Become a Patron


Floyd Weatherspoon

Permission Requested: Floyd Weatherspoon, The Status of African American Males in the Legal Profession: A Pipeline of Institutional Roadblocks and Barriers , 80 Mississippi Law Journal 259 (Fall, 2010)


Very few African American males complete the long and daunting journey to enter and advance in the legal profession. It is a journey with institutional roadblocks and barriers that prohibit their entrance and advancement as lawyers. The number of African American males entering the legal profession remains stagnant, with only marginal increases during the past fifteen years. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court declared the intentional exclusion of African American males from state law schools unconstitutional more than fifty years ago, other neutral institutional policies and requirements have stifled the growth and development of African American males attending law school and advancing in the legal profession. Even with these legal victories, African American males still confront institutional practices that exclude them from entering the legal profession.

Many law schools have developed aggressive recruitment programs to attract African American males to attend law school. Law schools have also developed academic support programs for those students who attend. These efforts, however, have only minimally ameliorated the barriers that African American males face in their pursuit of careers in the legal profession.And even prior to law school, the roadblocks and obstacles along the pipelines to the legal profession prevent many African American males from becoming attorneys. One misstep on the pipelines can derail a student's dream of becoming an attorney. African American males who advance along the pipelines often face insurmountable educational stumbling blocks: a criminal justice system that incarcerates mass numbers of young African American males, law school institutional barriers, racial isolation while in law school, lack of role models in the legal profession, and draconian testing and admission policies. Even African American males who graduate from law school may face insidious discriminatory hiring practices, particularly in the private sector. These factors, plus others, negatively impact the pool of young African American male students who could have successful legal careers as attorneys in private practice, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, or law professors.

African American males play a major role in our American legal system not as lawyers, judges, or prosecutors, but as defendants in criminal proceedings. Indeed, on any given day and almost in any criminal court or juvenile justice system, African American males will be defendants, represented by a court appointed white attorney, prosecuted by a white prosecutor, sentenced by a white judge, and ultimately incarcerated and guarded by white prison guards. Incarceration, not education, is the pipeline that far too many young African American males disproportionately travel. The absence of African American males in the legal profession creates a climate of hostility and a lack of trust toward the American justice system, which prosecutes and incarcerates mass numbers of African American males. Moreover, a number of studies concluded that the court system treats African Americans differently: bail-setting is higher for African Americans than white defendants, African Americans receive longer sentences than whites who commit similar crimes, and African Americans are more likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is white. Thus, the current state of African American males in the criminal justice system may negatively affect the motivation of many young African American males to pursue a career in the legal profession.

In 2004, the American Bar Association's Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Legal Profession (ABA) completed a broad and comprehensive review of minorities in the legal profession. The ABA entitled the study, Miles to Go: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession. The study reviewed data on minorities in the profession to determine the profession's progress toward full and equal racial integration. The study concluded that minorities face major obstacles to enter into and advance in the legal profession. In 2005, the ABA held a national conference to explore ways that the pipeline to the legal profession could be expanded to ensure diversity. The ABA issued a post-conference report entitled, Embracing the Opportunities for Increasing Diversity Into the Legal Profession: Collaborating to Expand the Pipeline, which summarized the range of strategies and solutions for enhancing diversity in the legal profession.

Local and state bar associations, law firms, the ABA, and many other organizations committed to increasing diversity in the legal profession have implemented many of these strategies and programs. Unfortunately, the pipelines for African American male students fail to lead directly to law school and into the legal profession.

Except for the ABA reports, very few studies and reports conducted on the status of African American males in the legal profession separated them from other minority groups. Moreover, studies often combine the data on African American males in the legal profession with African American females. By reporting on the status of African American men with African American women and other minorities, many studies have overlooked the fact that little progress has been made to increase the number of African American males in the legal profession. The reasons for the absence of African American males in the legal profession are often the same as with other groups, but African American males also face a number of unique obstacles and barriers. Therefore, this article focuses specificallyon the status and plight of African American males in the legal profession.

Representing a rich tradition, African American male lawyers successfully advocated for the end of segregation of law schools and for the admittance of African American students to white law schools. Section II of this article provides a summary of these historical civil rights cases that slowly opened the pipelines for African American male students to attend segregated white law schools. Section III describes the present status of African American males in the legal profession. Section IV explores the underlying reasons for the declining enrollment of African American males into law school and ultimately the legal profession. Section V provides a brief overview of efforts being made to address these issues and suggests new approaches to enhancing the flow of African American males along the pipelines to the legal profession.