Collage of prominent Black legal figures

Why Black Lawyers Matter

By Angela Winfield

 

The words "Black Lawyers Matter" are not just a clarion call that the Black race matters. They are confirmation that the Black race’s place in the legal profession matters. These words are validation that the range of legal clients  from poor to rich and from mom-and-pop businesses to global enterprises  will and should increasingly rely on Black lawyers to provide legal guidance and deliver legal justice.

Black lawyers matter.

Look around you. Scan your digital news feeds. Our world is a very unequal place. The U.S. has breathtaking wealth and opportunity and shocking poverty and inequality. More than any other profession, lawyers have the training and expertise to right the wrongs that disadvantage and hold back entire segments of the U.S. population. Millions of people. More to the point, the U.S. needs more Black lawyers because Black lawyers have a lifetime of experience and perspective on what it means to be excluded by institutional systems and structures. Black lawyers have a unique view of the ways in which the “justice” system has resulted in inequity.

As Margaret Edds describes in her book, We Face the Dawn, it was two Black Virginia lawyers, Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, who initiated and argued one of the five cases that combined into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. But their influence extended far beyond that momentous ruling. They were part of a small brotherhood, headed by social justice pioneer Thurgood Marshall and united largely through the Howard Law School, who conceived and executed the NAACP’s assault on racial segregation in education, transportation, housing, and voting.¹

Hill and Robinson’s work served as a model for southern states and an essential underpinning for Brown. When the Virginia General Assembly retaliated with laws designed to disbar the two lawyers and discredit the NAACP, they defiantly carried the fight to the United States Supreme Court … and won.¹ The U.S. Supreme Court held that state laws requiring or allowing racially segregated schools violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court famously stated that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Black lawyers matter.

All Black lawyers matter and, therefore, we need all Black lawyers to bring their own individual identities, perspectives, and lived experiences to the law. The U.S. needs more Black lawyers who are LGBTQ+. The U.S. needs more Black lawyers who are disabled. The U.S. needs more Black lawyers who understand the prejudice associated with these and other intersections because they’ve lived it. Every day. Consider this: more than 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black, yet just 5 percent of U.S. lawyers are Black.²

Preliminary law school enrollment data for the fall 2021 class suggests that ongoing efforts by the legal education community to increase diversity, as well as the community’s very clear call for inclusion and social justice, are moving us in the right direction of a more diverse law student population overall. Wider data will have to wait until the American Bar Association reports its enrollment data in December. 

Another key reason why Black lawyers matter is because their perspective provides critical insights on how we, collectively, as a profession, can find equitable solutions to three of the most complex challenges the legal industry is facing and that have a disproportionate impact on Black individuals entering the field.

  • The first challenge to the legal industry that we must address is standardized testing. Let me get to the heart of this subject. The LSAT serves an important purpose. The high correlation of .60 between the LSAT and first-year law student success is higher than UGPA alone. For some minoritized candidates with a lower UGPA, the LSAT is a door opener that enables them to demonstrate their skills and capability. It is a tool that works. But I believe we can increase its effectiveness by ensuring that minoritized candidates have the appropriate resources and support to perform their best on the test. And I believe we must expand our view of what can and should be assessed. 
  • The second challenge to the legal industry that we must address is reinforcing the pipeline. We need to stop doing stand-alone and feel-good programs, conferences, and events. Instead, we must focus on measuring and zealously pursuing positive outcomes. One way to do this is by creating strong links and connections between programs so that candidates are supported each step of the way and at each stage of their journey. We need to create intentional handoffs from one program to the next. We also need to develop on-ramps for justice-impacted individuals, those with family obligations, and those who may have taken a detour on their path to a career in law.
  • And the third challenge to the legal industry that we must address is intersectionality. Programs aimed at supporting minoritized students can no longer focus solely on race. An intersection of multiple identities is likely to reside within individual candidates. We cannot expect Black men and women to go to one resource to be seen, heard, and understood, and to a different resource if they are also gay. Likewise, we cannot relegate LGBTQ+ and disability access supports to different programs. DEI programs must be inclusive and holistic and incorporate the needs of various marginalized identities.

Black lawyers matter. They always have.

On October 15, 2021, people from the legal community will come together remotely to proclaim their support of this powerful statement during the Black Lawyers Matter Conference. Building on the dialogue started at the inaugural Black Lawyers Matter Conference in 2020, this event will examine and expand on how law schools and legal employers can build and develop cultures, structures, and practices better geared toward inclusion and equality in lawyer formation. With the understanding that formation extends from prelaw through practice, the conference will explore best practices for both legal educators and legal employers. This conference will encourage and support law schools and legal employers in focusing on reforms that will help minoritized students thrive during law school and throughout their careers.

The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) joins with the University of Houston Law Center and SMU Dedman School of Law as co-conveners of the Black Lawyers Matter Conference, with support from the American Bar Association (ABA), Association of American Law Schools (AALS), and the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).


Citations

  1. https://www.upress.virginia.edu/title/5145
  2. https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2020/07/potlp2020.pdf Page 33

About Angela Winfield

Chief Diversity Officer
Angela Winfield is chief diversity officer for the Law School Admission Council.