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UH Law Center and SMU Dedman School of Law address law's diversity struggles at first-ever Black Lawyers Matter conference

Nov. 9, 2020 - Judges, law professors and attorneys from a variety of practices determined that the legal profession must have a collective sense of urgency to remedy a historic lack of representation during a day-long virtual conference hosted by the University of Houston Law Center and SMU Dedman School of Law. "Black Lawyers Matter: Strategies to Enhance Diversity, Equity and Inclusion" was held on Oct. 30. More than 1,000 people were in attendance.

Dean Leonard M. Baynes began the symposium by saying that while some progress has been made, significant underrepresentation persists in the legal profession.

"I'm delighted that the UH Law Center and SMU Dedman School of Law co-convened this conference," Dean Leonard M. Baynes said in his welcoming remarks. "After the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, SMU's Dean Collins and I observed that there are still too few Black lawyers.

"Only five percent of lawyers in our nation are African-American. Less than eight percent of first-year law students in 2019 were Black, whereas 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black. There is still a lot of work to be done, and our goal is that the audience left with best practices to increase the pipeline of Black law students, lawyers, judges and other legal professionals."

SMU Dedman School of Law Dean Jennifer Collins added that these issues have been discussed for decades, but with little meaningful progress to show for it.

"Law remains one of the least diverse professions in the nation. That is unacceptable, it is inexcusable and it's time to do something about it,” Collins said. “I hope the conference left participants with some concrete ideas and strategies for how to create real, meaningful and sustained change in your workplace - whether that is a law school, law firm, a corporation or a public interest organization. Black lawyers matter and Black law students matter. Now and always. SMU Law and the University of Houston Law Center are absolutely determined to do everything we can to demonstrate our commitment to that enduring principle."

The event's opening speaker was U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of the 18th Congressional District of Texas. Her introduction was provided by Michael F. Barry, President and Dean of the South Texas College of Law Houston. Jackson Lee said that to ensure more equality in the legal profession, there must be consistency, persistence and understanding.

"Knowledge is power," Jackson Lee said. "If you want to see a sizably recognized increase of African-Americans in law firms across the country and state, there has to be an appreciation for the history from which they came from. It is a high calling to be a lawyer and the defenders of the Constitution. This conference can be a great opportunity for expanding the horizons of young Black lawyers and young Black law students."

The Bracewell LLP Distinguished Lecture in Racial and Social Justice Keynote Speaker was David B. Wilkins. Wilkins serves as the Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Vice Dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession, Faculty Director of the Center on the Legal Profession and the Center for Lawyers and the Professional Services Industry. He was introduced by Bradley J.B. Toben, the Dean & M.C. Mattie Caston Professor of Law at Baylor Law School.

In his presentation, Wilkins drew a parallel between the COVID-19 pandemic and recent renewed calls for racial equality in recent months, following a string of incidents involving police brutality.

"This conference breathes much-needed life into the effort to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion to the legal profession," Wilkins said. "To demonstrate legitimacy, the legal profession must address its own diversity problem. The forces pushing for change are urgent. COVID has underscored the interdependence and fragility of our society. The pandemic and protests make clear that interdependence and fragility is fundamentally linked to race and social justice.

"We need to recognize that to meet institutional challenges, we need institutional responses. We need to re-think recruiting. We need to develop rigorous metrics for identifying a full range of qualities that predict success."

The first panel discussion, "Increasing Black Enrollment in Law Schools" highlighted a number of programs across the country that make the legal profession more accessible for young minorities. It was moderated by Patricia Roberts, Dean and Charles E. Cantu Distinguished Professor of Law at St. Mary’s University School of Law and Jack Wade Nowlin, Texas Tech School of Law Dean and W. Frank Newton Professor of Law.

Speakers included:

  • Meredith Duncan, Law Center Professor and Assistant Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Metropolitan Programs, who discussed the success of the Pre-Law Pipeline Program. From 2015-2020 the Pipeline Program has graduated 198 students, with 69 who have been accepted into graduate schools and 66 who matriculated into law school.  
  • Rebecca R. McMahon, CEO Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, discussed extensive pipeline measures that she said, “extend from a single-minded commitment to be intentionally and consciously inclusive.”
  • Michael Meyerson, Piper Professor of Law and Director of University of Baltimore Law School, Fannie Angelos Program for Academic Excellence. He said part of the program’s mission is to, “overcome the toxic voices that say students don’t belong.”
  • James O’Neal, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Legal Outreach, who described the organization not just as a pipeline to diversity non-profit, but also a college prep non-profit.

    “We work at the high school level," O'Neal said. "Our primary objective is to do our part to level the educational and professional playing field for underserved and minority youth by closing the outlook gap, achievement gap and college matching gap - all three of which can literally prevent students of color from having a realistic and legitimate shot at acquiring their fair share of the American dream."
  • Bill Weaver, Director of UTEP’s Law School Preparation Institute explained the initiative that takes place over two summers and gives students a preview of first-year law school classes.

The following panel explained the role of Historically Black law schools, with A. Felecia Epps, Dean and Professor of law of UNT Dallas College of Law moderating the discussion.

