Where Are Black Lawyers Today?

Volume 3 • Issue 5 • July/August 2017
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The Education of Black Lawyers

Developing a pipeline for the future

The lead story of this issue of The Practice offers a snapshot of black lawyer careers, focusing particularly on the unique challenges faced by black women lawyers. This story takes a step back and homes in on the very early years of any lawyer’s career—their law school experiences. Among the innumerable challenges facing law schools today, perhaps none of them are more challenging to the advancement of the black bar than the pipeline problem facing black law students. Coinciding with the recent dip in overall student enrollment, law schools increasingly find themselves competing for the same small group of black applicants. Moreover, once black students are admitted, on top of undergoing the already extraordinary challenge of law school, they often discover that few of their peers share or understand their experience, which risks leading to a harmful isolation and therein potentially impacting performance and future prospects. And beyond graduation, as the lead story notes, black lawyers are not achieving success at rates comparable with the size of the black bar—whether its earning partnership or high positions of authority—while many opt to leave the profession at disproportionally high rates.

Solving these issues requires, of course, a multipronged approach, but part of the solution requires interventions at the law school level. How do law schools get more black applicants to matriculate? How do law schools ensure black law students are getting what they need from their J.D. programs and graduating? And how do law schools prepare these future black lawyers to not just get hired but also advance in their legal careers? There is a pipeline that leads to law school, through law school, and to a successful career in the legal profession. The future health of the black bar depends on law schools’ ability to enable black law students to not only locate the schools but also make it out the other side. The following sections offer perspective on these issues.

To law school

It’s no secret that law school applications and matriculation have seen a decline across demographics within the past decade. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), from 2009 to 2016, overall first-year enrollment in accredited U.S. law schools dropped 14.3%. Speculations for this trend range from effects of the global financial crisis to the increasing cost of a J.D. to expectations of poor job satisfaction. Whatever the causes, this trend has not spared first-year black law student matriculation, which dropped 7.6% between 2009 and 2016. Harvard Law School (HLS), which has graduated more black lawyers than any other law school apart from Howard University School of Law, experienced a 4.5% drop in black 1L enrollment from 2013 (10.4%) to 2016 (5.9%). Looking closer at the most recent available data, in 2016 black men made up just 2.7% of all first-year law student enrollment. Black women accounted for nearly double that figure at 4.6%, which would be far more significant were these numbers not so dismally low—black law students comprise only 7.3% of the total 2016 law student population. Moreover, the number of black men enrolling at accredited U.S. law schools dropped 9.4% from 2009 to 2016—nearly twice as much as black women (4.9%).

Figure 1. Black 1L enrollment at Harvard Law School: 2000–2016

Due to changes in ABA data collection methods, race/ethnicity data collected after 2009 are not directly comparable to prior data. Beginning in 2010, racial/ethnic data incorporate maximum reporting, which means that candidates may select multiple races/ethnicities. Selections are counted in each racial/ethnic group.

Commenting on the gender gap—in this case, higher percentages of women than men—Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of Howard University School of Law, notes, “One of the biggest struggles we are seeing is declining numbers of black men coming into the profession. If you look at law schools around the country, you will see classes that are coming into law school with just four or three or even one black male student. We are talking about handfuls, which brings us back to the kinds of numbers we saw in the late 1960s and early 1970s.” Even at Howard, Holley-Walker observes, where 90% of the student population is black, about 70% of students are women and 30% are men. And, as explored in “Intersectionality and the Careers of Black Women Lawyers,” this places an even higher imperative on addressing issues in the legal profession at the intersection of race and gender, as the future of the black bar looks decidedly female.

Who is a black law student?

It is important to note that our understandings of what it means to be a black law student are also changing. As case in point, to better understand how HLS black alumni view their racial identity, as part of the Center on the Legal Profession’s 2016 career survey sent to virtually all living black HLS graduates (for complete details on the survey, see “Black Alumni Survey II” in “Intersectionality and the Careers of Black Women Lawyers”), respondents were asked to select their primary racial identity, which included the following options: African American/Black, Caribbean, African (for example, Nigerian), Hispanic/Latino, Multiracial, and Other. Respondents were asked to choose the one option that best characterized how they viewed their own identity. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of respondents—82.1%—reported their primary racial identity as “African American/Black.” Male respondents were more likely to select that option (84.8%) than female respondents (79.3%), a difference that was found to be significant just below the 95% level, suggesting that women are more likely to view themselves as Caribbean, African, or Multiracial than men.

