Where are the Black Lawyers?
There are many well-known Black lawyers. Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker are just a few. But these success stories hide a sobering fact: the number of Black lawyers is quite small. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017, there were just over 1.1 million attorneys in America. Of these, just 5.6 percent were African American.
Where are the Black lawyers? What keeps Black students from entering the legal profession?
To become a lawyer, a student must graduate high school and enroll at a four-year college. After graduating from college, she must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and be admitted to law school. Finally, she must graduate and pass the bar exam. Each of these steps presents challenges for Black students.
The road to law school begins in high school. Unfortunately, Black students are slightly less likely to graduate high school than white students. Five percent of white high school students dropout compared to eight percent of Black students. However, the African American students who complete high school will do so at schools that are less likely to have experienced teachers or rigorous coursework, or adequate facilities and more likely to suspend them. Black students must survive these challenges make to college a possibility.
In college, the road becomes more difficult. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) reports that there were nearly 20 million students enrolled in colleges in 2015. Only 14.1 percent of them were Black. But getting into college is just the beginning. While nearly two-thirds of white students will complete their degrees in six years, only forty percent of Black students will graduate on time. Without a degree, law school is an impossibility.
The LSAT presents another hurdle. Many law schools require LSAT scores as part of the application process. LSAT scores range from 120 to 180. The average score is 151. The average LSAT score for Black students from 2005 to 2012 was 141. However, the LSAT, like all standardized tests, carries a legacy of racial bias and class bias. (Oh, and that movement to get law schools to use the GRE instead of the LSAT? The same racial gaps exist on the GRE.)
Despite the LSAT, roughly ten percent of the students accepted to law school in 2017 were African American. But getting into law school is much easier than staying there. The ABA attrition data indicates that of the 2,382 first-year law students that were academically dismissed in 2017, 1071 were nonwhite. Of these, 365 (34 percent) were Black.
The student who has managed to make it this far must clear one final hurdle: the bar exam. While most states do not collect demographic information on bar takers, California and New York, the two largest jurisdictions, have collected some information about race. In California, 75 percent of white first-time examinees from ABA-accredited law schools passed the 2017 exams. Only 49 percent of Black graduates were successful. Similarly, a 2007 study found that while 86.8 percent of white takers passed the New York bar that year, only 54 percent of Black takers did.
The road to becoming a lawyer is a difficult one. In fact, some may wonder whether the effort it takes to overcome the many obstacles is worth it.
Because America needs Black lawyers.
America needs Black lawyers because lawyers ensure that positive social changes will last. Speeches are easily forgotten. Marches will soon become memories. But laws are very difficult to change. Long after a protest has ended, laws passed as a result of that protest will still be on the books. Black lawyers work to ensure that these laws will serve justice. When that happens, the speeches and marches were not in vain.
America needs Black lawyers because lawyers are leaders. Like Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, lawyers frequently enter politics or take on other leadership positions. When we lose Black lawyers, we lose Black leaders.
America needs Black lawyers because lawyers see possibilities. Charles Hamilton Houston created the strategy that led to Brown v. Board of Education. Brown ended segregation. Today, the African American lawyers who are fighting against racism and for Black Lives are envisioning – and creating – a new and better reality for the next generation.
America needs Black lawyers. The African American Attorney Network is here to provide support to Black lawyers as they work to make America “a more perfect union.”
Start connecting with other black lawyers today. Register today for your free membership and get client leads and job prospects from around the country.