Historically Black Law Schools Stay the Course on Social Justice Mission

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by Lekan Oguntoyinbo

For Kourtni Mason, a student at the Southern University Law Center, a historically Black law school in Baton Rouge, La., two years of hard work, hands-on experience and coaching from hard-charging professors were put to the test last summer during an internship at a mid-sized New Orleans law firm.

At the firm, Mason worked alongside interns from big-name law schools such as Louisiana State University, Vanderbilt and Tulane. She got to combine her classroom knowledge and the practical tips she’d received from her professors about work ethic and expectations in the practice of law with the experience she received in clinics where she and her classmates worked with real clients.

Her hard work — and experience — paid off. She was offered a job as an associate at the firm upon graduation in May. The other interns got a pat on the back.

As graduating law students go, Mason is one of the fortunate ones.

These are tough times for the law profession. Employment prospects are the weakest they have been in decades. Wages have stagnated. Many blue chip law firms have laid off lawyers or are hiring fewer lawyers. Lately, law schools have been accused of luring students with false promises of cushy, high-paying jobs. There have been accusations of law schools doctoring employment statistics of their recent graduates, many of them saddled with debt that in some cases exceeds $150,000. Some people are re-examining the value of a law education, and some schools are already seeing a dip in enrollment.

But for the nation’s six historically Black law schools these bleak times are an opportunity to highlight their individual niches and strengths. While several deans say the economic downturn has had some impact on their graduates, they say they have continued to reshape their curriculum and graduation requirements in order to make their students more competitive in the marketplace.

They say they continue to adhere to their historical missions, which vary from school to school but many of which include: having a social justice mission, attracting more people of color to the legal profession, preparing students for careers in public agencies or public interest law and ensuring that their students are ready to practice law upon graduation. The public HBCU law schools tout their low tuition rates, which in turn lead to low debt loads upon graduation.

No HBCU law schools are ranked in the top tier. In fact, most are considered fourth-tier law schools. But in response to the turbulent economy, many of the HBCU law schools have tried to continue to balance the classroom experience by introducing a variety of clinics that are relevant to the changing needs of a changing population, such as foreclosures, veteran’s issues, immigration and international adoptions.

At Southern University Law Center, faculty and career placement officers work closely in coaching students on networking and interviewing techniques and strategies for being successful in the courtroom and the workplace, according to Chancellor Freddie Pitcher.

Many HBCU law schools are about 50 percent African-American, and students say they find the atmosphere welcoming and more conducive to their success. Katrice Peterson, a third-year law student at Florida A&M University Law School, which is in Orlando, says she’s found the environment there nurturing and the professors approachable. Before enrolling, she says, she and her mother toured the school.

“It felt like a tight, close-knit environment,” says Peterson, a graduate of Vanderbilt. “I had visited the University of Kentucky but didn’t get the same warmth that I had at FAMU.”

Law school deans insist that the stories of their schools are unique, that they have different missions and different kinds of students.

“It’s really important when looking at HBCU law schools not to paint us with the same brush,” says Kurt Schmoke, dean of Howard University’s law school. “North Carolina Central and Southern are really regional law schools. Our students come to us from 90 different colleges. They take the bar in 30 different jurisdictions. In terms of the employment market we are a national, not a regional, law school.”

Shelley Broderick, dean of the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia, says the school’s mission is to train public interest, public service and public policy lawyers using what it calls “the nation’s most extensive required program of clinical legal education.”

“The students who come to UDC want to be public interest public policy lawyers and want to learn by doing, and they want to serve the most vulnerable citizens,” says Broderick, a former head of the Washington, D.C., ACLU who is in her 33rd year at the school. She says she tries to steer students away from chasing after big law firms.

The emphasis on public policy and advocating for the voiceless is drilled into students even before they are accepted at UDC.

As part of the application process, students are asked to write about an injustice they witnessed, what they did about it and how they would handle it now. In their first year, they are required to put in 40 hours of community service with public interest and public policy employers. They put in a minimum of 700 hours in their last two years, she says.

This kind of training combined with myriad clinics prepares the students for the practice of law, she adds. The school also funds a summer fellowship for first-year students who want an internship with a public interest employer.

“Our students have a leg up because they know how to investigate a case, interview a client, draft a complaint,” she says. “We get phone calls from employers saying, ‘We just hired your grad over someone from Columbia because she knows how to do all these things, and we can’t live without her.’ Most people graduate from law school without a clue how to practice law.”

Staying Competitive

Raymond Pierce, dean of the North Carolina Central University law school, says his school has remained competitive because he and the faculty focus on strengths, which include low costs, a high bar passage rate, a practical curriculum and clinics in areas such as foreclosure prevention and low income taxes. Taken together, he says, his students graduate “practice ready.”

While he has been able to increase the number of recruiters from big law firms over the years, he says, the school’s focus is to prepare graduates for careers as solo practitioners, in small or mid-sized firms or jobs with public agencies.

“The overwhelming majority of attorneys that practice law in America are not practicing law in the big law firms,” says Pierce, a former deputy assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education who will be leaving North Carolina Central at the end of the school year to take a job as a partner at a law firm. “Most lawyers who practice are solo practitioners or work in middle-sized to small law firms or a public interest agency.”

Broderick says that in spite of the weak economy the job placement rate for graduates at UDC has been stable. Schmoke says the job placement rate, which is calculated as the number of graduates in jobs for which a J.D. degree is required, at Howard fell by about 15 to 20 percent but has since climbed back to its long-time average of 80 percent.

Law school administrators say that in the current economic climate it is helpful to communicate expectations to students.

At Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, which has an acceptance rate of 25 percent, dean Dannye Holley says he spends a lot of time educating incoming law students about what the profession will look like when they graduate. He says he does so because he thinks it is just as important for them to know what they are getting into.

“One of the things that I repeat is that the average lawyer now only makes $63,000 to $65,000 a year,” he says. “What we’re all fighting is the idea that as the application cycle has started to go down is will it do them good to enter law school. When you take a student in, you want to walk with them through this.”

It is precisely this kind of guidance, says Mason, which makes HBCU law schools still relevant in this age.

“One of the great things is the familial side you feel when you walk through the door,” says Mason. “There’s not one person you don’t feel comfortable going to. They put us in situations where we can succeed. The help you get here is unmatched. Talk to students from LSU, Tulane and Loyola. None of them feel as connected. We are in a nurturing environment.”

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