Underrepresented: Attorneys of Color in Niche Practice Areas

Lawrence Pittman
People of color only represent 14.1 percent of all attorneys within the field of law.

People of color only represent 14.1 percent of all attorneys within the field of law.

Hiraman via iStock

To hear more about this topic, please consider attending the ABA Young Lawyers Division Spring Conference. The program, “Alternative Paths: People of Color in Less Common Legal Practice Areas,”  occurring on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, at 3:30 p.m. EST, will feature a conversation with attorneys who have forged paths in areas of the law with low representation, like alternative dispute resolution, property law, and environmental law.

Support Black-Owned Business, Buy Black, Minding my Black-Owned Business—these phrases illustrate the availability to buy products and services owned and operated by African Americans. Imagine a client seeking a Black-owned law firm to handle their legal matters. It sounds like a challenging task, but an achievable one depending on the legal issue. However, consider seeking a Black-owned patent law firm, energy-environmental law firm, or, more specifically, a cannabis law firm.

According to the 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession report by the American Bar Association, people of color only represent 14.1 percent of all attorneys within the field of law. The lack of attorneys of color in niche practice areas is a fundamental problem. Suppose a client is seeking a minority attorney in health law because the minority attorney will appreciate the cultural circumstances surrounding their issue. In that case, the client’s legal needs may go unmet, leading to the inability to represent the client effectively. The underrepresentation only compounds as minorities may not know certain practice areas even exist or may not see these niche areas as desirable or supportive of diverse attorneys. This can also lead to exclusionism and give the impression that minority attorneys cannot practice in these areas of law, which further pigeonholes attorneys of color to practice in more general areas such as criminal, business, and labor and employment law.

Mentorship and Sponsorship

As a Black male environmental attorney, I understand the significance of being in a practice area that has not achieved representative diversity. Today, children of color interested in environmental law can look to soon-to-be US Senate-approved Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan. As a young attorney entering an area of law that is not very diverse, I found value in having attorneys I could relate to—attorneys willing to provide insight, advice, and advocate on my behalf. I found mentors and sponsors who created a supportive network that helped me stay encouraged during the tough times.

Breaking Barriers

Attorneys of color are barrier breakers, ceiling smashers, and people who create their own seats at the table. We must have the same attitude and passion for being the few among many in these specialized areas of law. When we bring our entire identities to these practice areas, ideals, customs, and policies change. A great example of this in action is the CROWN Act. The CROWN Act stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” The law prohibits discrimination based on hairstyles by extending statutory protections to hair texture and styles, such as braids, locs, or twists. In developing these spaces, we signify that people of color can be successful and advocate for and advance our communities.

Exploring Niche Practice Areas

With such low representation of attorneys of color within the field of law, we need to continue to support expanding our purview of practice areas. We need to find more ways to encourage minority youth to pursue legal careers in areas of law where they will not only stand out but also make a difference.

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Lawrence Pittman is an assistant regional counsel for the US Environmental Protection Agency within the RCRA & Toxic Enforcement Branch in Region 6—Dallas, Texas.