Why We Need More African American Lawyers

The percentage of African American lawyers has remained mostly stagnant for the past decade, accounting for only 5% of the legal profession. Of even more concern is that the number is expected to fall further with the future of affirmative action in the balance. Of the 92% of unmet civil legal needs in the nation, low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected. Equal Justice Works (EJW) — an organization that aims to bridge the gap between providing opportunities for young lawyers of color and helping those who need legal services — believes that “representation matters–both legal representation to navigate the justice system and racial representation to ensure communities have a sense of agency and can see themselves reflected in their lawyer.”

Countless systemic barriers to entry exist, preventing Black people from pursuing and attending law school. When 13% of the American population is African American, but only 5% of lawyers are Black, Black people are not being fairly represented in the justice system. According to EJW CEO Verna Williams, “Simply put, representation matters. Diversity in all its dimensions, including gender, ethnicity, economic status, and race, matters because the law and the legal system touch all parts of our society. If our laws and justice system continue to be shaped by the few, [they] will continue to only serve the few and engender respect from even fewer.” She added, “Black lawyers are critical to constructing a justice system that serves all people. [The] very presence of Black lawyers in courtrooms, judges’ chambers, or press conferences countered ugly stereotypes justifying racial subordination.”

When she hears people doubt the need for more Black lawyers, Williams often reflects on her time with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. She recalls vividly the relief and pride that greeted her in Macon, Mississippi, a town of about 700 people. In seeing Williams, Black residents saw a cousin, daughter, friend, or even themselves, and felt confident that she would try to understand their perspective around voting rights violations. Williams shared, “They were keenly aware that for hundreds of years, the legal system supported and reinforced a racial hierarchy placing Black people at the bottom. Then, as now, Black lawyers across the nation serve African American communities in myriad ways—securing release for the many caught in the snare of “three strikes you’re out” laws, assisting entrepreneurs in launching their businesses, or educating the next generation of Black attorneys.” Williams, commenting on recent events in the nation, added, “At a time when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis shut the door on a new Advanced Placement course about African American Studies from being taught in [public] schools, the need for Black lawyers, and anti-racist lawyers, to ensure that laws and policies promote equity and inclusion is as great as ever.”


EJW works closely with Greenberg Traurig LLP in order to achieve its goals as it is vital for private law firms to support efforts to diversify the law profession and address gaps in legal services to low-income and communities of color. Since 1999, Greenberg Traurig, through its Holly Skolnick Fellowship Foundation, has contributed more than $14 million to fund over 200 Equal Justice Works Fellows. According to Nikki Lewis Simon, Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer at Greenberg Traurig, “Anyone who is skeptical about the value of a legal profession that reflects the increasingly diverse population, just isn’t paying attention. Black and other diverse individuals on any team make for a better product. We have seen that here at Greenberg Traurig.” She added, “Greenberg Traurig intentionally and strategically “invests” in our people and our communities not only because we view it as our duty to work towards a more just and equitable society and a more diverse profession, but because we see that investment directly leads to better results for clients.”

Research demonstrates that lawyers, much like doctors, are more likely to have greater empathy and understanding of the nuances of a client’s life and legal situation when they come from similar backgrounds. According to Simon, having an innate connection to a client typically results in better relationships, and thus, more equitable outcomes. She also shared that as more diverse lawyers are elevated to senior leadership positions, they will likely seek out other diverse lawyers to train and grow within their organizations.

EJW is focused on ensuring that there are more Black lawyers. However, in doing so, they are faced with one substantial barrier — law school debt. Black students are more likely to borrow than students from other racial and ethnic groups pursuing similar degrees, and according to the American Bar Association (ABA), Black law students are most likely to graduate with high law school debt.

In its 2018 report titled, Before the JD, the American Association of Law Schools found that African American students decided to become lawyers in high school. According to Williams, “Increasing diversity requires a concerted effort by law schools, law firms, and other legal organizations to work together to support Black students — starting at a young age — who would like to become lawyers. She added, “Kids growing up in communities of color need to understand that becoming a lawyer is not only something they can aspire to, but there is a real path to achieve it.”

Williams also believes that “law schools should continue holistic examination of applicants to ensure that standardized test scores don’t block promising Black students from pursuing legal education.” In addition, she thinks that law schools and members of the legal profession should combine forces to ensure that African American students have the support and guidance necessary to excel in law school since most are first generation—not only to the law but also to college overall. Moreover, Williams is cautiously optimistic that the new ABA policy requiring law schools to educate students on “bias, cross-cultural competency, and racism” will make a difference in the lives of lawyers and communities of color. Along with Simon, she believes that “Law schools and law firms should explore every possible way they can to expand their impact and demonstrate the value they bring not only to clients, but to their communities.”

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