Table 1. Racial identityHowever, some of these results are driven by cohort effects, with cohorts defined by decade of graduation. Respondents from the older cohorts, largely the 1970s and 1980s, were more likely to identity as African American/Black (94.4% and 91.1% respectively) than those from the 1990s, 2000s, or 2010s cohorts (77.7%, 73.9%, and 75.9% respectively). And the majority of blacks in these earlier classes were men, although overall there was little gender variation within the cohorts. Nevertheless, the trend line is clear that over time the “black” student population at HLS is increasingly comprised of students with a broader range of ethnic and racial identities. This is particularly true in the post-2000 era, where the black students in our sample were significantly more likely than those in the pre-2000 era to identify themselves as something other than African American/Black (25.2% versus 12.9%). This trend at HLS is part of a broader movement across higher education, and indeed across society as a whole, toward a more complex set of identities for students who also identify as black. It will be interesting to see what, if any, implications this trend holds for the experience of black students on campus and for issues of racial integration more generally.

Of the respondents who did not primarily identify as African American/Black—17.9% of all respondents—the top three other categories selected were Multiracial (48.5%), Caribbean (31.9%), and African (10.5%). Male respondents were more likely to select Multiracial (54.6%) than women (43.8%); however, women were more likely to identify as Caribbean (35.8%) than men (26.9%). Women were also more likely to identify as African (14.1%) than their male colleagues (5.7%). Once again, it remains to be seen whether these differences will end up affecting either the student experience at HLS or the subsequent careers or interests of those who primarily identify in one of these other categories.

Table  2. Racial identity (non-African American/Black)

What do these declining matriculation numbers—with respect to both the black law students and the larger law student population—mean for potential black law school applicants? “In some ways, for the students, it’s a very good time in the sense that law school education may become more affordable because they have more scholarship dollars available as law schools compete very heavily for the academically excellent African American student,” says Holley-Walker. “The challenge for law schools amidst this declining population is attracting black law students with high LSAT scores. The trend that we’re seeing now is that all law schools are pretty much vying for the same group of students.” Holley-Walker’s comments confirm what we know about law school admissions more generally: the drop in the applicant pool is the highest amongst the highest LSAT scorers. This, of course, raises the critical question as to why the top LSAT takers—and the top minority LSAT takers—are not applying to law schools into which they presumably would gain admission.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, and in light of the negative press paid to very real instances of law school debt and bleak warnings about career satisfaction, law schools need to make a positive case for potential black law students to apply. According to Holley-Walker, all this bad press is cause for law schools to push back against generalizations and misconceptions. “These types of stories paint this picture that if you go to law school and you don’t immediately get a great job, then there is not a benefit in a law degree,” says Holley-Walker. “And what I have to tell students is that in truth their income will be substantially more than had they not gone to graduate school. Our attitude is that we hope they get a great first job, but we also want them to get that promotion or to get a great second job as well. A law school education and alumni network allow graduates to do that.”

“If you look at law schools around the country, you will see classes that are coming into law school with just four or three or even one black male student,” says Danielle Holley-Walker. “We are talking about handfuls, which brings us back to the kinds of numbers we saw in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

A part of law schools’ collective response to this problem has to be to attract a greater number of black applicants. To help with this, Howard is innovating programs like the Pre-Law Scholars Summer Enrichment Program, which engages primarily black undergraduate students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to prepare them for applying to law school as well as the realities they are likely to encounter once they matriculate. Similar programs include CUNY School of Law’s Pipeline to Justice, Penn State Law’s Minority Mentor Program, and Rutgers Law School’s Minority Student Program, to name just a few. The specific goals and structure of these support programs may vary, but together they affirm the need for mentoring once in law school, and to that end more can be done for black law students.

Through law school

The challenge doesn’t end for black students once they matriculate into law school, however. “As we see these numbers dropping off, once that smaller cohort of black students comes to law school, it can be very isolating,” says Holley-Walker. “This is an issue that law schools need to deal with very directly. How do we give support and mentorship to students once they come in and they’re a very small part of the overall law school class? There is no doubt these students are up against this feeling of isolation, and there is a clear need for greater support as they come in.”

