May it Please the Court—Maximizing Black Attorneys in the Courtroom: A Judge’s Perspective

The eight minute and forty-six second murder of George Floyd that we all witnessed in 2020 opened America’s eyes to acknowledge systemic racism. The aftermath reignited conversations around racism, discrimination, and implicit bias in the workplace.

The eight minute and forty-six second murder of George Floyd that we all witnessed in 2020 opened America’s eyes to acknowledge systemic racism. The aftermath reignited conversations around racism, discrimination, and implicit bias in the workplace. The legal profession has used this time as an opportunity to train staff and attorneys, reaffirm policies against workplace discrimination, and increase diversity initiatives. These acts are indeed necessary. But behind the cloak of formal policies remains the deep-rooted implicit bias and microaggressions directed toward black attorneys every day, especially when it comes to staffing cases and providing opportunities to take on lead roles in important matters.

There is no doubt that systemic racism and implicit bias exist in the legal profession. Several years ago, for example, a study conducted by the consulting firm, Nextions, provided empirical evidence of implicit bias against black attorneys. Two versions of a legal memo containing the same number of errors were circulated to law firm partners participating in the study. The only difference between the memos was that the participants were told that one was drafted by a white associate and the other a black associate. The exact same memo averaged a 4.1/5.0 rating for the white associate’s memo accompanied with encouraging comments such as “generally good writer but needs to work on …,” “has potential,” and “good analytical skills.” The black associate’s score? He averaged only a 3.2/5.0 rating accompanied by more negative feedback: “needs lots of work,” “can’t believe he went to NYU,” and “average at best.”

Aaron Gleaton Clay | Associate | Finnegan

Is this same implicit bias diminishing black attorneys’ role on cases? Opportunities to lead and try cases or argue motions before courts are critical for any attorney’s professional development and advancement. And while these opportunities are hard to come by for younger associates, in large part because senior and more experienced partners are slated, or because such decisions are largely driven by client demands, these opportunities seem even rarer for black attorneys, especially young, black associates. As a law clerk at both the federal district and appellate court levels, I witnessed how black attorneys were rarely given a speaking role in motions hearings, trials, or oral arguments. Some of this I attributed to the alarmingly low numbers of black attorneys in major U.S. law firms. Indeed, in 2020, the National Association for Law Placement (“NALP”) reported that only 5.1% of associates and only 2.1% of partners in U.S. law firms are black. These numbers were worse for black women who made up only 3.04% of associates and 0.8% of partners! But even with these low numbers, I wondered if there was more to the story. Why is it that black counsel has a “seat at the table” but not a lead, speaking role? Is it not important to provide these opportunities to black attorneys who not only need the experience but can add value to the case? Does the court or the jury take notice of this disparity? If so, what can we do to fix it?

To answer some of these questions, I interviewed the Honorable Gerald Bruce Lee, retired U.S. District Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, for his view from the court’s perspective. Over the course of his more than 25 years on the federal and state benches, as well as his prior experience as a trial lawyer, Judge Lee has encountered more than his fair share of attorneys and firms and has seen first-hand how younger, and arguably more knowledgeable, attorneys are “benched,” particularly black attorneys. In his view, “systemic racism is the answer; it remains a problem.”

We must “be very conscious of systemic racism that exists,” Judge Lee said, and “we have to end the ‘mirrortocracy.’” In other words, we must stop choosing to only work with someone who looks like us. Judge Lee suggests that firms and partners “pick a black associate that you want to work with and put that person to work. Give them the same coaching and mentorship that you would give someone that looks like you,” he said. Not just on one case either, he said, “work with them on 10 cases and see what happens.”

And “it’s not just for social justice reasons,” Judge Lee added. “We are creators, we are innovators, and we can think outside the box, and you need to give us a chance to do that and improve the quality of work that is being done and to create the results that are being attained.” Judge Lee said that judges “think young, black associates have ideas” because “young, black associates have had to improvise and have had to learn how to think creatively on their feet.” To him, “it seems that to have someone as gifted and talented as some of these young, black associates are, who have overcome many obstacles and have many good insights, and not to use them is like wasting resources that you’ve acquired.” He asked, “Why would you waste resources? Put your resources to work.”

Judge Lee “enjoys seeing young, black lawyers come into court who are doing more than carrying a briefcase” because he knows that “if the black attorney’s name is on the brief, then there has been some opportunity for the lawyer to communicate to the partner about the brief.” But many black lawyers are not being given a chance to argue cases, which contributes to a lack of preparedness and the professional development they need to become partners. Judge Lee is not alone in his eagerness, noting that “black and white judges want to see young, black associates at the podium, questioning witnesses, and arguing motions.” “It is time to get your black attorneys off the bench and in the field. What better time than now to acknowledge that you are going to fully use your black associates and partners?,” he asked.

Giving black attorneys more leading roles in the courtroom can also have a positive impact on the case. Judge Lee emphasized that “the days of all white judges and juries are over.” When asked what effect black attorneys have on the jury or the court, Judge Lee said, “the first thing it adds is talent and resources,” but he added that “it could also make a difference in how the jury reacts to the trial.” For example, he said, “if a jury sees a black lawyer sitting there and there are minorities in the jury and they only see that person pass paper, then they know that person is ‘window dressing.’” And from the court’s perspective, he said, having black attorneys in lead roles can also “make a difference in how I view the case from the standpoint of how it was managed and the case was being presented.”

I asked Judge Lee for any final advice for black attorneys looking for opportunities to improve and expand their skill set. He suggested that we continually seek out the work we want and “be persistent.” As a young lawyer, Judge Lee always told himself that the answer “no” was just “the beginning of the conversation, not the end of the conversation.” If partners or clients turn you down the first time, he said, use that as an opportunity to follow up again until they say “yes.” Eventually, he said, “they’ll get tired of you and give you the work.” Use that opportunity to thrive.