Reflections on the National Black Law Students Conference

I was extremely lucky over the weekend of the March 15th to be able to attend the National Black Law Students Association (NBLSA) conference in Milwaukee, WI, and the experience proved to be very impactful. Patrice Bishop-Foster, Oregon Law BLSA treasurer and JD/MBA candidate, as well as Kiara Fiegi, Oregon Law BLSA 1L representative, and myself made the journey to the frozen tundra that is Wisconsin in winter and though we could not attend the entire conference, we all definitely came away from the experience with plenty to think about.  This was the 46th National conference, and as the organization moves closer to 50 years of existence, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done with regard to the representation of black people in the legal field.

Before I talk about my experience at the conference, I think it would be useful to give a quick introduction to BLSA as an organization.  BLSA was founded by Algernon Johnson (“AJ”) Cooper in 1968 at New York School of Law. It has grown into the largest student run organization in the country, with 6000 members and 200 chapters across 48 states and Puerto Rico. The mission of the organization encompasses many goals, including promoting equity in the legal field, encouraging more black undergraduates to attend law school, helping black law students get the skills and networking required to succeed particularly in the judiciary, and fostering change within the legal community to better serve the needs and concerns of the black community.These goals, and the very existence of the organization, are incredibly important given the enormous racial disparities that exist inside the legal field. In 2010,only 4.8% of lawyers nationally were black. This is only a slight increase from the year 2000, where black lawyers accounted for 4.2% of the field. All minorities combined only make up 5.4% of equity partners at firms nation wide, though I could not find numbers specifically for the black community.

In the same vein but perhaps more anecdotally, many news organizations have recently reported that since October 2013, in the 75 hours of oral arguments heard by the United States Supreme Court, only one black lawyer has appeared, and only for 11 minutes.

In Oregon the black population is already low at 2%, possibly in part for notorious historical reasons. In Oregon black attorneys make up 1% of the legal community, which considering the population demographics is not terrible. Most of these attorneys are in Portland, leaving much of the state with not black attorneys at all.

Clearly, there is a significant gap in racial inclusion in the field, and that is one of the reasons why the NBLSA conference was such a good experience for me this year. First, I was able to meet and interact with black law students from around the country. I was afforded the opportunity to meet an esteemed black justice, and attended seminars from black attorneys in many different legal areas and discuss my future and the work I might be able to do. All of these experiences were fun and helpful, but one seminar in particular stands out as the most important for me.

In a session entitled Brother to Brother, a panel of attorneys, discussed very frankly the realities of being a black man in the legal field, and it was eye opening. One of the attorneys, a defense lawyer from Milwaukee, conveyed the experience of essentially needing to live two lives, one at work and one with his community. He joked about wearing street clothes and mistaken by a clerk as a client. He talked about the necessity of developing the ability to switch back and forth between what he saw as his true self, and the self that his superiors wanted him to be. He described it as being bilingual, but on a cultural level. Knowing that the culture he grew up in, and black culture in general, would not fit in well in the legal atmosphere. Though he regarded the ability to switch between these personas as a skill, he lamented the fact that it was a skill required of him simply because the legal community is traditionally extremely homogenous.  He also joked about how annoying it was that, being the only black lawyer at that public defenders office, he had all the black clients being routed through his desk, regardless of his workload.

A Navy Judge Advocate Captain discussed his experience, which he described as “one and done.” He described the fact that many legal institutions search actively for a black lawyer, but the upon finding one, rarely hire anymore. The captain said over and over again how frustrating it was to never see more than one black attorney in a vast majority of offices, as hiring attorneys viewed diversity as a quota, rather than a goal.

All of the attorneys also echoed a common sentiment, that for most of their careers, in most circumstances, they were the only black person in the room. That alienation from the field as a whole seemed taxing in many ways on all of them, each one describing multiple instances of feeling incredibly out of place, having forced interactions with people attempting to imitate their culture, or worse, whispers in offices of them being hired simply because of the need for diversity being mandated from partners.

This session made me think intensely about the career that I have currently chosen, asking myself whether signing up for a career where I will rarely deal with people who look like me or have similar experiences was a good call. It is many times a daunting prospect, and suddenly my decision to move to an incredibly white state to attend law school seemed like a bad idea. Why did I sign myself up for extra isolation in the first place?

Luckily as I talked with many of the attorneys, I was given hope and enormous amounts of encouragement. Many of them reminded me that as a black man in America, graduating from undergrad and pursuing a legal career was already against the odds. As encouraging as that notion was, what came to me as I thought about it in my hotel room was the fact that many people did not have the opportunities that I did, and that in many ways I feel that I need to continue to achieve success wherever I can or I am squandering opportunities that I have been given.  Along the way, I also need to do whatever I can to foster a inclusive legal community, and later in my career hopefully I can help other black people trying to enter this line of work.

Next year the NBLSA national Conference is being held in Portland, and I an extremely lucky that I will be given a forum with which to connected with the black legal community of the state where I want to practice law. Without BLSA, I am not sure how I would go about accomplishing that task.

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