March 01, 2018 GPSolo

One African-American Lawyer’s Story: Environment, Fate, Providence, Persistence, and Luck

By Jeffrey C. Robinson

Some people know from an early age what their destiny is in life and what they hope to become. Usually, but not always, these people have role models—a parent who is a lawyer, a cousin who is a doctor, an uncle who is an engineer, a friend who is an architect—and the idea of pursuing such a profession is not far-fetched or foreign to them. On the other hand, there are those who don’t have the benefit of association with people in a profession, who don’t have any clue as to what it takes to enter certain professions, who have practically no guidance from anyone in that profession, and yet who somehow still manage to pursue professions that as a child were inconceivable. This is the story of one such lawyer, an African American born in rural Alabama in the 1950s who overcame and became a successful lawyer in a solo practice. Was it the environment, fate, providence, persistence, luck, or a combination of all these that proved instrumental in the attorney’s journey to become a sole practitioner?

Environment. First, in rural Alabama in the 1950s, most if not all professional African Americans were teachers and/or clergy. Indeed, these were the people in the African-American community in the small towns of Alabama whose sartorial attire was impeccable, whose standing in the community was undeniable, and who required the utmost respect of the members from the community. Hence, the teachers and preachers were the people who inspired those in the community and who the children aspired to be like. Indeed, although there were African Americans in larger cities in Alabama in professional positions, the number in professional positions in the rural communities was then, as today, negligible. However, the inspiration gained from the teachers and preachers, particularly the teachers, in the community inspired this young man to pursue the goal of being a college professor.

Fate. After completing all the classes for his master’s degree and PhD in English, and only lacking the dissertation, fate intervened. He accepted a teaching job at Fort Valley State College, a historically black college in Fort Valley, Georgia. Although Fort Valley was a rural community in the South, it possessed what W.E.B. Du Bois called the Talented Tenth. The community was home to several other African-American professionals in the community besides the teachers and the clergy—an African-American intelligentsia, if you will. In fact, close neighbors were a dentist, doctor, and attorney. Having this much African-American intellect in such close proximity was eye-opening. After conversing with these professionals, especially with the attorney, at gatherings, the young teacher’s interest was piqued to become a lawyer.

Providence. After working in Fort Valley for a number of years, God intervened with divine providence and sent him back to rural Alabama to care for his aging parents. Accepting another teaching job at the University of Montevallo, Montevallo, Alabama, and still interested in the law, and close to Birmingham, Alabama, the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, he decided to take a few law classes at night. By the time he finished torts and criminal law, he knew that his calling was to be a lawyer. Although he would be allowed to take the bar examination, the pass/fail rate for the school he attended was horrendous. Nonetheless, he trudged on with the classes, knowing that his destiny was to be a lawyer.

Persistence. Looking in the want ads section of the Birmingham News, he noticed that a personal injury law firm was looking for mock jury participants in a mock trial for a case; he applied and was accepted as one of the participants. Not one to let an opportunity pass him by, he took his résumé with him in the hope of landing a position as a clerk at the firm. His persistence paid off, and he was offered a position and was able to keep his teaching job as well as work part-time as a law clerk in one of the largest and most prestigious personal injury firms in Birmingham.

Luck. While clerking at the firm with several students from other law schools whose record for passing the bar examination was much better than the school he attended, he joined their study group to prepare for the examination. This not only gave him an advantage with the classes he was taking, but also clarified many things in the classes he had completed. After graduation from law school, he took the bar examination and passed it, thanks, in part, to luck, and to his availing himself of the study group.

Combination. Ultimately, there is not one particular thing that cleared the path for him to become an attorney. As an African-American child born in the 1950s in rural Alabama, the only professional opportunities available were the clergy and teaching. Using his teachers as role models inspired him to seek a position as a college professor. Then, fate took him to where he needed to be to see other African Americans doing other things besides teaching. Moreover, God and providence sent him back to Alabama to care for his ailing parents and to start studying law to take the bar examination. Next, his persistence got him a job as a clerk in a most prestigious personal injury firm, and it was pure luck that he joined the study group that helped him pass the bar examination. Thus, a combination of the environment, fate, providence, persistence, and luck all played an important part and role in the journey for this African-American lawyer to become a successful sole practitioner.

The person presented in this article is not just one person, but a fictitious character created by the author from talking to various minorities and the poor over the years. If there is any resemblance to any one person and/or several people, it is completely by accident. As such, this article features a smorgasbord of challenges that a minority or poor individual might face if seeking a career as a professional, trying to enroll in a professional school, and succeeding in a profession not normally sought and unrepresented by minorities. White students, for instance, increasingly are clustering at selective institutions, while African Americans, Hispanics, the poor, and other minorities attend open-access and community colleges. The financial implications of this disparity are huge: Ten years after graduation, graduates of selective institutions earn an average of $67,000 a year, about $18,000 more than those who graduate from non-selective schools (Michael A. Fletcher, “Minorities and Hispanics Follow Unequal College Paths, Report Says,” Washington Post, 2013).

Finally, the higher education system is colorblind in theory, but, in fact, operates at least partly as a systematic barrier for many minorities. If you group this systemic racism with other basic trials and tribulations that minorities and the poor face, such as the ones noted in this article, then it should come as no surprise they are underrepresented in the legal profession. Many others besides minorities should see themselves in this article; however, it is the “two-ness,” where minorities must navigate their world and the larger “white world” in order to survive, that W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of, and that makes this article particularly relevant to minorities and the poor.

Jeffrey C. Robinson

Jeffrey C. Robinson is a sole practitioner in Selma, Alabama. A college professor for more than 20 years, he was inspired to attend law school to try to help the poor and downtrodden with affordable (sometimes to the point of being free) yet excellent legal help. After more than 18 years of practicing law in small-town Alabama, he firmly believes that he has made a difference, albeit small, in the lives of the poor and downtrodden. He hopes to continue making a difference for years to come.