Law-school education once was the almost exclusive preserve of men, regardless of race. It was not until 1956 that the first Black woman graduated from the nation’s then most highly regarded school of law, Harvard Law School, nearly a century after the first Black man had earned a law degree at Harvard. Since then, says The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Black women have become dominant in African-American legal education, as they have in almost every area of higher education in the United States. According to JBHE, Black women now comprise more than 61 percent of all Black enrollments at the nation’s highest-ranked law schools.
However, a recent survey by the publication suggests that Black men may have begun to close the gap. In the 2008–2009 academic year, JBHE data show, Black women made up 61.7 percent of African-American enrollments at the nation’s 50 highest-ranked law schools. That’s down from 64.3 percent five years ago, when the publication conducted a similar survey. Other JBHE figures also suggest a shrinking gender gap. Five years ago, Black women were 60 percent or more of African-American enrollments at 33 of the 50 top law schools; today, the figure is 25. Five years ago, there were nine leading law schools where Black women made up 70 percent or more of all African-American enrollments; in the current survey there are seven top law schools where Black women are at least 70 percent of all Black enrollments. Five years ago, Black women made up 63.4 percent of all African-American enrollments at the six Black law schools; today, they comprise 63.2 percent.
Men may have begun to close the Black law-school enrollment gender gap, but Black women still pursue the difficult law curriculum at a faster rate than Black men, JBHE says. Why this is so raises sensitive issues, to which JHBE offers some answers:
• Writing ability is an important qualification for success in law school and some standardized tests suggest that Black women tend to be better writers than Black men.
• Like commercial organizations in general, law firms get employment credit for “twofers” — the hiring of a Black and a woman. Black women often attend law school to take advantage of the strong demand for African-American women at law firms.
• According to some demographers, 75 percent of African-American children spend a portion of their childhood without a father. If, as is likely, the presence of a father as a guide and role model is more important to the future ambitions of boys than of girls, it seems likely that for this reason alone fewer young African-American males will be showing up to face the minefield of three years of law school.
In the pages that follow, TNJ profiles four New York City lawyers who showed up to face the minefield.