We can determine the number of African American, or Black lawyers in the US, by multiplying the number of lawyers in the US by the percentage of lawyers who are Black.
According to the American Bar Association’s 2020 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession, there are 1.3 million lawyers in the country.
4.7% of those lawyers are African American, which means there are roughly 61,100 African American lawyers in the US.
However, African Americans make up 13.4% of the US population, meaning they’re grossly underrepresented in the legal profession.
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In 1884, Macon Bolling Allen became the first Black American person licensed to practice law in the US, nearly two decades after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered that all slaves be freed.
Eventually, Allen also became the country’s first-ever Black judge.
Despite his impact on the country’s legal history and the significance of his accomplishments, Allen’s name has mostly been buried in US history and lost to time.
Because of the challenges that many Black Americans still face in the legal profession, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center as well as other organizations are promoting Allen’s story to encourage Black Americans and other people of color to pursue legal occupations, including occupations as lawyers and judges.
Men and women of color – which include African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and mixed-race people – make up 14.1% of lawyers in the US.
This is a 3-percentage-point increase from 2010 when only 11.4% of all lawyers were people of color.
According to the ABA National Lawyer Population Survey, white men and women still dominate the profession compared with the overall population of white Americans in the US.
86% of all lawyers in the US are non-Hispanic whites.
Compare this to the presence of non-Hispanic whites in the overall US population, where they make up 60% of all US residents.
Almost all people of color are underrepresented in the legal profession in the US. The one exception is Native Americans, whose representation in the legal profession is almost the same as their presence in the general US population.
While 0.4% of all lawyers are Native American, 1.3% of all Americans identify as being part of this group.
Another fact worth noting is that mixed-race lawyers are slowly growing in number. In 2014, when the National Lawyer Population Survey began keeping track of the number, it was close to zero.
Now, mixed-race lawyers make up nearly 2% of the lawyer population.
The percentage of female lawyers over the past decade has slowly grown. In 2010, only a third of all lawyers were female.
Now, that number is almost 40%. That means that male attorneys still outnumber female attorneys, but that’s changing as fewer men and more women are enrolling in law school each year.
If you look at the numbers over the past 50 years, you’ll see a drastic change in numbers.
Only 3% of the lawyer population consisted of women between 1950 and 1970. The growth has been gradual since then but quite dramatic when you look at the overall change over the past several decades.
- 1980 – 8%
- 1991 – 20%
- 2000 – 27%
- Today – 37%
Margaret Brent, who became a lawyer in 1648 in Maryland, was the first female lawyer in the US.
In honor of her accomplishments, in 1991 the ABA created the Margaret Brent Award, which recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of female lawyers.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) lawyers are gradually increasing in number in the US, according to the National Association for Law Placement.
The survey, conducted in 2019, counted 3,028 LGBT lawyers working at 910 law offices across the US.
That means they account for 2.99% of all lawyers at those law firms. Three years prior, the survey counted 2,431 LGBT lawyers in the country or 2.48% of all US lawyers.
The increase is even more drastic when you look at the numbers over the past decade. In 2009, only 1.4% of all lawyers in the country identified as LGBT.
Currently, the figure stands at 2.1%.
We see the same trend among American law firm associates. Only 2.3% of lawyers said they were LGBT in 2009; today, that number is 4.1%.
Although there are no reliable statistics on the total number of lawyers who identify as LGBT in every part of the legal profession, the trends do show an increasingly promising future for LGBT lawyers in the country.
There are several associations in the US whose primary goal is to represent the interests of Black lawyers, judges, law instructors, and law students throughout the country.
Here are a few of those associations:
- National Bar Association – Founded in 1925, the National Bar Association is perhaps the best-known association for African American lawyers and judges. According to its website, the NBA is organized around 80 affiliate chapters, 12 regions, 10 divisions, and 23 substantive law sections all over the US and the world.
- National Conference of Black Lawyers – The National Conference of Black Lawyers’ website says it exists for “the purpose of enhancing our professional strength and skill for the benefit of the Black community in its struggle for full social political and economic rights.” It was founded in 1968 when young Black lawyers were growing impatient with the slow, unsatisfactory social change in the US. Today, the association boasts four active chapters across Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C.
- Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association – Formerly known as the National Bar Association Women Lawyers Division Dade County Chapter, the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association was founded in 1985. It specifically serves Black women lawyers, existing to address their professional development, which includes continuing their legal education and pursuing professional excellence.
- Black Men Lawyers’ Association – Although the Black Men Lawyers’ Association was founded in Chicago, it’s now a global organization that has 600 members. BMLA, which serves Black male lawyers, hosts Quarterly Round Table Discussions as well as the Annual Leadership Summit to recognize, support, and celebrate Black men who work in the legal profession.
Other organizations that promote diversity within the legal profession include the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, Corporate Counsel–Women of Color, National Native American Bar Association, The National LGBT Bar Association, National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and Minority Corporate Counsel Association, to name a few.
Right now, there are six ABA-accredited law schools at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). They are:
- North Carolina Central University – Established in 1939, NCCU School of Law, located in Durham, North Carolina, currently has 550 full-time students. The law school, which began its evening study program in 1981, is the only accredited law school with evening programs between Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington, D.C.
- Howard University School of Law – Known for being the oldest historically Black law school in the US, Howard University School of Law was established in 1869 and accredited by the American Bar Association in 1931. The famous law school is no stranger to breaking down barriers. For example, in 1872 it graduated the country’s first Black female lawyer, Charlotte Ray, among other noteworthy achievements.
- Thurgood Marshall School of Law – The Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University has a unique history. It was founded because of a lawsuit implicating protection for minorities, including Black Americans, under the US constitution. Currently, the law school has 544 students enrolled in its Juris Doctor program.
- David A. Clarke School of Law – As part of the University of the District of Columbia, the David A. Clarke School of Law has a reputation for its impressive diversity. Today, 51% of its students are minorities and 60% are women, and the average age is 31.
- Southern University Law Center – Founded in 1946, Southern University Law Center has a similar history as the Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Following the signing of similar legislation in the state of Louisiana, SULC was formed to give minority populations, including Black Americans, the opportunity to study and practice law. There are currently 500 full-time students at the law school.
- Florida A&M University School of Law – The youngest of all the historically Black law schools, Florida A&M University School of Law is located in Orlando, Florida. Established in 1949, the law school was prohibited by the Florida Board of Control from admitting students until the early 2000s, when the law school was re-established.
Just as there are disparities in racial and ethnic representation in the legal field, there are also gaps in annual salaries.
While white, Asian, and Hispanic lawyers in the US earn an average of more than $119,000 annually ($125,674 for white, $131,493 for Asian, and $119,113 for Hispanic), Black lawyers earn an average of $117,452 per year.
This can largely be attributed to the educational and professional barriers that Black American lawyers continue to face.
Although the situation is gradually improving and opportunities for Black individuals who want to pursue legal careers are growing, the obstacles still exist.
Time will tell whether the playing field will continue to level out and whether Black American lawyers will have similar or equal opportunities as lawyers from other racial and ethnic groups.