Work + Growth

Why Are There So Few Black Lawyers?


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  • Law is the least diverse profession—it’s 88% white—and black lawyers are the least represented
  • Having so few black defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges affects not only legal outcomes but other career opportunities, such as holding public office
  • Current diversity initiatives need strengthening and a refocusing on accountability and results

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, law is the least diverse profession in the country, and black lawyers are the least represented ethnic group.

This fact hasn’t changed in the past few years, despite the diversity programs that many firms have instituted. And lawyers often disagree that there is a problem to be solved, believing that equality has been achieved and the high percentage of white lawyers—88% in a country that is about 61% white—is simply due to differing personal choices and abilities.

Why does the racial makeup of those in the legal profession matter?

The lack of diversity in the law affects how cases are prosecuted and how effectively lawyers can defend their clients—if one group continues to be overwhelmingly represented, one group’s needs will continue to be overwhelmingly served. Can you imagine specific circumstances in which this would be a problem?

And we know that lawyers not only work in courtrooms as prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges, but they also become elected officials and high-ranking executives in other organizations—just count how many presidents in your lifetime have been attorneys.

Barriers

There are often daunting barriers that make it difficult for African Americans to become lawyers, the high cost of law school being at the top of the list. A less-than-warm welcome from some of the more homogeneous law programs can make getting through law school an uncomfortable journey. Students who attend historically black law schools aren’t typically chosen for fellowships at law firms, who tend to choose candidates from a narrow list of prestigious schools with higher rankings. Thus, the pipeline problem persists.

Unconscious Bias

Once they are working, unconscious bias often means that black attorneys are assumed to be less competent than their white counterparts and treated accordingly. African Americans report feeling excluded from informal networking opportunities that are crucial for advancement. As a result, black lawyers make up only 2% of partners and are the most likely group to leave their firms.

Progress

Improvement is not impossible, however. Progress is ever slow, but black law school enrollment is increasing. Most firm diversity programs need to be strengthened and realigned—these issues aren’t solely pertinent to the minorities they directly affect but should be presented as priorities in which the entire firm has an interest. The most successful diversity programs are those that monitor effectiveness and take responsibility for the results. In addition, the value of training to counteract unconscious bias cannot be underestimated. Hard data on areas such as retention, advancement, and job satisfaction must be regularly collected and assessed to make these initiatives more than just ideas and good intentions.