By Raziya Brumfield
The recent killings of Black men and women coupled with the disproportionate number of deaths in the Black community due to COVID-19 have rocked our nation. Across the country, lawyers are brainstorming and banding together to develop creative and impactful methods to assist the Black community. I challenge the legal profession to start in-house at our own firms and organizations by becoming mentors and sponsors to Black lawyers.
Underrepresentation and the Decline of Black Lawyers
The legal profession is still comprised of a majority of White men and women. In order to effectuate real change, the legal profession needs to lead the way by substantially supporting the Black community and dismantling systematic oppression, starting in-house by mentoring and sponsoring our Black colleagues. The 2019 American Bar Association (ABA) Profile of the Legal Profession reported that White men and women are overrepresented in the legal profession compared with their presence in the overall U.S. population, and in the same respect nearly all minorities are underrepresented in the legal profession. The ABA reports that 85% of all lawyers are White and 5% of all lawyers are African American. In comparison, 76.6% of all U.S. residents are White, and the U.S. population is 13.4% African American. It is commonly reported that minorities also often feel like outsiders when they do not see themselves in leadership positions or on partnership tracks, and can feel unsupported once they enter the legal profession. Even more surprising, the National Association of Law Placement (NALP) report on diversity recently provided statistics demonstrating that while every other minority group has increased in lawyer representation, Black women lawyers in law firms have declined since 2009. Using mentorship and sponsorship to provide resources and assistance to Black lawyers is one avenue to support the Black community and ensure that more Black lawyers advance within our profession.
Mentorship and Sponsorship Works
As a Black woman lawyer, and a direct recipient of the benefits and success that mentorship can have on the Black community, I can attest to its usefulness. The mentorship and sponsorship that I have received by White lawyers has changed the trajectory of my legal career. I grew up in Compton, California, an inner city community that has historically been the center of police brutality and injustice. When I left my community to obtain my undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, I began to have conversations with my White counterparts concerning their education. I quickly became painfully aware of the differences in education and resources that were provided in their schools compared to mine. The unfortunate reality is that my experience is not unique to many Black professionals. Many of us are first generation lawyers who entered the legal profession with hopes of making a change, but lacking guidance, resources, and sponsors who could open doors and unlock unwritten rules of the legal profession.
However, to achieve lasting success in the legal profession mentorship and sponsorship is a necessity. Throughout my legal career, I have had the privilege of being mentored and sponsored by White lawyers who took the time to study with me for the LSAT, practiced oral arguments with me while in law school, reviewed my cover letters and resume to obtain my first legal position, and even attended my wedding as an ever-present support system and sounding board for my success.
Diversity and Business Profitability
Immediately following the death of George Floyd and in response to the protests across the country, some of our most profitable law firms and businesses issued statements indicating that they stand with the Black community, condemn racism, and acknowledge both the hurt that the Black community has faced as well as the value that Black professionals bring to their organizations. These organizations understand what studies have overwhelmingly demonstrated: diversity and equality are necessary for the future of our nation. Diversity enhances business performance, increases business profitability, and is an integral aspect of any successful revenue-generating business. Mentorship and sponsorship can be used to ensure that diverse talents are retained.
As lawyers, social justice activists, and change agents, we have an obligation to use our resources to uplift the Black community. There is a multitude of methods we can utilize to make a difference, including providing pro bono assistance to communities in need and donating to organizations dedicated to eradicating systematic racism. As lawyers with privilege, mentorship and sponsorship are additional methods to assist Black lawyers in your firms and organizations.
Washington Council of Lawyers provides a yearly Mentoring Program where new lawyers are matched with more senior mentors in their field of interest. We welcome you to join our program, to learn from one another, and to help us build better pathways to advancement for all.
Raziya Brumfield is a Washington Council of Lawyers Board Member and co-chair of our Mentoring Program.