On October 30, 2020, Professor David B. Wilkins, faculty director of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, delivered the keynote Bracewell LLP Distinguished Lecture in Racial and Social Justice as part of the University of Houston Law Center and SMU Dedman School of Law’s conference on Why Black Lawyers Matter: Strategies to Enhance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Professor Wilkins’ lecture, “Black Lawyers Matter: The History of the Civil Rights Movement of the Future of Race and the American Legal Profession in a World on Fire,” examined how the global public health crisis, the global economic crisis, and increasingly global call for social and racial justice have exposed deep structural issues in society that will last long after the current sense of urgency has faded. All three of these changes and the resulting challenges, Professor Wilkins argues, have major implications for the legal profession and efforts to achieve diversity within it. Below is an excerpt from Professor Wilkins’ lecture, lightly edited, arguing for the importance of connecting current diversity and inclusion efforts to the lawyer’s role in the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
Black Lawyers Matter: The History of the Civil Rights Movement of the Future of Race and the American Legal Profession in a World on Fire
David B. Wilkins
Our recruitment into the profession, into our organizations, and our retention of talent depends upon us making the claim that we are a public profession; that we have a kind of legitimacy and credibility that other occupations that talented people could go into don’t have. But to demonstrate that legitimacy, we are going to have to address our own diversity problem in a much more serious way than we have before.
So, let’s not forget those original social engineers. It was black lawyers who first established the connection between social justice and law. It wasn’t until Houston and Marshall’s step-by-step litigation campaign in Brown v. Board of Education, that we rescued the promise of American democracy from the sin and hypocrisy of slavery and Jim Crow. Again, I recommend everybody go back and read Richard Kluger’s great book, Simple Justice.
Bracewell LLP Distinguished Lecture in Racial and Social Justice (Full Lecture)
But let’s also remember that for the first 10 years after Brown, almost nothing happened. Another great book people should read is by the political scientist Gerald Rosenberg. It’s called The Hollow Hope. He documented, between 1954 and 1964, literally, there was almost no change in the integration of American society, particularly in elite institutions.
Just like today, it took mass protests in the streets, led by, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but also the great John Lewis and Reverend C.T. Vivian, heroes who we tragically lost this year. It took protests in the streets with the support of black lawyers to force change. And that change was dramatic—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Those are the cornerstones of what has changed America today. And those laws, in turn, put pressure on all sectors of American society to finally desegregate, including I’m going to argue, importantly, higher education.
Look, there’s been progress. I said higher education had barely budged. In 1965, Harvard Law School had in its class of 1965, which entered in 1962, one black student, Conrad Harper—the same number of black students it had in 1869 when George Lewis Ruffin became the first black lawyer to receive legal education in the United States.
And we know that when people talk about the good old days, they’re not talking about us. This is a quote from one of my favorite books about the legal profession. It was written by a sociologist named Erwin Smigel, who did a very extensive study of Wall Street law firms in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He interviewed hundreds of lawyers. This is what the definition of merit was in those Wall Street law firms, and they were pretty unabashed about it: He said Wall Street law firms recruit men who are “Nordic, have pleasing personalities and clean cut appearances, are graduates of the right schools, have the right social background and experience in the affairs of the world, and are endowed with tremendous stamina.”
Things have changed. Stamina is still important, but it’s a good thing things have changed because there are not enough clean cut, Nordic guys to go around. As I’m sure that the LSAC—wonderful people who are with us today, like Kelly Testy who is doing a fantastic job there—will tell you that in 2020 more than 50 percent of law students are female, and 30 percent are people of color, which is even more in law schools like my own. And if you consider other forms of diversity, including LGBTQ and people with disabilities, then the percentage is much higher.
And the U.S. is on its way, very quickly, to becoming a majority-minority country by 2045. In states like California and Texas, that’s going to happen a lot sooner. And every lawyer, whatever your practice is, has to learn how to operate in an increasingly diverse and global environment that will put a premium on cross cultural fluency.
This excerpt of David B. Wilkins’s Bracewell LLP Distinguished Lecture in Racial and Social Justice—part of the University of Houston Law Center and SMU Dedman School of Law’s conference on Why Black Lawyers Matter: Strategies to Enhance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that took place on October 30, 2020—has been lightly edited for this article. You can find the full lecture in the video above.
Social Justice Meets Sustainability
Following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others—and taking into account the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on people of color—companies, law firms and other professional service organizations have moved the fight for racial equality and justice to the core of their sustainability agendas. Is there reason to be hopeful that these latest initiatives will bring about greater racial equality and opportunity?
In an October 2020 webinar, Professor Wilkins and his bother Timothy Wilkins, Global Partner for Client Sustainability at the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, engaged in a frank discussion on the progress that needs to be made, the challenges that lie ahead, and the role of the legal profession in enabling lasting change. Their conversation includes examples of companies that are throwing out old playbooks on diversity and offering new models that seek to transfer equity, leadership, and power to communities of color.