By: Jewel Smaddar
- Published on August 19, 2022
As a student, choosing to pursue a career in law can be both exciting and intimidating. Those who feel discouragement, among others, are Black women, who face more social and economic barriers when striving to integrate within the legal field. However, there are several organizations and success stories to ease the stress of Black women who desire to attend law school.
What is Intersectionality?
It has been proven that the Black community wrongfully experiences disadvantages concerning employment. It has also been proven, on various occasions, that women tend to face a lack of opportunities in the workplace. Both women and people of color are customarily seen in the service industry, but the same cannot be said for these groups in professional workforces.
Intersectionality is a term used to describe those who identify with two or more marginalized groups. Individuals who belong to these various groups experience a combination of disadvantages, as opposed to only one. This can create overlapping types of discrimination for a person or group of people to experience. The term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights advocate and scholar in critical race theory. During her time at school, Crenshaw focused on one type of intersectionality—the race and gender bias.
Oftentimes, young Black women aspiring to be lawyers will hear the words “you don’t look like a lawyer.” The image of a successful professional is commonly viewed as a White and masculine individual. In Canada, it was reported by the Law Society of Ontario in 2019 that Black lawyers in general had only accounted for 3.7 per cent of the population. A survey conducted by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association in the same year found that Black women made up only 1.73 per cent of lawyers in America.
In order to combat this, several organizations and people with inspiring stories have helped pave the way for Black women who wish to pursue law school. These resources are helpful for attending law schools all over North America. Despite the intersectionality of being both female and Black, there are resources, communities and numerous success stories to help challenge the status quo.
The Canadian Association of Black Lawyers
The Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL) is a non-profit organization based in Toronto, Canada. CABLs mission is to promote Black lawyers across Canada and to facilitate networking among Black professionals. The organization has united Black individuals in the legal field since 1996.
CABL’s main focus is to assist all Black lawyers, regardless of gender. However, a more tailored approach to participation among Black women is encouraged within the Black Female Lawyers Network.
The Black Female Lawyers Network
The Black Female Lawyers Network (BFLN), established in 2006, is a gateway for Black women who are lawyers to connect, learn, and share resources with one another. The founder of BFLN, Denise Dwyer was concerned about the fact that there was no mentorship or resources she could turn to as a Black female lawyer. Many people around her did not acknowledge her work as a lawyer due to the intersectionality of her race and gender. The fact that Dwyer was not taken seriously was detrimental to her career and life in general. Therefore, BFLN was born out of the need to create a safe space for Black women in law.
The BFLN provides various opportunities for mentorship, networking, and education concerning the legal field. This non-profit organization is also based in Toronto, Canada, and fosters empowerment through its many workshops.
The first female Black lawyer to be called to the bar in Canada was Violet King in 1954. King graduated from the University of Alberta Faculty of Law in 1953. On her journey, she encountered both racism and sexism, neither of which were experienced by the dominant group—White men—during her career.
Despite being confronted with both types of discrimination, King flourished in her profession. While she attended law school, it was rare she saw others who looked like her or came from a similar culture. She started her career as a criminal lawyer in Calgary and moved onto becoming the executive director of the Newark YMCA community branch. Through her persistent self-advocacy, she paved the way for many young Black female lawyers well into the 21st century.
Here are three more groundbreaking stories of Black women in the legal profession in North America:
Choosing a career in law can be tough for those who experience intersectionality —but this did not stop Charlene Theodore from becoming one of Canada’s top 25 most influential lawyers in 2020. Theodore was also the only Black woman who was elected as President of the Ontario Bar Association (OBA). Her dedication to helping others is not limited to the courtroom.
As president of OBA while also working as a lawyer practicing human rights, labor and employment law, Theodore’s goal is to create healthy, diverse, and inclusive workplaces for law firms in Ontario, Canada. She plans to help women of color gain the leadership positions and recognition they deserve.
Keli Knight, Yondi Morris, and Jessica Reddick are three Black women who decided to start their own law firm in 2011. The trio dedicated themselves to this project when one of them became frustrated with the prejudice she experienced as a Black woman in law. The low statistics of Black women in law did not stop them—rather, it motivated them—to make a change in society and the justice system.
KMR law firm is based in Chicago and specializes in entertainment, corporate, and real estate law. Although the firm initially attracted clients who were family and friends, the women utilized creative outlets to market their business. Knight, Morris, and Reddick showcased their firm and its diverse lawyers on social media, where they were able to attract and network with a wide range of clients. Since its establishment in 2011, KMR has become so successful that the practice has spread to Los Angeles and Washington D.C.
Jean Augustine made history in 1993 by becoming the first Canadian Black woman to be elected to Canada’s House of Commons. Her story is inspirational and serves as a tribute to all of the Black women in Canada aspiring to be part of the legal profession. Augustine was born in 1937, and immigrated to Canada in her early twenties. She started her career teaching, and shortly after worked her way up to principal, all while being a single mother. She was an educator who was extremely passionate about instigating change in her community.
Although Augustine did not study to become a lawyer, she remained an integral member of Parliament from 1993 to 2006. During this time, her working positions include Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Chair of the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committee, Minister of Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, Chair of the Human Rights Committee, and three-time Chair of the National Women’s Caucus.
Augustine’s mission is to change the lives of marginalized groups, particularly members of the Black community and women. She helped implement legislation in order to achieve this reform, such as protecting low-income single mothers and passing billsto designate February as Black history month.
These organizations and success stories have illuminated the need to make the legal profession more diverse and inclusive of Black women. The perseverance of so many women serves as hope and inspiration for the challenges that come with intersectionality in the legal field.