While law practices have become somewhat more diverse in recent years, African Americans remain underrepresented in the field. Local black lawyers hope increased representation in positions of power, in both major law firms and the public sector, will encourage more young black boys and girls to consider practicing law.
According to the American Bar Association, only four percent of the more than 1 million lawyers working in the United States identify as black. Between 2009 and 2019, the number of white lawyers decreased and the Hispanic lawyer population increased, but black lawyers remained about 5 percent.
Though the number of blacks in law is relatively small compared to whites, there are many more now than when attorney Cornell Leverette Moore got his start during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s.
“When I started you could probably count all of us on two hands,” Moore said. “The chances that we’ve got now are substantially a lot more than when I came around.”
Moore, a partner of long-standing with Minneapolis law firm Dorsey and Whitney LLP, graduated from Howard University Law School in 1964 and went to work for the United States Treasury Department shortly after. In those days, black lawyers were more likely to work for the state or federal government or similar institutions, because major law firms were virtually all white and weren’t looking to recruit anyone that wasn’t.
“They didn’t know anything about us—they had no incentive,” Moore said. “They had as many white lawyers as they could get, they had all the business they could want, and they had no pressure to hire us even though we were smart.”
The Law School Admission Council estimates about 10 percent of the 44,000 students enrolled in law schools nationwide in 2018 were African American. Of the 590 enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School as of Oct. 2018, five were black students, according to the American Bar Association.
Serving as role models
Amran Farah, an attorney at Minneapolis law firm Greene Espel PLLP, went to Hamline University Law School in St. Paul, where she said classes reflected those numbers. Of the 300 students in her first class, fewer than 10 of her classmates were black, a trend that continued as she graduated and began practicing law.
“The first firm I worked at, there was nobody of color that worked there,” Farah said. “This is from the attorneys to support staff to the receptionist to the secretaries to the accountants to our law clerks. Everybody was white.”
Farah said being the only person of color in a workplace comes with significant pressure to be a role model and help recruit others. Many firms have diversity and inclusion initiatives but fail to retain attorneys of color because they stop short of helping them acclimate, she said.
“The legal profession has just taken a very long time to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion,” Farah said. “It’s not enough to just bring in [black] law students if we’re not going to support them in the way that they need to be and we’re not going to provide them the opportunities they need.”
Discriminatory consequences can come with a lack of diversity in the legal profession, Farah said. In non-diverse communities, clients might prefer to hire the white male attorney instead, or juries may reward more money to the opposing counsel because they “look like they’re telling the truth, and you’re not,” she said.
Paschal Nwokocha, partner and founder of Paschal Nwokocha and Chukwu Law Offices LLC, saw those consequences firsthand when he walked into a courthouse and was mistaken for a defendant or witness by court officials—not the man prosecuting the case.
Nwokocha eventually became Minnesota’s assistant attorney general in 1996, serving for three years before starting his own firm to practice immigration law. Himself an immigrant from Nigeria, he was motivated to become a lawyer in order to extend the same help to the people of his community that he received from his own immigration attorney, he said.
“When a client knows that I am an immigrant that went through the same process, I think the level of comfort is much higher,” Nwokocha said. “The community needs to see that the profession doesn’t look too different because it belongs to all.”
The biggest barrier to more diversity in the legal profession, Nwokocha said, is the lack of examples for children and adolescents to demonstrate that being an attorney can be a possibility.
Moore, who turned 80 on Wednesday and continues to practice after 55 years, said that by becoming partners at law firms like he did or serving in political office like Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, young people see representation in leadership and will perhaps follow in their footsteps.
“We’re now starting to see people step up the ladder,” Moore said. “You lead by example—if you see me doing it, then you can do it.”