Law schools are approaching this issue of isolation in a number of ways. In addition to seeking greater diversity among the student population, schools are also stressing diversity on their faculties. With more minority professors on campus, minority students will not only see law schools’ messages of welcome and acceptance exemplified but be more likely to find faculty mentors—a relationship defined by organic connections between mentor and mentee based on shared experience, ambition, and understanding. Any sincere attempt to address black and minority law student isolation must start with expanding the mission of inclusion to encompass faculty as well.

Apart from increasing numbers on these fronts, law schools are attempting to prevent—or at least mitigate—this feeling of isolation through concerted efforts of messaging as well as direct and indirect institutional support. And while it is useful to reiterate messages of inclusion at each turn, reminding all members of the law school community of this commonly held value, it is important that these words coincide with action. For instance, student affinity groups have long worked to provide supportive environments for themselves and their peers to help prevent isolation, and many law schools are now engaging much more robustly with these organizations. Moreover, some law schools are also beginning to tailor their efforts, including devoting significant parts of their 1L orientation, to support minority students. These efforts include required diversity and inclusion training sessions as well as dedicated full-time staff who specialize in community engagement and equity.

“Now most law schools know that their role is more than just teaching students the law and teaching them how to think like lawyers. We have to educate them about the profession itself and provide a bridge to practice,” says Holley-Walker.

At the same time, Holly-Walker notes that it is important not to forget that black law students also face the same challenges that face law students of all backgrounds and experiences. “One thing I see law students struggling with, and particularly this generation of law students, is they want to see that their work will make a difference.” Holley-Walker continues, “They don’t want to come into the office every day and feel that they are doing busy work or that they are not being fully empowered in terms of the work that they do.” Add to that the desire to live an active, meaningful life and you are left with a sort of paradox of how the lawyer identity would ideally fit into the lives of this next generation of legal professionals: less emphasis on the often referenced, but difficult to operationalize, work-life balance and more emphasis on the young lawyer’s legal work complementing and enhancing all aspects of his or her life—be it one’s family, community, beliefs, causes, or other pursuits. As Holley-Walker puts it, “These law students want a full life.”

Another distinct challenge for law schools and law students alike relates to the connection between what is taught and learned in the classrooms and what is extant and required to succeed in the legal profession that awaits students on the other side of graduation. “As law schools, we need to be more transparent,” says Holley-Walker. She continues:

It used to be that law professors would take the approach of a Ph.D. program—to give students knowledge of the law, teach them to think like lawyers, and then send them out into the profession. This has already changed dramatically, and now most law schools know that their role is more than just teaching students the law and teaching them how to think like lawyers. We have to educate them about the profession itself and provide a bridge to practice. Law schools and the profession need to be closely connected, and that means bringing in highly talented adjuncts who are at the top of their field in the legal profession and can really show students how you advance in your career and how it connects with what you’re learning in law school. It also means telling students as much as possible about the profession: What areas are growing? How do you advance from your first job into a promotion? Or move to a great second job? How do you really advance your career? That’s become a very important interest of law schools, and I think it’s overdue.

This focus on explicitly preparing law students for their future legal career is indeed catching on. Howard’s Pathways to Success Program is designed to provide answers to basic career building questions: How do you network? How do you brand yourself? How do you identify a mentor or a sponsor, and what is the difference? Likewise, HLS offers courses and seminars to help prepare students to enter the shifting landscape of the legal profession, grappling with issues ranging from disruptive innovation to how globalization is shaping the market for legal service. These efforts to arm students with more-nuanced understandings of the legal profession—and where they can fit into it—help address the key challenge for not just black law students but all law students: the challenge of translating a J.D. into a successful legal career.

In this context, it is interesting to assess black students’ expectations and career goals at the beginning of their formal legal education. To that effect, as part of the HLS black alumni survey, respondents were asked to reflect on their career intentions upon entering law school. Not surprisingly, nearly a quarter of those responding (24.4%) reported that they were “undecided” about what they wanted to do with their legal careers at the time they entered law school. The percentage of undecided is significantly greater for pre-2000 era graduates than those in the post-2000 era (27.9% versus 19.1%), perhaps resulting from the fact that those entering law school in the latter period were more likely to have far more access to career information than those in the earlier period.

