Law in Contemporary Society
I. Introduction

In class, we have discussed the idea(l) of practicing law that is meaningful for us. For many of the black (and minority) students, the definition of “meaningful” takes on a different role. While I do not speak for every person of color attending CLS, I believe that there are common threads between many of our experiences. Being a person of color, the intention of having a ‘meaningful’ legal career means having to balance the tangible effects of having a JD such a wealth creation and financial freedom (e.g paying one debt, helping one’s family) with the elusive consequences of belonging to a new category of being a member of an Ivy League law school. There is a certain weight that black lawyers carry because they have one foot in their communities and the other in a firm. This paper will explore the benefits and struggles that minority lawyers have (and like me, will have) as we try balance the advancement of our careers while presenting themselves as ‘black’ lawyers.

II. The Building Blocks of the Legal Profession

At its core, a major problem black lawyers face is entering a world that uses whiteness as a commodity. As described in Cheryl Harris “Whiteness as Property,” 106 Harv. L.Rev. 1721:

…the racial line between white and Black was extremely critical; it became a line of protection and demarcation from the potential threat of commodification, and it determined the allocation of the benefits and burdens of this form of property. White identity and whiteness were sources of privilege and protection; their absence meant being the object of property

While this quote focus on the historical positioning of race, its theme still rings true today. Harris continues by stating that one of the ways in which whiteness has been maintained as a property right is through reputation. In its most basic sense, reputation is defined through our productivity and contribution to society. Yet, in America, we have defined reputation through a lens that accounts for gender, race, and wealth. Being someone who either comes from a “good” family or background or attends a top-tier school are some of the ways in which one can have a ‘good’ reputation because reputation is the capital by which the legal profession operates. These categories are also ways in which whiteness is safeguarded.

III. The Barriers Faced

In higher education and professional schools, we are mostly taught not have to break down those safeguards but how to assimilate into them—whenever possible. During my undergraduate career, I was accepted into a program called Management Leadership for Tomorrow (, which is a career preparation program for minorities. In the last decade or so, programs such as this have been created and have proved profitable. Within such programs, there are seminars and conversations where participants are trained to work within corporate America—going as so far to encourage people not to wear certain hairstyles such as dreadlocks for fear of standing out too much. While these programs can be tremendously helpful in ushering in many qualified and diverse candidates to top corporations and laws firms, there is also this fundamental question as to whether promoting the assimilation into white corporate culture is the best for their participants.

I have had many conversations with friends, in law school, whom say they fearfully and begrudgingly will work at a large, predominantly white firms. While many of us have lived in predominantly white neighborhoods or attended white educational institutions (thus having experience as to how to move within the white habitus) corporate America is still new territory. Working in such formalized hierarchies where our livelihoods will depend how people view our product as well as our character, might prove to be challenging.

In his law review article, “'Separate is Inherently Unequal' to 'Diversity is Good for Business': The Rise of Market-Based Diversity Arguments and the Fate of the Black Corporate Bar," David Wilkins speaks of the fact that for most corporate firms, their bottom line is to bring in clients and make profit. Now, within the corporations and law firms, attracting students of color has become good for business. Yet, there are still boundaries put in place that define what type of minority candidate they are seeking. Wilkins states that many law firms are still hesitant to hire minority candidates because they are afraid that their ideals (e.g. more public interest oriented) as well as viewpoint stand in contradiction with the firms values: [m]angers have strong incentives to screen out potential employees whom they suspect of holding such disruptive views. Minorities are likely to be especially fearful of being too “diverse” in this way, both because they may actually hold substantially divergent views and because even if they do not, they have reason to fear that others may believe that they do and that their marginal status will prevent them from correcting this perception. 117 Harv. L. Rev. 1588. Consequently, minority candidates are forced to strip themselves of their personalities or long-term goals in order to fit the firm mode. This is something not usually required of their white counterparts.

IV. Conclusion

Wilkins identifies that this tension between having minority lawyers at firms to satisfy their diversity requirements and having them there as contributing members of the organization is because, “proponents in the legal context have yet to develop a well-defined substantive account of exactly how the unique skills and experiences that minority lawyers bring to their work will increase the profits of corporate firms or their corporate clients” Id. at 1576. There is a lack of understanding as to what minorities contribute, more than just being a regular attorney. Yet, it is interesting (and maybe paradoxical) that black lawyers are trying to work within a duality—where we want to be seen as equal (just as talented) as our white counterparts but also have to prove that they provide an unique insight that can potentially bring in revenue and/or money for the firm. This is one of the many dualities that mark the black (lawyer) experience.

  • This essay is well-composed and organized; you're communicating effectively and with a fairly flexible style. But the effect of the essay is more to explain the ideas of others (particularly Cheryl Harris and David Wilkins) rather than to have one of your own.

  • Here's a possible starting place: In present-day America, there's nothing to prevent you from leading a good life, with an interesting and socially valuable practice that gives you a fine living and an excellent reputation, all without ever working in a white-dominated organization or under white domination. You can practice with other black lawyers, or in mixed firms with non-white majorities. You can define a specialty for yourself and sell your services to other lawyers on an arm's-length basis. The rapid nature of change in the profession means that the white-dominated institutions of the 20th century have little to offer you that you can't find offered in another context if you want. So the issue becomes no longer whether you must assimilate in order to succeed, but whether a form of success that often requires compromise of personal identity, including personal racial identity, is the form of success you personally want to pursue. In what way does that change the nature of the argument, and what ideas of your own would you bring to the conversation?


Webs Webs

r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 21:08:54 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM