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Minorities in the Profession of Law

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Understanding the Challenge

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an apprenticeship was the primary vehicle to become a lawyer. Blacks desiring to become lawyers, however, faced a difficult challenge because most white lawyers would not sponsor blacks in an apprenticeship program. Macon B. Allen was able to find a sponsor, however, and in July of 1844, he became the first black lawyer in the United States.

By the end of the nineteenth century, law schools became the primary focus for legal training. Those law schools, however, were primarily white, and few blacks attended. Despite those odds, George Lewis Ruffin graduated from Harvard Law School in 1869, becoming the first black law school graduate in this nation.

Several decades later, Charles Hamilton Houston graduated from Harvard Law School in the top 5 percent of his class, having been the first black elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review. He later went on to open one of the first black law firms in Washington, D.C.

If you are a minority student considering whether to attend law school, be mindful of the successful struggles of the Charles Hamilton Houston's, the George Lewis Ruffins, and the Macon B. Allens. Be aware of the myths concerning black lawyers, the reality of minorities in the profession, and the challenges that a minority group member faces upon entering law school.

The Myth

Many people may attempt to dissuade you from entering the legal profession. One of their primary reasons for discouraging you is the concern that there are too many lawyers, but this is a myth as it relates to minority lawyers. In 1991, there were approximately 756,000 lawyers and judges in this country. Of that number, only 25,704 were black. In other words, in 1991 only 3.4 percent of this nation's lawyers and judges were black.

Another myth surrounding minority lawyers relates to postgraduate employment. Many minority law students believe that their race is a positive factor in securing employment. This simply is not the case. Most employers do not go out of their way to seek minority applicants. They no longer have affirmative action programs or find it desirable, necessary, or attractive to hire minorities into their ranks. In fact, a substantial number of minority law students have difficulty in obtaining their first job after law school unless they are at the top of their class or on law review.

As you decide whether law school is the appropriate course for your career, it is important that you dispel the myths set forth above. Before entering law school, take a hard look at the realities of being a minority member in the profession.

The Reality

Minorities in the legal profession face several ongoing battles throughout their careers. First, there is the battle with racism, which is apparent in the hiring and promotion practices within the profession- resulting in minuscule numbers of black associates and partners within major firms and law departments of major corporations. In addition, minority law firms engage in the battle of racism on a daily basis in the never-ending quest for clients and sources of power. Corporate clients, due to the badges of racism, are initially reluctant to hire minority law firms to represent them. Such firms are required to expend significant time and money to convince corporate clients that minority firms are just as qualified and competent as other law firms.

Second, minorities have an initial battle in attempting to enter law, which is a very close-knit profession, traditionally dominated by white males. This situation is akin to joining an elite country club or a fraternal organization. Cultural bias in admissions tests and the high costs of bar exams and bar dues also work to disadvantage minority lawyers.

Finally, minorities in the legal profession face the never-ending battle of survival within whatever type of organization they choose to practice. Since there are so few minorities in most of the practice organizations, a strong support system is often lacking. Sometimes this lack of support can lead to a serious loss of minorities within the ranks of the profession. Established groups such as the National Bar Association, its affiliates and divisions, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, and the National Association of Black Women Attorneys, however, can provide minorities within the profession with strong support and networking systems if minorities are committed to the existence and support of such organizations.

The Challenge

Given the realities minorities face in the profession, if you choose to go to law school you must be ready to meet the challenge. This challenge begins on the first day. Many of your professors and classmates may not believe that you are qualified to be in law school. They may initially question your ability and your competence. You may be urged to sit in the back of the classroom so that you will not be noticed. You will be noticed, unless you attend a predominantly black law school, because there will be few of you. You must be aggressive and confident in your abilities and commit yourself to learning the law well. Being prepared for class every day is a must, and you should go out of your way to voluntarily participate in classroom discussions. It is important that you overcome any reluctance to visit your professors if you have a problem or need clarification on a topic.

If time and study habits permit, take part in extracurricular activities. Do not shy away from participation in law review, moot court competitions, or student government. In addition, join the student divisions of the National Bar Association, the American Bar Association, and other similar associations. These opportunities will enhance and sharpen your skills. They will put you on a par, or even better than that, with your classmates in terms of qualifications for postgraduate employment. In other words, you must make things happen. Make yourself unique, so that employers will find your background attractive.

The challenge is yours to meet. It won't be easy, but the obstacles are surmountable with hard work, persistence, drive, and determination. As you enter law school, envision the struggles of Macon B. Allen, George Lewis Ruffin, and Charles Hamilton Houston. Because of these gentlemen your road will be easier.

Some Practical Advice

The challenges of ethnic minorities are different from those of racial minorities. For example, if you have a foreign-sounding name, you will forever be asked where you are from, even if you were born here or your family has been in the United States for generations. If you are black, you will stand out in predominantly white settings. Yet, each group's members can learn from the experiences of the other.


Harvard Law School.


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