Notwithstanding these undecideds, the overwhelming majority of respondents in every cohort and era recalled that they had formed a preference about the kind of law they wanted to practice upon entering law school. Private practice was the most common intended destination, with almost 40% of our respondents stating that this is where they planned to go after graduation. Public interest was the next most common intended career goal (18.8%), with government (7.4%) and business (4.6%) lagging far behind. These percentages are highly similar to what we know about HLS graduates more generally, underscoring that the career aspirations of black HLS graduates are broadly similar to the careers of HLS graduates as a whole.

Table 3. Career intentions

In addition to asking about their career intentions, the survey also asked respondents whether when they entered law school, they intended to work in a substantive area serving black clients or interests (for example, community development). On an aggregate level, just more than one-third—36.6%—of respondents reported that working on behalf of black clients/interest was a goal upon entering law school. This finding holds across all cohorts and across the pre- and post-2000 eras.

Women, however, are far more likely than men to want to use their legal education to serve the black community. Thus, while more than 40% of the women in our sample reported that they had this commitment, just more than 30% of men reported a similar intention. This percentage shrinks to below 30% for black men in the post-2000 cohort, while women in this group were even more likely (53.7%) to report that they intended to serve black clients or interests when they entered law school.

Table 4. Intend to service black community/clients

Overall, these percentages provide some support for those who believe that black students come to law school with an interest in using their legal skills to improve the plight of black Americans generally. Perhaps as a result of the continuing and visible challenges faced by women of color both in the legal profession and in the country as a whole, this intention appears to be especially strong among black women. That this interest in becoming a “social engineer for justice” remains so strong in the new millennium demonstrates that the current generation of black lawyers—many of whom entered law school after the dawning of the Age of Obama as represented by his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention—continues to believe, and believe strongly, that more needs to be done to achieve racial justice.

Where the pipeline goes

As Holley-Walker stresses, the pipeline to success for black lawyers needs to start early with positive arguments to convince prospective applicants to pursue a career in the legal profession. It must continue through law school with enough support and mentoring to stave off the isolation felt by many black law students upon matriculation, as well as to ensure they are prepared for the realities of the profession they are about to enter. These efforts are crucial. But the pipeline must also extend into the profession—or to echo Holley-Walker’s words—not only to the point where black law students secure their first job after graduation, but to where they are achieving the highest levels of success, filling leadership roles of authority and influence.

Progress on this last point has been slow and unsteady. This is perhaps most concerning because for all the challenges that black law students face, their prospects in the legal profession have not significantly improved as the diversity initiatives of recent decades have taken effect. In the law firm context, Holley-Walker notes, the careers of black lawyers have been largely static. “When you look at the number of black lawyers who are ascending to senior associate, nonequity partner, equity partner, and even to the management committee in law firms, we’re not seeing a lot of progress from what we saw 40 years ago.”

“Diversity conjures up this notion that we as a profession are somehow doing a good deed—that we are giving others a helping hand in allowing them to participate. We need to move way beyond that particular notion, because the legal profession belongs to all of us,” says Holley-Walker.

For instance, while we know that all lawyers tend to migrate out of private practice over time, according to HLS’s black alumni study (see “Intersectionality and the Careers of Black Women Lawyers” for full details), black HLS graduates migrate out of private practice at much higher rates than both white and black lawyers nationally. More specifically, data shows a whopping 63 % decrease in the number of black HLS graduates in private practice compared to their first job post-HLS. By comparison, the After the JD project (which surveyed a nationally representative sample of lawyers) found that 38% of black lawyers in private practice in 2002–2003 had left the sector by 2011–2012, 10% more than the 28% of white lawyers who did so, but a full 22% below our finding here.

In terms of partnerships, available data from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) finds that the average black partnership rate between 2005 and 2016 is just 1.7%, with a peak of 1.81% in 2016 and a low of 1.55% in 2005. As noted in the lead story to this issue of The Practice, the numbers for black female partners in these institutions are far worse, which is saying a lot considering how disappointing the numbers are to start with. In 2016, African American women constituted just 0.64% of all the partners in the NALP sample, representing only a modest increase from the 0.59% of black female partners reported in 2006.

