Diversity

Reimagining Law: How Has the Legal Profession Changed for Black Attorneys?

In this episode of Reimagining Law, we talk to Camille M. Davidson, Dean and Professor of Law at Southern Illinois University School of Law, and Antonio Lee, Assistant State’s Attorney at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Dean Davidson and Antonio, who represent two generations of Black attorneys, discuss the changes the Black legal community has experienced during their careers, if recent DEI initiatives are working, and why understanding Black history is essential for an effective legal profession.

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Timestamps

00:54 How is the legal landscape today’s law students are entering different than the one you entered?

01:51 How has the legal profession changed for Black attorneys?

03:17 The profession embarked on a racial reckoning in 2020 and has been putting an increased emphasis on improving diversity and creating cultures of belonging since. Is it working? Why or why not?

08:38 Please tell us more about SIU’s partnership with HBCU Stillman College. Why is it important for law schools to collaborate with HBCUs?

10:50 What are the most important things the legal profession can do to support the careers of minority attorneys?

13:02 Why is it important that attorneys educate themselves on the history of Black communities?

Related Resources

About Camille M. Davidson

Camille M. Davidson is Dean and Professor of Law at Southern Illinois University School of Law. She joined the law school in July 2020. Most recently, she was a Judicial Hearing Officer for the State of North Carolina where she presided over hearings in the areas of estates, foreclosures, partitions, guardianships, incompetency proceedings, claim and deliveries, adoptions, and legitimations.

Other legal experience includes working with members of Congress and their staff as an Assistant Counsel in the Office of the Legislative Counsel, United States House of Representatives, where she drafted legislation in the areas of health law (including work on HIPAA), small business, and ERISA. She also clerked for the Honorable John H. Suda, District of Columbia Superior Court.

Davidson is licensed to practice in Illinois, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Virginia (inactive), the Western District of North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court of the United States.

About Antonio Lee

Antonio Lee is an Assistant State’s Attorney (ASA) at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (CCSAO), where he handles all aspects of civil litigation for torts and civil rights cases in state, appellate, and federal court.

Prior to his position as an ASA, Lee was selected into the prestigious U.S. Presidential Management Fellows program, where he served with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and U.S. Department of Justice.

Lee received the 2020 National Bar Association’s “40 Under 40: Nation’s Best Advocate” Award, and recently received the Presidential, Junior Counselor, and Meritorious Service Awards from the Cook County Bar Association (CCBA).

He chairs CCBA’s Lawyers in the Community Committee and the legislative sub-committee of the NAACP Chicago Southside Branch, co-chairs the African American Employee Resource Group at the CCSAO, and volunteers as a lead tutor with Minority Legal Education Services, Inc. to ensure minority law students pass the Illinois Bar Exam.

This interview was recorded on February 22, 2022.

Transcript

Kendra Abercrombie 0:07 

February is Black History Month, a time when we honor and celebrate the accomplishments of influential Black people over the generations. While it’s a time to look back, it’s also a time to look forward. Today I am happy to say I am joined by Dean Camille Davidson, Dean of Southern Illinois University School of Law, and Antonio Lee, Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney. Today we will talk about the evolving legal landscape for Black attorneys, the challenges they have faced in their careers, and a new collaboration that SIU Law announced with Stillman College, an HBCU in Alabama. We’re just going to jump right in here with my first question going straight to Dean Davidson. You graduated from law school in 1993. How is the legal landscape that today’s law students are entering different than the one you entered?

Camille M. Davidson 1:01

Absolutely. Thank you so much for the question. Law schools as a whole are more nurturing and supportive now than when I was in law school. Back in the 90s, there was no such thing as an academic support faculty or bar passage director. We had one exam—there was no discussion about the bar exam. Now we begin working with students prior to their arrival. Lawyering fundamentals, multiple assessments with feedback, as well as practical training, are now all a part of our curriculum.

Kendra Abercrombie 1:35

Thank you. Antonio, I’ve been amazed by your career and the different turns you have taken and the amazing opportunities you’ve had. You’ve been a presidential fellow and an assistant state’s attorney. How has the legal profession changed for Black attorneys since you graduated from law school in 2014?

