Changes in the HBCU landscape may render black civil rights lawyers extinct

OPINION - The golden age of black lawyers educated at HBCUs defending the rights of subjugated communities is waning. Thurgood Marshall would be perturbed...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

After graduating from Lincoln University, a historically black college and university (HBCU), Thurgood Marshall couldn’t return to his hometown of Baltimore for legal training because the University of Maryland Law School refused to admit blacks. He had no choice but to attend another HBCU: the Howard University School of Law. To pay tuition there, his mother pawned her engagement and wedding rings.

Two years after graduation from law school, Marshall successfully sued the University of Maryland, ending its policy of segregation and forcing admission of its first black student. He would go on to argue many civil rights cases before the Supreme Court on important issues such as integrated schools, voting rights, and police interrogation practices, eventually becoming the first black Supreme Court Justice.

This story is only possible because of two related facts. First, HBCUs have the distinct mission of training black professionals and have done exactly that for over 150 years. And second, black lawyers bring a unique perspective to civil rights issues; thus, their efforts have reshaped American society.

Black civil rights lawyers: Declining in number?

Years ago, black civil rights lawyers, many of whom were educated at HBCU law schools, played crucial roles in ending statutory segregation and ridding the nation of Jim Crow laws.

Today, the black community faces challenges that will once again require the ingenuity of black lawyers and the traditional focus provided in HBCU law schools. Affirmative action and voting rights laws are under assault. The judicial system sentences black men more often and to longer sentences than other races committing the same crimes, particularly concerning drug offenses. Structural socioeconomic disparities persist.

The social injustices that blacks disproportionately experience today will need a dedicated cadre of the best black lawyers, which typically have come from HBCU law schools especially attuned to these issues. Yet, black lawyers and HBCU law schools are facing new challenges and competing priorities that may complicate their ability to institute national change as they did decades ago.

Yolanda Young, Esq., the publisher of Lawyers of Color and graduate of Howard University and Georgetown Law, notes that, “the legal industry is undergoing significant changes. With so much uncertainty, it’s imperative that students control what they can — future debt burden.”

The cost of law school is daunting for many students, especially considering the disproportionate rate of blacks in poverty. Most law school students leave with between $125,000 and $250,000 in total student loan debt. HBCU law schools cost more than $100,000, accounting for tuition, room, board, and fees – except for North Carolina Central University, which has a total cost of less than $60,000.

To help the next generation of black lawyers, Young also published A Black Student’s Guide to Law School, which highlights interesting findings that provide perspective on the challenges facing our current and future generations of black lawyers and HBCU law schools.

Challenges facing black lawyers and HBCU law schools

This guide serves as a resource for potential lawyers looking for schools that best meet the special set of qualities most attractive to black students. To determine its rankings, it considers unique data such as a school’s number of distinguished black alumni, its number of black students, and the size of the local black population, in addition to more traditional measures such as cost, selectivity, and job placement.

A Black Student’s Guide to Law School also provides insights into what the future holds for black lawyers and HBCU law schools.

For example, it found that the majority of students at HBCU law schools are no longer black. Of the six such schools, only Howard has an African-American population of more than 55 percent. Three of these schools have student bodies that are less than half black, with one as low as 29 percent. Young explains that, “the problem isn’t a lack of HBCU law school spots for prospective black students[. T]hey are merely choosing to attend majority law schools.”

As a result, there is a much smaller rate of black students graduating from HBCU law schools compared to years past.

The guide also shows that, although the University of Michigan and University of California, Los Angeles are generally considered top law schools, they are not ranked due to very low black student populations. (It might be no coincidence that these two states have passed measures that ban the consideration of race as an admission factor.)

Black lawyers leaving social justice for law firms

Because of income and credit disparities, law school debt is particularly burdensome to black graduates.

This greater burden spurs the best black graduates to seek the higher salaries available at larger law firms. However, Young states that, “a large law firm is only a realistic goal for those attending the 30 to 40 most prestigious law schools, and even then for only the top of the class.” This likely results in financial considerations driving job selection even more for remaining students.

Of note, researchers found that when controlled for relevant data ratios, Howard places as many students in these firms as Ivy League schools. But these large firms mostly specialize in corporate matters regarding intellectual property, litigation, taxes and mergers and acquisitions.

This results in the top black lawyers in America focusing their brain power on corporate law, instead of working on issues of social justice for the disenfranchised, unlike the 1960’s when the brightest black legal minds fought for civil rights.

What this means for the fight for civil rights

Unfortunately, the golden age of black lawyers educated at HBCUs defending the rights of subjugated communities is waning.

Taken together, these findings mean that while black law school enrollment has increased, the rate at which black practicing attorneys focus on social injustice issues is comparatively low.

Furthermore, HBCU law schools are highly impacted today by financial constraints, accreditation maintenance, and the changing demographics of the students that apply and are ultimately admitted.

Naturally, there will continue to be lawyers of all races that battle social injustice, and larger firms will offer pro bono services that aid in the fight. But fewer students are seeking law careers. New data shows that first-year law school enrollment for 2013 is at its lowest levels in over 35 years.

The end of an era?

Yes, there are bright notes on the horizon.

“With two black attorneys occupying the White House,” says Young, “and a black man holding the office of Attorney General, there is no denying the limitless career possibilities for black attorneys.” Plus, likely because of President Obama and Attorney General Holder, drug-sentencing reform is finally on the national agenda.

Thurgood Marshall would welcome this occurrence. But the black community cannot afford to concurrently surrender the responsibility to address social injustice legally, and entrust our future to others.

Marshall would be perturbed that the cost of law school saddles black students with exorbitant debt that makes lower-paying civil rights positions less appealing, especially when he was able to change the country on the strength of a passion for rectifying societal ills and his mother’s pawned rings.

Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III. Christalyn Solomon is the CEO of Solomon Public Relations, recent editor at the Hampton Script, and student at Hampton University. Follow Christalyn Solomon on Twitter at @ChristalynPR.