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Turning Stumbling Blocks Into Stepping Stones

Turning Stumbling Blocks Into Stepping Stones

Financial exigency, familial, societal and cultural pressures, and educational deficits force many minority law students to make hard choices about whether they should study law. Yet, Black law school graduates today demonstrate that they have the intestinal fortitude to turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones and succeed against daunting odds.
First, they must remove any barriers to gaining admission to law school and to correcting any deficits, real or imagined, in their prior, formal education. Data show that in most public school districts throughout the country, Black, Brown and poor communities spend fewer dollars on educating students per capita than their White counterparts. Thus, many Black students who graduate from underfunded school districts begin law school 50 yards behind the starting line.
Moreover, many of today’s Black law students are the first members of their immediate families to attend college, graduate or professional school. Thus, they must also overcome any cultural deficits resulting from not growing up in a family of lawyers or judges. These students suffer because daily conversations at home do not focus on who filed for summary judgment in a case and why.
Students also complain about the dearth of faculty mentors of color. Too few law schools have minority faculty who can provide guidance to minority students. Indeed, at the 33rd Annual Meeting and Convention of the National Black Law Students Association held in Atlanta in March, several students lamented the fact that not all Black faculty members remain accessible to students. Students from law schools from states as diverse as Colorado and New York envied the students who had a faculty member accompanying them to the meeting and providing them with guidance about job hunting strategies, oral advocacy and etiquette.
Still, even the brightest students who come from families replete with lawyers, judges and legislators would find today’s law school program challenging. Most students find the workload overwhelming. In recent weeks, in law schools throughout the country, first-year students had to research and write their first appellate briefs, prepare and deliver their first moot court arguments, continue to prepare and recite in their other classes and also take a midterm examination or two.
Minority law students face these challenges and also the added burden of overcoming other students’ perceptions of them. These perceptions often cause White students to exclude Black students from study groups and to deny them access to study guides or outlines. White students sometimes wrongly conclude that any and all minority students enrolled in the law school benefited from any affirmative action policy the school may have had in place, and thus they conclude that the Black students simply are not as smart as their White classmates. The social isolation that flows from the exclusionary practices of their White classmates reinforces the inferiority complexes some Black students bring to law school.
Furthermore, most law schools fail to provide enough financial aid to their minority students. Thus, far too many of these students get work-study, paralegal and legal temp jobs to help defray the costs of law school. Other students work full time and attend law school only part time. Thus, even students with tremendous potential for academic excellence shortchange themselves by having to divide their time between earning money and devoting all of their attention to full-time law study.
Finally, too many law students must also overcome barriers erected by family members who think they should get full-time employment to help with immediate family expenses and not spend another three years in school. Additionally, friends or “so-called” friends from the old neighborhood complain that the law students remain unavailable to go clubbing, bowling or the like. These students continually face the societal tensions of continuing to fit in their communities while trying to assimilate into the legal profession without calling negative attention to themselves.
Today’s Black and Brown law school graduates survive hostile classrooms and bigoted classmates. The students weather the criticism of their family members and significant others who dislike the fact that they fail to meet their financial and emotional needs. Their White counterparts heap scorn upon Black and Brown law students because they think that affirmative action will somehow deprive the White students of their rightful place in the lofty law firm or judge’s chamber. The Black and Brown law graduates leave school saddled, more often than not, with huge amounts of debt because they wanted to pursue a dream. Their tenacity alone makes them people who have the capacity to outwork their adversaries. The Black law school graduates today truly are the alchemists who turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones.  

— Beverly McQueary Smith
President, National Bar Association, 1998-99
Professor of Law, Touro Law Center, Huntington, N.Y.

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