Antonio Lee 1:58 

I think that’s a great question. In order to answer that, you would have to analyze it from a holistic approach. When you look at the landscape of enrollment, enrollment of Black law students has been decreasing, but there are other factors that are contributing to that. There, the legal landscape is still the same but there are opportunities for us to grow. And what I want to make sure is that we know the issues. We know the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but what we have to focus on now are the opportunities. That’s what has been changing: the opportunities that are available for us to advance other Black attorneys and make sure that they have an equal opportunity. And so, from that holistic approach, when you look at the statistics going into law school, as well as the statistics of how they affect attorneys after they become admitted into the bar, that is where we often see where the rubber meets the road and where the opportunities are to maximize the potential of Black attorneys.

Kendra Abercrombie 3:01 

I like how you went into the holistic approach. And I think, as you are saying, it continues to change. Even within the last two years, the legal profession embarked on essentially a racial reckoning. And it’s been putting an increased emphasis on diversity and inclusion and creating a culture of belonging within the legal space. Dean Davidson, do you think the new initiatives that have been going on in the last two years are working?

Camille M. Davidson 3:55 

Yes, I do believe the initiatives are working. The ABA Council just passed a new standard where DEI must be included in law school curriculums. This is a major step because it means that all law schools are now taking the issue seriously and in a consistent manner. At SIU law, our faculty approved both anti-racism and diversity statements last year, and also voted to include issues of DEI in classes. In addition to the committee that we have that’s made up of faculty, staff, and students, we also have the student body association committee, and this semester we’re embarking on listening sessions so that we all understand cross-cultural communication. We’re creating the structure. We recognize that conversations are difficult, but we want to make sure that our messaging is clear that we are about inclusivity that we want all of our students to feel nurtured and supported and valued. We recognize and believe that diversity in the classroom is important because attorneys have to integrate with people from various backgrounds. The classroom environment is enriched when we hear different viewpoints. So yes, it’s working.

Kendra Abercrombie 5:29 

Antonio, do you have anything to add from the practice side of things? What have you seen working or not working?

Antonio Lee 5:37 

I would have to respectfully say that it’s a start. And I can’t say whether or not it’s working. I appreciate that the civil unrest is bringing this discussion to the forefront. Everyone wants to know about race, everyone wanted to speak about it, but some people didn’t feel comfortable speaking about it in the legal profession. I recently moderated a panel on microaggressions for ISBA and a lot of these discussions bring to the forefront a comfortable space and a safe space for people to talk about these issues that they otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s why I’m appreciative because prior to that, a lot of attorneys didn’t talk about the issue. They either talked amongst themselves, or they turned a blind eye to it. So, it’s a start. I was appreciative of the microaggressions panel because we brought those issues to the forefront. I also moderated another panel for the Cook County Bar Association and the question that we analyzed there was whether or not we’re moving further away from Martin Luther King’s dream. When you look at it in the context of the current climate that we’re living in, we haven’t really pushed for it that much. I was glad that the civil unrest sparked this debate, and to see the push that we’re seeing in the legal profession and outside the legal profession, but we’ve got to keep it up. We’ve got to keep it up. And that’s the most promising outlook that I have on it: that I’m appreciative of the discussion and we need to continue.

Camille M. Davidson 7:11 

And I don’t disagree with that at all. By saying working, I certainly don’t intend to suggest that there is not work to do. There is. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go. For example, there are a record number of law school Deans who are women and people of color, and that was certainly not the case in the 1990s. But we also know that students of color tend to graduate with more debt than their majority counterparts. We know that students of color are less likely to be partners in law firms. Salaries tend to trail their majority counterparts. So, I’m not suggesting that “it’s working” means that we are done. We all recognize that there is still a lot of work to do. I think what’s exciting now is that people are engaging in the conversation. And in situations where people were once afraid to embark on difficult or uncomfortable conversations, they are more likely to be open and that’s why cross-cultural communications and cross-cultural training is what we’re doing this semester.

Kendra Abercrombie 8:28 

Thank you. Antonio, you said it was a great start and that really transitioned to my next question for Dean Davidson. SIU recently announced a partnership with HBCU Stillman College that establishes a path for Stillman students who attend SIU Law. Pipeline programs have been around for decades, but this seems to be a more strategic approach. Can you talk about this partnership and why it’s important for law schools to be able to collaborate with HBCUs?