Speakers included:

  • Joan R.M. Bullock, Dean and Professor of Law at the Texas Southern Thurgood Marshall School of Law, who stated that the school produced 13 percent of active minority attorneys in Texas and more African-American attorneys than any other law school in Texas.
  • Danielle Holley-Walker, Dean and Professor of Law, Howard University School of Law discussed that the central duty of her institution is to produce Black lawyers, with a special focus in areas like intellectual property, alternative dispute resolution, corporate law and environmental justice.
  • Renée McDonald Hutchins, Dean and Professor of Law at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law who said, "We have a mission of advancing the profession, promoting social justice and changing lives. Because of our history, HBCU law schools understand law as a verb. We understand the law must be placed into action."
  • Deidré A. Keller, Dean and Professor of Law at Florida A&M University College of Law who said, “Our mission is to serve as a beacon of hope and catalyst for change by providing access to excellent educational training and opportunities to generations of students seeking to serve the needs of traditionally underserved people and communities locally, nationally and internationally.”
  • Browne C. Lewis, Dean and Professor of Law, North Carolina Central University School of Law, discussed the importance of narrowing the technological divide and mentioned the school’s robust clinical programs, including a patent law clinic and an ongoing virtual justice project.
  • John K. Pierre, Chancellor and Vanue B. Lacour Endowed Professor of Law at the Southern University Law Center noted that six Historically Black law schools produce 25 percent of African-American law graduates.

The third panel, “The LSAT, Socioeconomics and U.S. News & World Report,” was moderated by Dean Baynes.

Speakers were:

  • Robert B. Ahdieh, Dean and Anthony G.  Buzbee Endowed Dean’s Chair at the Texas A&M University School of Law. Ahdieh noted the importance of affinity groups that encourage ongoing relationships which can transform diversity in the legal community as a whole.
  • Paul L. Caron, the Duane and Kelly Roberts Dean of Pepperdine Caruso School of Law, who said that diversity should be a factor when law schools are ranked.
  • Robert Morse, Chief Data Strategist, U.S. News & World Report, discussed a number of ideas under consideration by the publication that would factor in the underrepresentation across the profession.
  • Victor Quintanilla, Professor of Law and Val Nolan Faculty Fellow and Co-Director of Center for Law, Society & Culture, Indiana University Maurer School of Law, who delivered a presentation entitled, “Black Lawyers Matter: An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of the California Cut Score on Diversity in the Legal Profession.”
  • Kellye Testy, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Law School Admission Council, said that LSAC’s goals to level the playing field are fairness, integrity and equality.

The fourth panel, “Pathways to the Profession: Hiring for Firms and Corporate Positions,” was moderated by Judge James Noel Dean and Professor of Law at the SMU Dedman School of Law, Jennifer Collins.

Panelists included:

  • Sandra Phillips Rogers, Chief Diversity Officer and the General Counsel, Toyota Corp. said it is incumbent on lawyers to serve as an exemplar in workplace equality.

    “It’s been a journey and not a destination, and more progress needs to be made much more quickly,” she said. “Our profession must and should take the leading role in diversity and inclusion.”

  • Chequan Lewis, Chief Equity Officer, Pizza Hut Corp. said that law firms should not just hire Black lawyers, but support them, allow them to fail and learn from their mistakes and allow them to take risks without fear.
  • James G. Leipold, Executive Director of the National Association for Law Placement commented that law firms are making strides in recruiting diverse graduates but are struggling to retain them.
  • Jami McKeon, Chair, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, discussed how her firm and its sponsors create pathways to the legal profession and established a diversity and inclusion committee to implement the firm’s diversity initiatives.
  • Christa Brown-Sanford, Partner and Deputy Department Chair of Intellectual Property at  Baker Botts, said that putting Black lawyers in positions of power at law firms is long overdue.

    “It is beyond logic that there are not Black partners that register on the percentage scale. “Law firms need to get Black Lawyers into leadership roles.”

The fifth and final panel, “Diverse Pathways to the Profession: Law Faculty Hiring, the Judiciary, and Judicial Clerkships,” was moderated by Ward Farnsworth, Dean and John Jeffers Research Chair in Law at the University of Texas School of law.

Panelists included:

  • Honorable Roger Gregory, Chief Judge of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, said that judges should use less filters when recruiting judicial clerks.

    "How do we keep the pipeline open, moving, fresh and accessible in terms of judicial clerkships? Some judges want clerks from a set of five schools, of a certain ranking and of a certain GPA," Gregory said. “But there are many wonderful law clerks of color who are beyond top 14 schools, beyond class rank and beyond GPA."
  • Honorable Gregg Costa of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said that only 3.5 percent of federal law clerks are African-American and 6.4 of the state law clerks are African-American. He said that judges need to commit to interviewing applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    “A clerkship is a sterling credential, and unfortunately the number of minority law clerks is abysmally low,” Costa said. “It’s a challenge for the judiciary to make sure we’re extending these opportunities to more students.”
  • Honorable Vanessa Gilmore ’81 of the Southern District of Texas encouraged law school professors to help connect diverse law students with judges and urged judges to be proactive to find a diverse applicant pool for judicial clerkships.
  • Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court said that law schools need to encourage diverse law students to apply for judicial clerkships.
  • Dean Daniel Tokaji, Dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Law, said that law schools should create a diversity pipeline for entry level law professors and that law schools must take responsibility for more diversity in legal academia.
  • Professor Meera E. Deo, 2020-21 American Bar Foundation William H. Neukom Fellows Research Chair in Diversity and Law, Director of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE),  and a Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, said that just seven percent of law professors today are women of color and eight percent are men of color.

    “If you keep doing the same things you’ve been doing, you’re going to get the same results,” Deo said.

Click here to watch the complete video playlist of the Black Lawyers Matter Conference.


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