The legal profession is among the least diverse in our country. We are a problem-solving business that, unlike many of the organizational clients we serve, has not shown meaningful progress in tackling a problem that the American Bar Association once again set as a priority in adopting Goal III in 2008, “[t]o eliminate bias and enhance diversity” in our profession.
In searching for solutions, we have failed to take full advantage of one our greatest resources: the diversity-rich law schools of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)—Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University College of Law, Howard University School of Law, North Carolina Central University School of Law, Southern University Law Center, Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law, and The University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law.
More than 100 HBCUs have been bastions of higher learning for African-American students before and after segregation denied them access to quality education. Acknowledging their important historic role, Congress through the Higher Education Act of 1965 increased aid to HBCUs, which the Act defines as “any historically black college or university that was established before 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans.” Every presidential administration since then has supported the mission of HBCUs through executive orders and commissions.
HBCUs have long been a pathway to success for African-American professionals. A United Negro College Fund (UNCF) study estimates that 70% of black doctors, 50% of black engineers and teachers, and 35% of black lawyers have at least one degree from an HBCU. One of those lawyers is ABA President Paulette Brown, who earned her undergraduate degree from Howard University.
Despite offering a critical pipeline for African Americans into the legal profession, HBCU law schools, like all HBCU institutions, face difficult challenges, including shrinking public and private funding—far less than that received by non-HBCU institutions. Perhaps more problematic, the legal profession itself has largely ignored HBCU law schools. A lone bright spot, Howard University School of Law, with its national reputation, has historically been highly successful placing its graduates with mid-size to large law firms. By contrast, according to ABA-mandated accreditation disclosures, the other five HBCU law schools last year only placed 12 of their 573 graduates (2%) with law firms of over 50 lawyers.
HBCU law school graduates are underrepresented in law firms, corporations, and other organizations across America. Apparently, few organizations have the time or resources to recruit at HBCU law schools. Worse yet, many are not even aware of their mission or existence. HBCU law schools, like most law schools across America, face declining enrollment and graduates unable to find jobs in their chosen field. With tight budgets, the HBCU law schools are unable to develop enough outreach programs to properly promote their brands and to fundraise. Former ABA Law Practice Division Chair Joan Bullock, the associate dean for academic affairs and a senior founding professor at the reestablished Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University College of Law (FAMU) in Orlando, Florida, has decided to try an innovative way to elevate the profiles of the HBCU law schools and their students. Leveraging relationships that she built through the Law Practice Division as chair and through her tenures as the chair of its Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Dean Bullock has organized a new initiative to showcase the HBCU law schools and their students.
Working closely with FAMU’s Interim Dean, Darryl K. Jones, Dean Bullock met with the HBCU law school deans at the 2015 National HBCU Pre-Law Summit in Atlanta on the last day of the National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week, which begins during the last week of September. ABA President Brown was the keynote speaker for the event, which is designed to help prepare HBCU undergraduates for law school and legal careers. Dean Jones and the other law school deans—Katherine Broderick at District of Columbia, Danielle Holley-Walker (Howard), Phyliss Craig-Taylor (NCCU), Dannye Holley (Texas Southern) and John Pierre (Southern)—agreed to unite for an online event to gain exposure for their schools.
With the help of the Law Practice Division, The National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF), and The Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession, the HBCU law schools are hosting “Talk2Ten: An HBCU Law School Online Career Fair,” during a one-week window, beginning on January 18, 2016, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The event is free to all participants and requires only a small commitment of time. Talk2Ten, which will take place on LexSchola.com, a networking site for law students, is designed to encourage each participating law firm or corporate legal department to have their lawyers meet online with at least 10 law students from HBCU law schools by video conference for 15-30 minutes.
Ultimately, Talk2Ten’s goal is to promote relationships that endure beyond the event, and expand the pipeline for diverse law students into the legal profession. In the meantime, the students themselves can use the event, and any relationships built from it, to gain valuable insight into the practice of law. Right now, the students who have signed up for the event have lofty views of the profession.
For example, Charles Hands, III, a second-year student at NCCU, realizes that the law can impact lives, so he switched his focus from medicine to the law with the hope of helping others. Similarly, Kenrick Roberts, a third-year student at District of Columbia, wants to build a civil rights practice someday, and sees Talk2Ten as a path to that goal: “I hope to meet with potential employers as well as connect with legal professionals who can offer mentorship and guidance into being successful in the legal profession.” Finally, Jordan Franklin, a second-year student at Southern, explains that while she has grown to “love the adrenaline rush of the courtroom,” she feels that her “purpose on this earth is to serve and to help others who may not have the voice to help themselves.”
The HBCU law schools have a treasure trove of talented students like these who are overlooked by our profession each year. By putting on Talk2Ten, the HBCU law schools hope to overcome this problem and promote diversity in the legal profession at its highest levels. Legal organizations interested in participating in the event can learn more about it and the HBCU law schools by visiting Talk2Ten.com.
About the Author
Robert R. Furnier is a partner in The Furnier Muzzo Group LLC, a law firm in Cincinnati, Ohio. He can be reached at 513.792.6720 or RFurnier@FurnierLaw.com.