Law in Contemporary Society
Edit of Jenai St. Hill's first paper.

I. The Double Consciousness of the Black Lawyer

In class, we have discussed practicing law in a way that is personally meaningful. For many of the black (and minority) students, the definition of “meaningful” takes on a different role. While I do not speak for every person of color attending CLS, I believe there are common threads between many of our experiences. For a person of color, having a ‘meaningful’ legal career means balancing the responsibilities of having a JD, like wealth creation and financial freedom (e.g. paying debts, helping one’s family) with the consequences of belonging to a new category, that of an Ivy League law school student. Black lawyers carry the weight of having one foot in their communities and the other in a firm. This paper will explore the benefits and struggles that minority lawyers experience as they balance career advancement and presenting themselves as ‘black’ lawyers.

  • I'm not sure why, in editing this paragraph, you weren't struck by the implicit suggestion that all of this is more true of black students than of others. Balancing personal goals against responsibilities to family and community will be important to many students from backgrounds you don't consider similar to yours or Jenai's. By the end of the paragraph, where you are again explicitly talking about being "'black' lawyers" particularism has again become the focus, which is in line with the focus of the draft from which you started, of course, but it might have been worth following for a bit the possibility that "double consciousness" is a general rather than specific condition. That would lead to inquiring whether it is part of the trap in which young people find themselves, making them easy pray for the leveragers.

II. The Building Blocks of the Legal Profession

A major problem black lawyers face is entering a world that uses whiteness as a commodity. As described in Cheryl Harris “Whiteness as Property,” 106 Harv. L.Rev. 1721: “…the racial line between white and Black was extremely critical; it became a line of protection and demarcation from the potential threat of commodification, and it determined the allocation of the benefits and burdens of this form of property. White identity and whiteness were sources of privilege and protection; their absence meant being the object of property.”

While this quote focuses on the historical positioning of race, it is still relevant. Harris continues by stating that one of the ways in which whiteness has been maintained as a property right is through reputation. Most basically, reputation is defined through our productivity and contribution to society. In America, we have defined reputation through a lens that accounts for gender, race, and wealth.

Coming from a “good” family or background or attending a top-tier school are ways in which one can have a ‘good’ reputation. Reputation is the capital by which the legal profession operates. These categories are also ways in which whiteness is safeguarded and minority lawyers’ contributions are marginalized.

For many black lawyers, a set of more communal principles is used to measure success, and this can create a crisis of identity and allegiance.

  • But the crisis exists only insofar as the proposition that "white success" is necessary, valuable or important is believed. So it's another case of William Blake's "mind-forg'd manacles" I hear clanking.

III. The Barriers Faced

In higher education and professional schools, we are taught not to break down those safeguards, but instead to assimilate into them. During my undergraduate career, I was accepted into a program called Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a career preparation program for minorities. Relatively recently, programs like this have been created and have been profitable, but at what cost? Within such programs advice goes as encouraging people not to wear certain hairstyles such as dreadlocks for fear of standing out too much. These programs help attract qualified and diverse candidates to top corporations and law firms, but it is uncertain whether promoting assimilation into white corporate culture is sustainable, both in terms of retention results for firms, and happiness from the employees’ point of view.

  • At any rate, you aren't required to participate in such nonsense anymore. The reason I didn't participate in bullshit like that wasn't that I was white: it was that I had no desire to be the management leadership tomorrow that they were talking about. You don't either. So what it would take—or what some jackass who surely isn't management leadership today thinks it would take—to be management leadership tomorrow if tomorrow were more or less like yesterday couldn't make less difference, right? It doesn't say anything about you, or about what you ought to do. It just says that white power, like most power, is stupid.

I have talked with friends in law school who say they fearfully and begrudgingly will work at a large, predominantly white firms. Many of us have lived in predominantly white neighborhoods or attended white educational institutions, but corporate America is still new territory. Given the backdrop of race in relation to ideology and reputation in American culture, working in hierarchies where our livelihoods will depend how people view our character might prove challenging.

  • Why bother? There's no money there, no future there, no real power there you couldn't have more of another way. Serving white power at high wages isn't your idea of identity, and that's plainly right. So just say no.

In his article, “'Separate is Inherently Unequal' to 'Diversity is Good for Business': The Rise of Market-Based Diversity Arguments and the Fate of the Black Corporate Bar," David Wilkins says that most corporate firms’ bottom line is to bring in clients and make profit. Now, within the corporations and law firms, attracting students of color has become good for business. Yet, there are still boundaries that define what type of minority candidate they are seeking. Wilkins states that many law firms are still hesitant to hire minority candidates because they are afraid that their more public interest oriented ideals contradict the firms’ values.

“[M]angers have strong incentives to screen out potential employees whom they suspect of holding such disruptive views. Minorities are likely to be especially fearful of being too “diverse” in this way, both because they may actually hold substantially divergent views and because even if they do not, they have reason to fear that others may believe that they do and that their marginal status will prevent them from correcting this perception.” 117 Harv. L. Rev. 1588.

Consequently, minority candidates are forced to strip themselves of their personalities or long-term goals in order to fit the firm culture. This is something not usually required of their white counterparts. Wilkins identifies that tension between having minority lawyers at firms to satisfy their diversity requirements and having them there as contributing members of the organization is present because, “proponents in the legal context have yet to develop a well-defined substantive account of exactly how the unique skills and experiences that minority lawyers bring to their work will increase the profits of corporate firms or their corporate clients” Id. at 1576.

  • If David's right, that would explain why he prefers to be a Harvard professor, which seems like the better choice to me, too. Therefore, I'm sure he would agree, the best outcome is to find ways for you to live your life that don't require you to have anything to do with this sickness. Why are we still talking about it? You don't owe your family and community to put yourself into that bullshit machine. Whatever you consider you owe others by way of money, power, success, example, etc. you can provide without this largely obsolete set of other people's power structures anyway.

IV. The Road Ahead

There is a lack of understanding as to what minorities contribute at firms. Paradoxically, black lawyers at large firms work within a duality—we want to be perceived as equally talented as our white counterparts but also must prove that we provide a unique, revenue increasing insight for the firm.

It is essential for the black lawyer not to give in to a sense of powerlessness. Our elders fought so that we could become licensed lawyers, with the power and choice to find and serve clients or to work for whomever we chose, whether it is a firm or a nonprofit. The choice of where to work is personal, and depends on priorities, obligations and values, but no matter where we work, we should do it in a personally meaningful and communally productive way.

  • But that terminates the critical exercise, by removing any actual payoff, and replacing the critical force with some cliches that would sound fine in church but don't mean anything about the way life is really lived. What you're going to do with your license isn't going to be based on generalities about "meaningful." A law license is a tool you're going to use in a precise and measured way to achieve someone's aims. Those aims could be the partners' whose wealth you amplify with your late hours and weekends, or they could be yours. Simple as that.

-- JamilaMcCoy - 20 Apr 2009


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:32:25 - IanSullivan
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