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UH Law Center Co-sponsored Black Lawyers Matter Conference 2021 explores path forward toward a more inclusive legal profession

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Nov. 3, 2021 - Building upon the momentum of the inaugural dialogue in 2020, the 2021 Black Lawyers Matter Conference was held in October with a host of speakers and panelists ready to continue advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession.

Organized after the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Black Lawyers Matter Conference aims to increase diversity within the legal field, one of the least diverse professions in the country, according to Dean Leonard M. Baynes, Dean and Professor of Law at UH Law Center. Held virtually on October 15, this year’s Black Lawyers Matter Conference had close to 2,000 registrants from across the country.

“We can’t have justice without adequate representation,” said Baynes. “The underrepresentation of black lawyers has a long history in our society.”

Presented by the Law School Admission Council, University of Houston Law Center, and Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, the 2021 Black Lawyers Matter Conference covered topics including: promoting diversity in law schools and law offices, advancing anti-racist legal education, re-envisioning the hiring process, and retaining and developing new lawyers.

“The whole essence of the protests of 2020 revolved around the continued disparity and underrepresentation of African Americans, often leading to tragic criminal justice outcomes,” Baynes said, citing the fact that although black people make up about 13% of the U.S. population, they still make up less than 5% of the legal profession.

“A lot of this is attributable to the zealous pursuit of U.S. News and World Report rankings that cause law schools to put a premium on rankings over law school diversity,” Baynes said. “But that is no excuse. We all have a moral and civic responsibility to do so much more.”

Increase diversity in the courtroom

Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Texas and 1981 graduate of the UH Law Center, opened the Black Lawyers Matter Conference with a dialogue about the importance of diversity in the legal field, specifically within the judiciary.

Gilmore is the first University of Houston graduate to be appointed to the federal bench and, at the time of her appointment in 1994, was the youngest federal judge on the bench.

“Black lawyers matter because if you're not at the table, you are on the menu,” Gilmore said. “Having all those different perspectives at the table is very important.”

Without a diversity of perspectives and experiences, the judiciary is at risk of losing its impartiality, Gilmore said. And if the judiciary lacks impartiality, “it does nothing to instill confidence in the fairness of the judiciary.”

One of the ways a lack of diversity manifests itself is through implicit or unconscious bias, according to Gilmore.

This can be particularly dangerous in the courtroom, where unchecked implicit bias can result in extreme disparities, Gilmore said, citing data from the American Civil Liberties Union that shows black men receive sentences that are 23% longer than white men.

“Education of the judiciary, education of prosecutors, and education of jurors goes hand in hand to decreasing some of that disparity,” Gilmore said.

Another way to increase diversity in the judicial system falls on the part of law schools to educate students about the opportunity to pursue judicial clerkships, Gilmore said, adding that “many students of color do not understand what a judicial clerkship is.”

Advance diversity in law schools

“Studies show that the more diversity you have over prospective faculty, the more likely students will feel a sense of belonging,” Baynes said at the beginning of the conference’s first session on “hiring and developing a diverse and culturally competent faculty.”

Diversity is especially important in legal academia, as law schools are “the first gatekeeper” or pipeline to increasing diversity within the industry, Baynes said.

According to Professor Meera Deo, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School - Los Angeles and author of Unequal Profession: Race and Gender in Legal Academia, just 7% of law professors are women of color and only about 8% of law faculty are men of color. With about 24% of law professors being white women, that leaves about half of all law professors as white men, according to Deo.

“My research reveals that beyond the low numbers of faculty of color, there are significant disparities with what I have termed race times gender bias,” Deo said. “This is bias that’s based on the combination of these two devalued identity characteristics that affect the actual experiences of law faculty.”

These disparities can play out in different ways. For example, for some law students of color, it “does not occur to them that law teaching is a viable path for them,” Deo said, especially if they’ve never seen a person of color in that career before.

Deo quoted a participant in her study, a Native American law professor, who said it “never occurred” to her that she could be a law professor.

“It was just luck and comfort more than anything. I just accidentally fell into it,” Deo read.

Students of color may often miss out on key mentorship connections that could help them navigate a career as a law professor. It’s not uncommon for white male law students to have their sights set on becoming a law professor early on in their studies or even have a law professor “take him under his wing” and pave the way, Deo said.

“Mentorship is key. There are unwritten rules of the job market that you really need a guide for,” Deo said.

However, she noted that “mentorship is not always enough” and that implicit bias can have a negative effect on the hiring process.

“People tend to hire others who remind them of themselves. If we want legal academia to be more diverse, we can’t simply reproduce who’s already here,” Deo said.

Kevin Johnson, Dean at the University of California-Davis School of Law, echoed Deo, saying that creating a diverse faculty is “a lot of hard work that will not happen overnight.”

“The thing about faculties is you build them and change them one person at a time,” he said. “It’s critically important to play the long game when it comes to faculty hiring and trying to move a faculty and move the needle on diversity.”

Building community

Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Dean of the Boston University School of Law, spearheaded the Lutie A. Lytle Black Women Law Faculty Workshop & Writing Retreat in 2007 during a time when she realized “women of color were in a particularly precarious place” as far as equity in the workplace.

Specifically, Onwuachi-Willig noted that the tenure gap between white male and white female professors had essentially closed, yet the tenure gap between professors of color and white professors was widening. At the same time, there was a decline in hiring faculty members of color compared to previous decades. 

The Lutie A. Lytle Black Women Law Faculty Workshop & Writing Retreat, named after the first female law professor in the U.S. and the first black woman to be admitted to the bar in the South, was organized to develop “scholarship for junior faculty” and combat bias,” Onwuachi-Willig said.

Following in the footsteps of the organizers of the Lutie A. Lytle workshop, Sudha Setty, Dean of Western New England University School of Law, said she launched a similar program for Asian-American women.

The inaugural workshop’s attendees were “visibly and audibly moved emotionally over Zoom to have the opportunity to speak and be heard and to have the idea they could participate in legal academia be validated in one way, shape, or form,” Setty said.

“Conferences are great,” Setty said, but the support on a day-to-day basis in the workplace that’s key to building leadership and helping people advance.

The path forward

Marcilynn A. Burke – Dean and Dave Frohnmayer Chair in Leadership and Law at the University of Oregon School of Law and former associate dean and associate professor of law at the UH Law Center – moderated part of the afternoon’s keynote presentation featuring Deborah Enix-Ross, President-Elect of the American Bar Association.

“I have been acutely aware of challenges lawyers of color face and have faced as we try to be active, productive members of this noble profession,” said Enix-Ross, the second African-American woman to be president of the ABA in its 140-year history.

“Our ultimate objective is to create a truly inclusive workplace where black lawyers and other lawyers of color and other lawyers from underrepresented demographic groups will not have to overcome additional barriers of bias or administration,” said Enix-Ross.

“That’s a job for all lawyers, not just lawyers of color.”

Click here to view the conference video.

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