What I think perhaps both Armen and Will Baude are missing in their posts about affirmative action and law school admissions is that very few people who are capable of doing law/ law school actually are deprived of the chance to do so, even without affirmative action.
As I explained to my cousin when he was applying to medical school while I was applying to law, "I will go to a law school, whereas I probably couldn't get into a med school." The people I know who have been rejected from American medical schools all could go to an ABA-accredited law school. That's not what affirmative action is for.
Affirmative action is for getting underrepresented groups into the "elite" schools. Y'all know what I'm talking about. I had people look at me with surprise when I mentioned that I'd applied to the University of Houston -- a school that was #1 for health law in the benighted U.S. News rankings -- because it's not a top 50 school.
There are many law schools from which thousands of people graduate, pass the bar and practice soundly, schools whose names may not be well-known but that do a perfectly good job at cranking out lawyers. Once you pass the bar, you have access to The Law.
What you don't have access to, if you graduate from these non-elite institutions, is the easier route to money, influence and power. The highest-paying law firms don't recruit there; the elite schools look askance upon wannabe professors with degrees from them; the federal judiciary is none-too-kind to the graduates of "fourth tier" schools. I wager that even the objective, fair-minded folk populating law review editorial boards tend to assume that a Harvard Law student's submission will be superior to that of Southern New England School of Law student's.
Scheherazade recently posted about her choice of a non big-name law school, and I've posted before about the potential advantages offered by what happened to be a lower-ranked institution. While most of my classmates were as limited as I was in the range of law schools to which they applied -- indeed, many were more so -- I did speak to one classmate's wife, who is attending a school not in the "top tier," and she seems to be getting a much stronger hands-on education than the Ivy Leaguers. Already she's meeting people who need legal help; we're fully occupied with the long-dead (but apparently still cursed) Mrs. Palsgraf.
This post has gone off-course. Right, I meant to talk about the actual use of affirmative action: for access to the higher-level institutions. I hope that this does not come across as rude or insulting to any readers, but the current standards of community colleges ensure that, as Chris Rock put it in somewhat cruder terms, the whole community is welcome. Community colleges don't use affirmative action because they are so easily accessible that it is unnecessary.
Whatever one might think of Scalia's opinions in the Grutter/Gratz decision, his oral argument criticism that the University of Michigan would not need affirmative action did it not insist on being an "elite" institution, as judged by the test scores and GPAs of its applicants, seems to me a very accurate one indeed. The plaintiffs in those cases could whine about being unjustly excluded ("Daddy, I didn't get into Michigan!" "Don't worry honey, we'll sue their asses") only because their numbers fell within the correct range for admission. If Michigan instead had admission open to everyone with a 3.0 GPA and a 50th percentile test score, and used a lottery to award seats among those thus qualified, the school's racial composition would reflect that of the population probably even better than it does with elitist standards and affirmative action.
Despite my own support for affirmative action -- especially now that it has paid off for me! -- I disagree with Armen that without it, and with a "traditional merit-based only" system, "access to something as powerful as a legal education is denied to certain segments of society." If you can speak English and will be able to pass the bar eventually (and have graduated from an accredited undergraduate institution), you will get into a law school. The barriers aren't so high as to impeded basic access.
(FYI to Will: Arizona permits people to practice law without even passing the bar exam; and as previous noted, New York, California, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming, and Washington permit people to join the state bar without having graduated from law school.)