Six Steps Law Students of Color Can Take to be Successful in Law School

By Leonard M. Baynes, Dean and Professor of Law at University of Houston Law Center

Over the past year with the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of those, arguably acting under “color of law,” the legal profession is taking stock of its so-far unsuccessful attempts at diversifying. It is important to keep in mind that It has only been seventy years since the Sweatt v. Painter Supreme Court decision compelled the University of Texas School of Law to admit an African-American student who was rejected solely based on his race. It is quite ironic that lawyers through creative litigation strategies helped break down the barriers and restrictions on entry to the legal profession, yet the legal profession remains stubbornly the least diverse profession. It has a huge gap in representation among law school students, law school faculty, law firm associates and partners, judges, judicial law clerks, and state prosecutors. In addition to obvious barriers to entry like the LSAT or GRE and the bar exam passage, some commentators have observed that the study of law can be “intellectually violent” because students of color witness the law’s inequities and its inabilities to redress them. Others have noted that the law and law school is a “white space” often with just a small sprinkling of people of color implicitly sending message non-belonging. The recent Law School Survey of Student Engagement Annual Survey also illuminates how students of color have differing views than majority students about the law school support: “9% of White students, 14% of Native American students, 18% of Latinx students, and 25% of Black students believe that their schools do ‘very little’ to ensure that students are not stigmatized based on identity.” Women of color are more likely to have dispiriting law school experiences.  Black and Latinx women law students “are often told that they do not look like lawyers when they transition to practice.”

During my professional career, I have been thinking and working to make the legal profession more diverse and inclusive. As Dean of the University of Houston Law Center, which located is one of the most diverse cities in the country, it is my goal to ensure that the UH Law Center remains attractive to an ever-increasingly diverse applicant pool while at the same time ensuring their success. I have written articles highlighting steps that a law dean can take to promote diversity and inclusion as well as provided thoughts on what law students of color can do to enhance their success. Here are six strategies:

  1. Stay focused on your purpose
    Along the way, you will have setbacks that may discourage you. When this happens, it is important to remember your purpose. Why did you go to law school? Did you want to help your family financially? Did you want to be a corporate lawyer? Did you want to help immigrants? In times of stress, it is important to hold fast to that purpose. Connecting with your purpose will empower you to get up early, stay up late, and work as if your life depended on it to achieve your goals.
  2. Most people do not wake up like this
    No one is born to be a law firm partner, a federal judge, a U.S. Attorney or even a law school dean. Life’s journey is to discover your talents and use them to the best of our abilities. You may receive feedback that you do not want to hear. But that feedback might be crucial in understanding an issue, and it may catapult your success. By working hard on these areas, you can achieve our goals. 
  3. Sometimes to get from point A to point B is not a straight line
    If you are not able to get to the type of job that you want right away, it does not mean that you will never get that job. I often have students who may not have top grades ask me about working for big law, even thought many of these firms make that a prerequisite for hiring. If you do not meet the firm’s expectations, maybe big law is not the right place for you, at this time. However, it does not mean you will never work there. If you pursue a successful career at a smaller law firm or government and excel, you may have big law knocking on your door. It’s important to keep focused on your long-term goal.
  4. Remember your ancestors
    Whenever I get frustrated, I think of my parents who were immigrants from St. Vincent and the Grenadines before Brown v. Board of Education decision and before passage of the Civil Right Acts of the 1960s. They came to the U.S. with little education, moved to New York City, started their own business, and successfully raised seven children. I also think about Heman Sweatt who was legally barred from attending the University of Texas Law School until he sued and paved the way for all those who followed him. 

    If my parents and Heman Sweatt could succeed when it was legal to discriminate again Black people, I should be able to endure the microaggressions that we all sometimes face. 

  5. Create a diverse pool of allies
    It is very important to remember a diverse group of lawyers and other professionals are available and willing to give you advice. You just need to find them. They may not be of your same gender, race/ethnicity or sexual orientation, but you should be open to their help and support. They may be people who are senior or junior to you or at your same level. Always keep in mind there are a lot of good people in our profession who are willing to help, and you can learn from anyone.
  6. Pave a path for others
    Lawyers are very privileged members of society. In addition to practicing law, we excel in business, government, politics, and nonprofits. However, our ranks still lack sufficient diversity. It is therefore up to us to help pave the way for those who may follow. It is important to give back of our wealth and wisdom. Through these efforts, we can ensure that the next generation of lawyers is more diverse than the one we are in.

Lawyers of color have made many strides in the last decades as we have seen ourselves rise to the highest courts in the land and in legal professions, yet we still have a long way to go. By following these six steps, you will be six steps closer to achieve your dreams of being a successful law student and lawyer.

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