Particularly within our first-generation population and especially in our Latino communities, the family is a huge factor in that decision, not only on whether they are going to attend but also on what they’re going to study,” he said.

Enriquez conducts regional outreach receptions to talk to many first-generation families. Many of these families question why their kids would need to go to a school hours away instead of attending a university that is closer. Enriquez said he explains to them that going to the University of Texas at Austin would expand opportunities for their children.

To contact the reporter on this story: Carolina Vargas in Washington at cvargas@bloombergtax.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Meg Shreve at mshreve@bloombergtax.com

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