According to a 2010 American Bar Association report, less than seven percent of partners and less than 20 percent of associates in law firms nationwide are people of color. Locally, only five percent of partners and 13 percent of associates are people of color. African Americans are only a fraction of these small percentages.
“When people see the numbers, they are surprised,” says Lawrencina Mason Oramalu, an assistant dean and multicultural affairs director at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. However, she argues that is not a complete snapshot of the profession.
“Those numbers are just about attorneys in firms. There are a lot of attorneys of color who choose not to work for a firm. They instead have a solo practice or may work for the government, a state agency, or in higher education like me. We aren’t included in those numbers.”
Nonetheless, Oramalu wants to see more Blacks in the legal profession, and recruitment is part of her office’s mission to increase the numbers.
A 2005 Mitchell graduate, Oramalu says she suspects debt is one of the main reasons why Blacks aren’t studying law. “I know that’s one of the things we are experiencing this year, because applications are down. It’s pretty expensive,” she notes. “Students are having second thoughts — is it worth the investment to go to law school? And of course my response is [that] it is an investment in yourself.”
Second, there’s the time factor: Full-time students must attend classes five days a week and spend 14 hours in class each week. “If you are on the full-time track,” explains Oramalu, “you definitely are doing it in three [years], but if you take some summer classes, some people are able to finish in two and a half. But if you are part-time, your credits fluctuate depending on what you can manage when you are working and going to school.”
Third, Oramalu quickly points out that being a lawyer requires some hard work. “There are going to be challenges, but we have to instill in our young people that they can do it.” In return, “A law degree opens up lots of different doors” and can prepare you for careers in such fields as government and the nonprofit sector.
William Mitchell, with a student body that is 16 percent students of color, has several programs designed for recruiting more Blacks to the profession.
The Future in Learning Law (FILL) program (June 11-27) is a two-week summer program for Twin Cities high school students. “During the program they learn about legal research, visit the courthouse, and participate in a mock trial,” explains Oramalu. “We try to emphasize different skills — how to evaluate the facts of a case, how to analyze the case, and oral and writing communication skills.” A current first-year female student was previously a FILL participant, and “We’re very proud of that fact,” says Oramalu.
Since 1990, the Summer Partnership in Law (SPIL) program (June 5 — July 19) offers undergraduate college students and graduates the opportunity to see if a law career is right for them. It is an intensive orientation to law school, with classes held twice a week during the summer along with an introduction to primary legal resources and important study and exam skills necessary for law school.
Her office also conducts campus visits from local students. “We need to go to the students, to the schools,” proclaims Oramalu. “We are trying to build relationships not only with high-school students, but also reach further back and work with middle-school students as well.”
She also works hard to combat the profession’s negative images and stereotypes often portrayed in media. “We do have a code of ethics that we are supposed to abide by,” Oramalu points out, adding that she stresses this every time she can when meeting with students.
“One of the things I think is important [for Blacks and other people of color] is for them to see people in the legal profession who look like them, doing positive things trying to bring about change. We will bring in attorneys and judges. They need to see real people doing the job.”
Oramalu’s office also helps Black students and other students of color make it once they arrive on the Mitchell campus. “Part of my job is not only to get the students [of color] here, but once they’re here, making sure that they feel they are in a supportive environment,” she says.
The REACH (Recruiting, Engaging, Acknowledging, Connecting and Helping) program is one such support, as is Students Together Advancing the Need for Diversity and Dialogue (STAND), which was formed this school year to further diversity efforts on campus and in the legal community.
Oramalu’s office also works with various multicultural organizations at the school and partners with the Minnesota State Bar Association, Twin Cities Diversity in Practice, and the American Bar Association Judicial Clerkship program. “This office is here to provide support for students of color, but I also make a special effort to reach out to the students,” says Oramalu.
Her consistent three-part advice to Mitchell’s Black students and other students of color is: “Keep remembering why you came and what’s your passion, and you can do it.”