One of the many things we’ve learned through the repeated murders of Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement and the failure of these murderers to be brought to justice is that we need more Black lawyers and prosecutors. While nearly 40 percent of incarcerated prisoners are African-American, four percent of lawyers in the United States are African-American, according to 2015 data from American Bar.
This shortage causes people of color to be underrepresented in courtrooms, among elected officials, law firms, and legal organizations. According to research, less than two percent of partners at major U.S. law firms are African-American. And law school enrollment among Black students had been on a steady decline since the mid-to-late 1990s.
This lack of diversity among defenders of the law affects the dynamic between lawyers and their clients. When people see someone who looks like them or who comes from a similar ethnic/cultural background, there is a greater sense of relatability that builds trust and allows for better representation.
“I think you may prosecute something differently if you can relate to their experiences than if you have no idea where that person is coming from,” explained Tolu Lawal, vice-chair of the Black Allied Law Students Association at New York University.
During our phone conversation, G.L.O.W & Flow blog founder and police oversight and accountability attorney Nicci Page recalled witnessing clients of color not being understood by their white lawyers due to differences in vernacular, cultural backgrounds, and communication styles.
“If they don’t understand the words that are coming out of my mouth how can they understand my perspective?” she said about the lawywer-client dynamic.
But while we’re well aware of the barriers that exist when it comes to African-Americans and the criminal justice system. Often we forget the very real obstacles that hinder the number of Black lawyers in practice, one of which is law school tuition. According to U.S News and World Report, the priciest law school in the U.S is the University of Virginia with an annual tuition of $56,300 per year for in-state tuition and $59,300 per year for out-of-state tuition. The cheapest school is the University of North Dakota which costs $11,434 per year for in-state tuition and $25,423 a year for out-of-state tuition.
Having these costs after attending a four-year university without a full scholarship can, understandably, cause reluctance when considering law school. As Page shared, “I have friends who had to take $100,000, $200,000 and $250,000 in [student] loans for law school.”
Cost almost discouraged Ganiaitu Afolabi, Chair of NYU’s Black Allied Law Students Association, from attending law school.
“A lot of the people I knew were receiving financial help from their parents and there was no way I was going to,” she said.
Thankfully, Afolabi and Page received full scholarships to their respective schools, but most prospective students of color are not so lucky. Many don’t make it pass the stage of discouragement, which is another real barrier to law school enrollment.
Lawal believes that the stigmatization of so-called “inner-city problems,” which are often not addressed, leaves children’s educational needs unmet and the trauma experienced in these communities ignored. She said this affects childrens’ self-efficacy and future performance on standardized tests like the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
“[Their environment] affects their ability to have a solid education because whenever you have something that is diverting your attention, especially if it’s highly negative, you are not going to perform to your utmost best in scholastic settings.”
LSAC.org describes the LSAT as being designed to measure skills that are considered essential for success in law school. However, North Carolina public defender Michele Delgado said “The LSAT doesn’t reflect anything about law school at all.”
Perhaps it’s for that reason the LSAT Technical Report found African-Americans and Latinos have the lowest average LSAT scores. Page feels that the LSAT is a poor assessor of who should attend law school and be a good lawyer thereafter, especially among people of color.
“I know people who scored really well and I would never want them representing me. The things that [Black] people are great at and have to offer do not really come through numerically in standardized tests.”
Should you overcome these obstacles and be accepted into a law school, Taylor Buck* of New York Law School said the educational experience can still be a culture shock. Buck, who asked that her real name not be used, said she received far from a warm welcome into her program.
“Coming here has been like an out-of-body experience. It’s been very weird to be in the minority. I’m a friendly person and I don’t really get that warmness reciprocated.”
Despite not feeling much connection to the general student body, Buck said the Black Law Student Association chapter has helped her feel more at home.
While Buck sought support from her school’s BLSA chapter, Delgado decided to attend a law school at a historically Black university, where the advancement of people of color is embedded in their purpose. While the cultural experience may be ideal, law schools at HBCUs are not highly ranked. U.S News and World Report ranked Howard University School of Law #120 while the other four HBCU law schools (Florida A&M University College of Law, North Carolina Central University School of Law, Southern University Law Center and Thurgood Marshall School of Law) aren’t ranked at all.
Diversity fellowships exist to increase representation from various demographics and subgroups that are underrepresented at law firms, but when students are selected for these fellowships, they are chosen only from certain schools which gives students of color from HBCUs less of a chance of being selected.
“People like the idea of the prestige associated with certain schools and they continue to buy into that idea because it’s easier,” Afolabi said. “It takes someone saying, ‘I’m not buying into that and I’m going to recruit from other schools broadly’ for things to change.”
Delgado explained that some HBCU law schools sacrifice a higher ranking so they can give equal opportunity to their applicants. This, she said, helps give students who may not get into other law schools an opportunity.
And while lack of diversity among lawyers is far from ideal, it doesn’t mean a person of color will not have an optimal experience while pursuing their law degree or working in the field. Buck said while her program isn’t diverse, the professors are culturally sensitive. Similarly, Page said half of the lawyers and most of the legal assistants at the mayoral agency she works for are African-American.
Afolabi and Lawal both pointed out that NYU encourages them to reach out to undergraduates to make the pipeline into law school more likely for students of color. Page also mentors a high school student who is interested in being a lawyer through the Legal Outreach program stationed in Queens, NY, which is geared towards high school students of color interested in the legal field.
The current state of affairs also doesn’t mean that diversity will not improve over time. A recent study from Saint Louis University indicates that law schools are accepting more African-American students. Aaron Taylor, assistant professor at St. Louis University School of Law, found that minorities accounted for 26 percent of total enrollment and 28 percent of first-year enrollment at law schools between 2010 and 2013. He also found that the number of first-year years students who were African-Americans increased six percent.