Social Justice: Historically Black Law Schools Stick to Their Original Mission While Modifying Curriculums to Remain Relevant during Tough Economic Times

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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. …