Imagine this setting. You are sitting at the “counsel table” by yourself in a large, dark-wood paneled federal courtroom. There are people sitting in the gallery. Everybody is waiting for the judge to come out and start his morning call. A white, male attorney, most likely in his late sixties, walks up to your side, bends over to speak into your ear and says “Sorry, hun, the family of the criminal defendants sit over there” as he points to the pews in the gallery. And you respond with “Counsel, I am an attorney and belong here.”

This exchange did not occur in the civil rights area or the early 1990s. This happened two years ago. As a black and female attorney, I quickly came to realize that the legal profession is one of the slowest industries to become more diverse. It is always striking to walk through the hallways of courthouses or law schools and see many impressive portraits of either judges or famous alumni and nearly all of them are white and male. Only in the last two years has the landscape seem to change.

Earlier this year, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) published its 2016 Report on Diversity. Data collected showed that “the overall percentage of women associates has decreased more often than not since 2009, and the percentage of Black/African-American associates has declined every year since 2009” excluding a small increase in 2016.

The numbers in law firm leadership tell a bleak tale. Only 2.76% of partners are minority women, 5.29% are minority men. In 2009, Black/African-American attorneys accounted for 1.71% of law firm partners, which has now “moved up” to 1.81% of partners in 2016. Hispanics and Asian-Americans make up 2.31% and 3.13% respectively of partners. These numbers only increased by 1% since 2009.

Attempting to move the needle, several organizations in the Chicago area have dedicated themselves to feed the pipeline of people of color going through the legal profession journey.

Founded in 1992 in Chicago, Just the Beginning Foundation’s mission has been nurturing interest in the law among young persons from various socioeconomic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds underrepresented in the legal profession and to supporting their continued advancement. JTBF’s programs include their Middle and High School Summer Legal Institute, externships, scholarships, and biennial conferences for legal professionals.

Minority Legal Education Resources is non-profit created in the early 1970’s by Robert E. Kennedy. Shortly after taking the Illinois Bar Examination in 1973, Kennedy learned that only 33% of the African-Americans who had taken the exam with him passed, compared to the 75% – 85% passage rate for the general population. In 1975, the Honorable Anne Williams joined Kennedy to offer this bar preparation program beyond Northwestern University. Today this program has served all the local law school of Chicago. I myself am a proud “graduate” of MLER and have volunteered as bar preparation tutor and have served on MLER’s executive board.

Founded by two black female attorneys, Diverse Attorney Pipeline Program was founded with the express mission of “address[ing] the continued and systematic decline of women of color lawyers in large law firms and across other coveted positions in the legal profession.” DAPP provides a year-long mentoring program specifically to prepare first-year students of diverse backgrounds for career-building summer internships at large law firms or other prestigious legal institutions during summer after their first year in school. The program includes many aspects: from teaching legal writing concept to drilling black letter law, from reviewing multiple choice to practicing essay questions, from cultivating high-quality resume writing to interviewing. The goal of this academic support is to defy the correlation between lower LSAT scores and class rank.

A true and highly celebrated champion in this movement is the Honorable Ann Claire Williams. A Detroit native, Judge Williams assumed senior judge status on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in June of this year. Judge Williams was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit by President Bill Clinton in 1999. She became the first African-American ever to serve on the Seventh Circuit and the third African-American woman to serve on any United States Court of Appeals. Judge Williams had previously been appointed in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Judge Williams was the first African-American woman appointed to a district court in the Seventh Circuit (which includes Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin). Judge Williams has truly broken many barriers for minorities in the legal profession. She was quoted saying “I don’t want to be the last. You need to pass on what you’ve learned.”

Throughout her entire career she was a founding force of programs whose mission it has been to increase the number of people of color and other minorities in the legal profession. She co-founded Just The Beginning and was a founder of the Minority Legal Education Resources (MLER). Judge Williams has received numerous honors and awards from educational entities and legal organizations including the Chicago Lawyer Person of the Year award in 2000. Crain’s magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times named her as one of Chicago’s 100 Most Influential and Powerful Women in 2004. In 2005, she received the Arabella Babb Mansfield Award from the National Association of Women Lawyers. In 2006, Judge Williams received the Spirit of Excellence Award by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. In 2007, she received awards from the Black Women Lawyers Association, which Judge Williams also co-founded in 1987. That same year, she was also inducted into the Cook County Bar Association’s Hall of Fame. At MLER’s 40th Anniversary celebration this year, the organization recognized Judge Williams for all of her guidance and leadership for the program. Judge Williams’ reach has also been international in nature. In 2006, Judge Williams has led conferences in Nairobi, Kenya, and was also part of a delegation to Liberia for Lawyers Without Borders in 2007 to name a few of examples. When asked what the most significant change in the legal community has been, Judge Williams opined “The growth and opportunities for minorities and women since I began my career. Much still needs to be done and more glass ceilings need to be broken, but the change is amazing.”

While the cumulative effect of these different efforts is not remarkably visible yet, the hope is to incrementally increase the number of people of color applying to and graduating from law schools, passing the bar exam, and being hired and retained by law firms and other entities, especially in the private sector. The industry, as a whole, needs to make a deliberate and concerted effort to seek out, hire, and retain candidates of color and other underrepresented minorities. Until then, the many judges, attorneys, and other legal professions must continue to be visual reminders that people of color, women, and other minority groups belong in the law and continue to encourage those coming behind them to stay the course and join the ranks to hopefully one day change those paintings in the courthouse hallways to people that look like them.

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