Throughout my life, I have always been among the minority in school, college, and work. But I was never the only minority -- until I joined a boutique law firm as the only black woman. A 2020 study published in the ABA Journal found that black women account for a dismal 2 percent of all equity partners in firms across the United States. That percentage has remained consistent for the past 20 years. As a woman of color who desires to go to law school and pursue a career in the law, I find those statistics discouraging.
As an undergraduate student, I knew many minority women with ambitions to attend law school. Now as I navigate through the law school admissions process, I wonder at what point do black women shift gears and decide against the pursuit of a law degree? The legal community is in dire need of diversity, especially in light of the inequitable effects of the justice system on black Americans. We cannot improve a system in which we are not involved.
The basic cost of law school tuition can easily exceed $150,000. The financial obligation is just one of the key deterrents for minority students. Many of my minority peers finished their undergraduate education with extensive student loans or the need to provide financial support to family members. Several minority graduates have opted for graduate programs that cost less than law school and provide grad assistantships to cover the cost of attendance. Others have embarked on unrelated career fields that pose less of financial risk and promise more immediate financial gain.
The lack of female minority representation in the legal community is another deterring factor. Black women often feel displaced within their work environments due to the lack of a minority perspective. Additionally, the legal field is still very traditional in both appearance and practice. My firm is very inclusive, but I still find myself taming my natural tresses into a sleek bun when attending court. Black women go into the legal field with the burden of eventually “breaking the glass ceiling.” For most, the barriers and lack of diversity are far too much to take on.
Many black women are first-generation legal professionals who do not have adequate mentorship within the field. Mentorship is essential to grooming individuals for upper level and leadership positions. Minority professionals find themselves navigating the practice of law without anyone of common background with whom to voice their concerns. The lack of guidance can lead to frustration which may dissuade black women from practicing law. Others stay complacent in certain roles not wanting to “rock the boat.”
My experience has been favorable thus far because my firm does not ignore the obvious issues regarding diversity and inclusion in the legal field. Our staff has the necessary conversations and asks the tough questions that other law firm cultures avoid. I found mentorship through my firm’s senior partner. He is transparent about the lack of diversity within the legal community and encourages me to push forward despite it. My experience has confirmed that the black perspective is necessary. I am convinced that there is more room at the table for black women in the practice of law. If I ever begin to feel otherwise, I hope to have the continued resilience to make room for myself.