While African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population, they make up 4 percent of total lawyers in the United States. Despite this disparity, the National Black Law Students Association with its 6,000 members is the largest student-run organization in the country.
On Feb. 13, the Mid-Atlantic chapter of NBLSA brought its 45th Annual Convention to Pittsburgh for five days of networking, workshops, engaging speakers, community service projects, and mock trial and moot court competitions. Joined by local and regional law professionals, the event also tackled the broad issue of raising the number of Black lawyers locally and throughout the country.
“When you get there, handle your business and leave the door open,” said Allegheny County Public Defender Elliot Howsie. “You have to get your foot in the door and then you have to open it for another African-American or minority to get there.”
Howsie was one of several panelists at the convention’s “Excellence in Action” luncheon series “Brother to Brother and Sister to Sister.” When asked to address the dismal representation of African-Americans in the law profession, and how the numbers can be improved, the panelists revealed some harsh realities about how minorities must operate in today’s still stodgy law firms.
“Whether you realize it or not, you represent all African-American attorneys. You have to realize that you’re always being watched and critiqued,” Howsie said. “My kids might want to go to law school some day. Don’t mess that up.”
The panelists spent time discussing attitudes toward physical appearances and warned the students that many law firms would not respect cultural differences such as a woman’s decision to wear her hair “natural.” However, they also said it was up to the students to decide whether they want to work somewhere where they are not valued.
“You want to blend in. Don’t stand out. Don’t go in there being a radical,” said Emanuel Oaks, clerk for Judge Kim Clark. “But what is so wrong with opening your own law firm? We don’t have a major minority law firm here in Pittsburgh.”
“If you’re looking to work somewhere that values diversity, look at their diversity statement. Do they have one? Most firms don’t,” said Lisa Barnett an attorney with Eckert Seamans.
Despite the advice from the panelists on how the students should behave once they gain their first internship or position with a law firm, the students worried enough doors weren’t opening to give them that first chance to begin with.
“What I hate hearing is the bar is going to be lowered if we let in more minorities,” said Tracey McCants Lewis, a Duquesne University law professor, acknowledging the students’ fears. “The color of my skin doesn’t mean I’m less qualified.”
Duquesne law student Stephanie Johnson, who served as the regional coordinator for this year’s convention, said she wants to increase Pittsburgh’s diversity, but attracting minority talent to such as insular city can be difficult. In hopes of creating a diverse experience for her fellow members, she invited members from organizations like the Allegheny County Bar Association, which gave students the opportunity to network with prospective employers.
“I’m from Atlanta and Atlanta is very rich in diversity; they have a huge middle class of minorities. When I came to Pittsburgh I was shocked at the difference,” Johnson said. “This convention was the perfect combination of my passion for law and helping my people.”