Strength in Numbers: Advancing African American Legal Talent & Reflecting on the “Firsts”

Topics: Access to Justice, Diversity, Government, Law Firms, Leadership & Retention, Legal Executive Events, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

lawyers of color

ATLANTA — The theme of “firsts” was central at the Legal Executive Institute’s recent Strength in Numbers: Celebrating African American Representation in the Law event, held in Atlanta on May 9.

The event opened by welcoming M. Yvette Miller, Judge of the Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia to deliver a keynote speech. Judge Miller’s career has been peppered with many “firsts”, one of which was being the first African American woman to serve as both Judge and Chief Judge on the court.

The first of two ensuing panel sessions involved the examination of the black legal pipeline from law school to equity partner. A fascinating takeaway, courtesy of the NALP Foundation, was that, despite African Americans making up 12.4% of the US population in 2016, only 8% of the approximately 37,000 law school graduates that year identified as African American, and only 5.6% found employment as lawyers.

Seeking to shed more light on this startling trend, the panel went on to surmise that two disproportional factors continue to impact the enrollment of black students in law school today:

  •        the cost of a legal education; and
  •        the “corrosive effect of the US News and World Report rankings” of law schools placing so much emphasis on the LSA score and a student’s GPA.
Strength in Numbers

Chief Judge M. Yvette Miller

On the cost of legal education, students of color who typically rely more heavily on financial aid than their peers are looking rationally at the cost/benefit ratio and not seeing a high enough return on investment. On the impact of law school rankings, one panelist, a law school executive, indicated that a mere one- or two-point move in the U.S. News & World Report rankings impacted both the volume and overall quality of the law school application pool—a condition that deleteriously impacts many diverse student populations.

Another law school panelist posited that the underlying issue was one of support, adding that the time to be preparing for law school admission needs to occur in the second and third year of undergraduate studies, as opposed to the fourth.

One Big Law panelist explained that law firms need to change the way newly-minted graduates are recruited, emphasizing that law firms presume that class rank is an indicator of success as a lawyer, even though abundant research suggests otherwise. Anecdotes from a senior African-American law firm equity partner revealed that the single, most critical factor in his ascension to partner was sponsorship by another partner who showed him the path toward success and advocated for his promotion.

In the second panel, focused on retaining and promoting African-American legal talent, each panelist indicated that greater collaboration between law firms and clients would go a long way toward improving the pipeline of black lawyers into leadership roles. More specifically, in-house counsel need to sit down with each of their outside law firms and mutually agree to key diversity objectives and how those objectives will be measured.

Half of the panelists agreed that the mentorship of African-American lawyers in Big Law needs to happen on Day One to ensure black lawyers are getting access to expand their lawyering skills and work on matters from the firm’s most important clients.

In terms of programs to advance diverse lawyers, one panelist spoke about his organization’s initiative that aims to build the critical mass of black lawyers, adding that the best way to expand one’s career is to expand relationships and networks that are going to grow with you.

Underscoring the importance of expanding networks and sponsorship, another panelist offered a cogent soundbite: the person “who gives the diameter of your knowledge prescribes the circumference of your activity.”