The on-going debate about affirmative action is a powerful reminder of the continued importance of African-American lawyers in the defense of civil rights. Among the outstanding members of the bar who defended the University of Michigan's Affirmative-Action program was John Payton, a partner with Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, D.C., who represented the university before the United States Supreme Court. Theodore "Ted" Shaw, director-counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., represented minority students who intervened in the case. These lawyers continued the legacy handed down by Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, Constance Baker Motley and a host of others.
Civil rights law is not the only career option for Blacks entering the legal profession. Opportunities abound, from corporate law to trusts and estates. Holding a Juris Doctor also opens a vast array of opportunities for those who have no desire to be corporate lawyers and work for a large law firm. Those seeking to "make a difference" can benefit from having a law degree when seeking positions as counsel for congressional committees, the White House and executive branch agencies or for comparable positions in state and local governments. (1) Others may enter academia as professors or university counsel, practice public interest or criminal law, work as in-house counsel for corporations, become CEOs of their own companies and firms or, like Barak Obama, join the ranks of elected officials.
A law degree enabled me to join a women's rights advocacy group, work as associate civil rights counsel for a congressional committee, serve as a lobbyist for a college association and head a federal civil rights agency during the Clinton Administration. In every instance, the opportunity to have an impact on federal law and policy was immense and none of those positions would have been as attainable without a law degree.
Practicing law can be financially rewarding as well. In a survey of Black Harvard Law School graduates the average salary of 1970s graduates in private practice who responded to the survey was $221,862. (2) For 1990s graduates, the average salary was $116,015.
Preparing for Law School
The decision to pursue a law degree should be reached after much thought, research and a clear vision about the "end game." Anyone who has not seen the movie "The Paper Chase" should view it, if available. Even the movie, "Legally Blonde," while a lighthearted comedy, can give you a glimpse into the law school experience.
The law school curriculum is designed to challenge your intellect and your resolve. You should be prepared for the intense competition from your peers as well as the scrutiny from your professors. The mental preparation is, therefore, as important as the intellectual preparation. Never forget, however, that you, too, are among the best and the brightest. Having confidence in yourself is half the battle.
The legal profession demands good writing, critical thinking and communications skills. In addition, if you have or would like to develop good negotiation and advocacy skills, the legal profession is a potentially good option.
Undergraduate majors in the arts and humanities, natural sciences, or social sciences can prepare you for law school. According to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), more vocationally-oriented programs may not be as helpful if you seek to attend law school. "What counts is the intensity and depth of your undergraduate program and your capacity to perform well at an academically rigorous level" notes the LSAC. (3) As important, successful law students and lawyers are those who understand the importance of thorough preparation. Developing this habit before law school will immensely benefit you later.
Applying to Law School.