Camille M. Davidson 9:01 

Absolutely. Well, as you said, pipeline programs have been around for a while, and I believe in them because they are integral to diversifying the legal profession, and diversity in general is critical to public trust and confidence in our legal system. As far as HBCU partnerships go, HBCUs are responsible for about 80% of Black judges and 50% of Black attorneys. In order for there to be true access to justice, we have to train students from various backgrounds. We know that Black attorneys are about 5% or less than 5% of attorneys. That number sort of ranges from 4.5 to 4.8%, while the Black population is about 13% of the total U.S. population. As we looked at this partnership and other partnerships, we were intentional about the schools that we reached out to. SIU Law is a small law school with less than 300 students. We are known for our approachable faculty who are master teachers as well as scholars. So, we deliberately focus on schools like Stillman which is also a very small school, but with a hands-on, nurturing approach to education, like SIU. We believe that those students would be comfortable in our environment, and we are so excited about the partnership. We’re looking forward to them and others joining us this summer in our first prelaw diversity institute at the end of May.

Kendra Abercrombie 10:37 

Oh, that is exciting. I am excited about this partnership as well. Antonio, you discussed some of the things that we were able to start doing to move the needle. What are some of the most important things that the legal profession can do to support the careers of minority attorneys?

Antonio Lee 10:59 

I think it’s important to understand that we are all a community, we all have a responsibility to the needs of our community and the legal professionals that make us up, and we’re very diverse. To answer that question, we all can help. For non-minority attorneys, they are allies. They have a role in this as well for educating other non-minorities who may not be attending these DEI programs or other kinds of CLE centered around DEI. That is one thing that they can do—they can share the opportunities for them to be aware and educated on this. I think like I said before, creating a safe space is really important. What I mean by that is allowing others to voice their concerns or voice questions that they may have to correct that. I remember distinctly a panel that I moderated at the height of the civil unrest, around August of 2020. At the State Attorney’s Office, I organized this book discussion, and some attorneys didn’t want to participate, they just wanted to sit in the room. They wanted to listen to it. And that’s okay, because they had not been around such robust discussion, and everyone needed it, whether or not you are a minority individual. That’s what’s important: how we all can get involved. Minority attorneys play a critical role in that they have to continue speaking out, they have to continue voicing their opinions, they have to continue talking about microaggressions, and they have to keep bringing this issue to the forefront. That’s the only way we can learn. And that’s the only way we can grow.

Kendra Abercrombie 12:42 

So true. It’s Black History Month, so I definitely have to close out with a question rooted in history. Why is it important that attorneys educate themselves on the history of the Black community?

Camille M. Davidson 13:09 

Black history is American history. It’s world history. It did not begin with slavery. It did not end with the civil rights movement. It is impossible to discuss equal justice under the law without acknowledging race and the contributions of the Black community to American history. Whether we’re talking about property law, where there were racially restrictive covenants that existed just a few generations ago, to constitutional law with voting rights issues, to health law, where Black bodies have been used to improve surgical techniques and treatments that we know today. This history belongs to all of us. It’s not just limited to Black people. It’s not just limited to one month.

Kendra Abercrombie 14:04 

Antonio?

Antonio Lee 14:06 

Yes, I would definitely agree. That was my first starting point. Black history is American history. And you have to have a comprehensive understanding of Black history to understand where we come from the evolution of our country. Some people may believe that issues tied to minorities may not affect them, but that notion is incorrect. One of my favorite quotes that I’m inspired by is from Dr. Martin Luther King, and I just want to emphasize this: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” These issues that minorities face could affect the legal profession when it comes to minorities’ job performance or retention rates, so it affects us all. That’s why it’s important not only to celebrate Black history, but to understand it.

Kendra Abercrombie 15:08 

Wow, that was amazing. Thank you both for joining me. And thank you for watching to all of those who tuned in to watch. Please like and share this video and subscribe to our channel to stay updated on new episodes. Thank you both again, thank you all for joining us, and be well.

 

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