Don Corbett, Stunted Growth: Assessing the Stagnant Enrollment of African-American Students at the
Nation's Law Schools, 18 Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review 177-211 (Fall 2008) (272
In 1844, Macon B. Allen successfully passed the bar examination in the state of Maine. In most
historical contexts, this would have been fairly uneventful news. Allen's successful exam
performance, however, enabled him to become the first African-American lawyer in the United
States. While there is little documentation of his personal reaction to this landmark achievement,
one can be fairly certain that he hoped his accomplishment would open the door for future
African-Americans in the field of law.
Mr. Allen was able to attain his legal education through an apprenticeship with practicing
attorneys in Maine. Four years after passing the bar in Maine, the Governor of Massachusetts
appointed Allen as a justice of the peace, making him the first black to serve in any judicial
capacity in the country. At the time, still nearly twenty years before the beginning of the Civil
War, the majority of the country's African-American citizens were still slaves. It was illegal in
every state in the South, notwithstanding Tennessee, to formally educate slaves, leaving
approximately ninety percent of black adults in the South illiterate. So, whether it was by the
enforcement of segregation laws in the South or social isolation and abuse in the North, racial
inequities made it daunting for African-Americans all over the country to obtain any type of
One hundred sixty-three years later, there can be little doubt that blacks who desire to become
legal practitioners have a level of access to education that was not conceivable at the time of
Allen's feat. While this certainly represents progress, statistics suggest much more work needs to
be done. As of 2000, there were 33,865 African-American (or black) lawyers, representing a total
of just 3.9% of all attorneys in the country. The 2000 United States Census listed a total of 36.4
million people who reported themselves as African-American. So, while African-Americans are
approximately 12.9% of the U.S. population, only 0.1% of the nation's black citizens are lawyers.
Conversely, white Americans comprised approximately 75% of the nation's population in the
2000 Census, but compose roughly 90% of the nation's attorneys. While there are certainly
pockets of sustained optimism that the numbers of black attorneys will increase with the further
passage of time, a gathering storm of dynamics hints that such hopefulness may be misplaced and
imprudent. Conversely, it may be that today's legal and socioeconomic landscape instead results
in an even more palpable famine of black attorneys in the future.
This Article will address the confluence of issues that may culminate in the constructive
cessation of the black attorney. Part I examines the historical struggle of African-Americans to
attain access to formal legal education. Part II will focus on the amalgam of modern-day
circumstances that seem certain to create even more formidable hurdles to increasing the number
of the nation's black lawyers. Part III urges public and private law schools to work more
diligently, both on an individual and collective basis, to ensure that the dreams of future black
lawyers will not be deferred--or perhaps even denied almost completely.
. . . .
There is little doubt that challenges galore loom over the horizon for the nation's law schools.
Legal education seems to grow more expensive by the year, which may lead to more
consumer-driven demands for schools to meet. The advent of technology may eventually force
more schools to alter instruction in such a way that it can be better received by students who, due
to the vast role the digital world plays in their daily lives, now process and absorb information
differently than students have in the past. More work must also be done to close the growing gap
between academics and practitioners.
Still, when viewed in the overall context of our nation's evolving demographics, these challenges
are not as imperative as addressing the homogeneity that appears certain to dominate both the bar
and the bench without more aggressive efforts. In Sweatt v. Painter, Chief Justice Vinson
eloquently summed up the necessities surrounding the Court's holding, which ordered that Sweatt
be admitted to the University of Texas Law School:
[A]lthough the law is a highly learned profession, we are well aware that it is an intensely
practical one. The law school, the proving ground for legal learning and practice, cannot
be effective in isolation from the individuals and institutions with which the law interacts.
Few students and no one who has practiced law would choose to study in an academic
vacuum, removed from the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views with which the
law is concerned.
The heavily-used existing criteria for assessing candidates tends to do more to reward past
performance than to critically assess which applicants create the best blend of students, and
subsequently, the best set of attorneys to navigate the demands of an increasingly globally
connected world. Given that reality, it simply makes more sense to create an educational
environment where students (and subsequently, employers) would not be allowed to retreat to
comfortable enclaves simply because they are more familiar to them.
These issues are clearly larger than the enrollment of black students. But the unique history of
African-Americans in this country does seem to warrant particular consideration. While it is
fairly certain that the country will always have some African-American lawyers, the lingering
question is whether the academy is satisfied with the current enrollment trends concerning black
students. To properly honor the efforts of men like Macon Allen, Heman Sweatt, and Virgil
Hawkins, the answer to that question should be no.