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What Does A Lawyer Look Like?

In 2021, I asked myself this exact question, as I was preparing to head to law school. Being a white-passing half-black woman from a rural and predominantly white town, I believed that lawyers looked very studious, professional, and were well-spoken. I had never assigned a race to the lawyer I was imagining, which I recognize is a privilege in and of itself, but I never imagined just how large of a role that race plays within the legal field. In searching for an answer during my undergraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts, emerged my thesis entitled, “The Color of Law,” and it was revealed to me that the answer is not so simple, and varies depending on the race of the person asked. I conducted interviews with attorneys of varying races in the northeast region of the U.S. to find out what it meant to them to look like a lawyer. Two main themes arose: colorism and the model minority.

Colorism, or proximity to whiteness, is defined as the “allocation of privilege and disadvantage according to the lightness or darkness of one’s skin.”[1] A 1957 study of the allocation of emancipation based on skin tone during the era of slavery confirms the deep roots that colorism has in the United States.[2] Another notable example of this occurred in Plessy v. Ferguson, where Attorney Albion Torgee chose a lighter-skinned defendant because he believed that a lighter-skinned defendant would fare better than a darker-skinned defendant.[3]

The effects of colorism played a role in the respondents’ job search when they had first graduated law school in varying capacities. A Black female respondent answered that when she first started out as an attorney, she felt the need to get rid of her braids, and instead, relax her hair. She also mentioned that she went to the trouble of framing every certificate and diploma she had ever received because prospective clients would walk into her office and ask her to speak to the attorney. Similarly, a Hispanic female respondent answered that she thought she would be “just another” Puerto Rican in “the system.” She recounted the first time walking into a courtroom as an attorney, she was presumed outwardly to be the courtroom interpreter. Furthermore, she explained that court officers will repeatedly stop her to ask for her Bar Identification card, and in one instance, when a white male attorney was passing right by.

Alternatively, the Asian respondents of the study suggested a different theme: the model minority. The model minority is defined as “paint[ing] [Asian Americans] as industrious, intelligent, compliant, and quiet.” [4] To some, this stereotype may seem like a “compliment,” or that it should be considered a privilege to have such high expectations attributed to one’s race, but this stereotype is still harmful and discriminatory because it fosters the pressures associated with unrealistic expectations. According to a study published by the Journal of Youth and Adolescence on the quality of relationships among Asian American students and their peers, once the model minority stereotype infiltrates groups of students, it negatively changes the way they relate to each other, leading to strained relationships and a loss of peer support. [5]

Furthermore, model minority stereotypes, such as having the ability to excel in subjects like arithmetic, largely go undetected in classrooms because it is viewed as a “positive” attribute, leading teachers to be less likely to confront this form of discrimination, and even encourage it.[6] When asked about what an attorney looks like, an Asian male respondent answered that he felt the heavy pressures of measuring up to the standards that the model minority stereotype applied against him. He also recognized that because this form of discrimination is seen as a “positive” attribute, he felt the need to be more cognizant of situations which he was granted “honorary white person status,” where other white classmates and colleagues would make negative comments about another race.

To attempt to rectify the microaggressions that occur with lawyers of color, we must start from the beginning of their careers. An analysis done by Randall (2006) of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) 1995 to 2005 reports, which suggests that the use of fees to access the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and preparatory courses for the Bar exam during that decade resulted in an decrease of enrollment in students of African American and Hispanic heritage while there was an increase in applications from both minority groups.[7] Coincidentally, when asked about the most effective way to mitigate the microaggressions with regard to colorism and the model minority stereotype, all respondents said the same thing: accessibility and representation. Accessibility, according to the respondents, looks much like eliminating the fees for the LSAT, the preparatory courses for the Bar exam, and the Bar exam itself. With the elimination of the initial and subsequent financial hurdles, the respondents suggested that representation in law schools and the legal field would increase.

Brooke Patterson is a 3L at Western New England University School of Law. After graduating from Western New England University School of Law with a transactional law concentration, Brooke plans on practicing in real estate and estate planning law.

[1] International Encyclopedia Of The Social Sciences Vol. 2, 17 (William Darity eds., 2d ed. 2008). [2] See E. Franklin Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie (Simon & Schuster 1957). [3] Ryan D. King & Brian D. Johnson, A Punishing Look: Skin Tone and Afrocentric Features in the Halls of Justice, 122 A.J.S. 90, 93 (2016); see generally, Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). [4] Taylor L. Thompson, Lisa Kiang, & Melissa R. Witkow, Discrimination, the Model Minority Stereotype, and Peer Relationships Across High School Years, 49 J. Youth & Adolescence 1884, 1884 (2020). [5] Id. [6] Id. at 1893. [7] Vernellia R. Randall, The Misues Of The Lsat: Discrimination Against Blacks And Other Minorities In Law School Admissions, 80 St. John’s L. Rev., 107, 108 (2006).

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