To Holley-Walker, some of it comes down to how we conceptualize the mission of diversity. A part of the problem, she suggests, may be the term diversity itself. “I have become more and more skeptical about that particular term, simply because over the last few decades, what we see is stagnation in terms of its advancement in the legal profession.” She continues:

More than diversity, I think valuing inclusion and empowerment is the way forward. How does the legal profession—both our individual workplaces and the profession as a whole—become more inclusive so that people of different backgrounds are seen as strengths that actually add to the ability of a law firm or a business or government to be more effective, more efficient, and capable of making the tough decisions? Diversity conjures up this notion that we as a profession are somehow doing a good deed by offering black students, women, LGBTQ people—that we are somehow giving them a helping hand in allowing them to participate. We need to move way beyond that particular notion, because the legal profession belongs to all of us.

It’s not an issue of one group of people offering another group of people a helping hand and a step up. Rather, this profession is one where people of all races, people of all different sexual orientations and gender identities have existed for a long time. All of our workplaces belong to all of us, and we need to see inclusion as a type of empowerment instead of a hand-out or charity or a mission that stands on its own, because diversity is not a mission that stands on its own. No law firm, workplace, or law school should have this idea that we have a diversity mission for the sake of diversity. Instead we need to embrace the notion that we promote an inclusive work environment because we know that inclusive environments are a reflection of our society, a reflection of the world, and are the best way for us to move forward in doing excellent legal work and making a positive impact on the world.

This final piece of the pipeline, that which extends into the legal profession and onto successful and fulfilling careers, is of paramount importance precisely because it is the destination for black lawyers and law students. Indeed, the solution lies in bolstering all parts of the pipeline. Addressing the need to attract more black students to law school and then the separate need to support them as they move through law school—these are vital to the future health of the black bar. Then we must also reflect on our conceptions of diversity and ensure that the push for greater inclusion in the legal profession is not just a “mission that stands on its own” but an imperative to deliver on the promise that the law, and its practice, belongs to all. Any one of these changes would represent a big move on systemic problems, and all will require concerted effort across the profession.

The Obama generation after the Age of Obama

Of course, another subset of stakeholders in this equation will play the largest role in shaping the future of the black bar—the young black lawyers and law students themselves. And here, there is reason for hope. “These students are energetic and driven. And many of them are not going to law firms to leave in a few years,” says Holley-Walker. “They’re going because they want to be highly effective in those areas and rise to the top of their profession. The challenge for them will be to do something that perhaps they haven’t seen done before or has always been done by other people. For them it will be about changing that narrative.” This is particularly true for the legal profession, where globalization, technology, and the blurring of traditional boundaries between law, business, strategy, politics, and culture are redefining the skills that the next generation of lawyers will need to succeed in the middle decades of the 21st century. As law moves from the segregated profession that greeted Charles Hamilton Houston and the other original “social engineers for justice” who first opened the doors of opportunity in Brown to one in which women constitute the majority (and in most parts of the world, the overwhelming majority) of new entrants into the profession—and where increasingly diverse teams of lawyers must learn to work together effectively to solve problems for clients who are themselves increasingly diverse—the profession can ill afford to lose the talent and leadership of black lawyers.

Institutional changes, whether in messaging or programming or decision making, can help improve numbers in law schools and in the profession, as well as improve the experience of the individuals those numbers represent. Just as important, if not more, will be the push generated by the black law students and lawyers themselves through that pipeline and onto successful careers in the legal profession. While written in the context of HLS’s 53 black graduates of the class of 2017, the following excerpt from the Black Alumni Report II rings true for all young black lawyers:

The group embodies everything that President Obama said about this new generation in his farewell address in Chicago: “Unselfish, altruistic, creative, [and] patriotic.” These incredibly talented young women and men are ready, willing, and able to fight for their belief, again in the 44th president’s words, “in a fair, just, and inclusive America,” and to shoulder their responsibility “to carry this hard work of democracy forward.” It is up to the rest of us to provide these new social engineers for justice an environment where their hopes and aspirations for the future have a chance of becoming the future for our profession, our country, and our world.

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Where Are Black Lawyers Today? Volume 3 • Issue 5 • July/August 2017