In Their Own Words
A Black History Month roundtable discussion with African American deans at Texas law schools.
Moderated by Miles J. LeBlanc
Of the 10 accredited law schools in Texas, three of them currently have Black deans. They are: (1) Leonard M. Baynes, University of Houston Law Center; (2) Joan R.M. Bullock, Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law; and (3) Felecia Epps, UNT Dallas College of Law. Not only is this an unprecedented development in legal education in Texas, but it also runs counter to the prevailing underrepresentation of African Americans in the legal profession, as evidenced by the fact that Blacks comprise 12.8% of the population of Texas but are only a paltry 6% of Lone Star State lawyers. Given the foregoing facts, it is remarkable that 30% of Texas law school deans are African American.
In celebration of Black History Month, these Black deans can offer valuable insight into issues related to legal education generally, as well as, in particular, how being African American informs their perspective on issues related to Black law students and attorneys.
Moderator: Thank you for taking time out of your
busy schedules to participate in this roundtable discussion. I will
start by asking the obvious first question:
Why did you decide to pursue a career in law?
Dean Baynes: My parents were immigrants from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. They were brilliant and hard working, but given life circumstances, they did not have college degrees. In fact, my father did not graduate from high school. But they believed in education and sent all their children to Catholic elementary and/or high school. That is where I developed my love of learning. At that time, smart Black kids became either lawyers or doctors. I did not like the sight of blood, and I loved history so that is what made me decide to become a lawyer as an ambition at an early age.
Dean Bullock: Over the years, I have been asked this question and I have always given the same answer: I grew up watching Perry Mason and I wanted to be a lawyer because of that show. While that is a true statement, it is an incomplete answer. Left from the discourse is a discussion of how growing up in segregated Montgomery, Alabama, shaped my views on what I needed to become to ensure my own and others’ right to experience the benefits of full citizenship. Growing up, I personally experienced standing in the “colored line” waiting to make a deposit to my savings account at a bank; watching a park close down rather than allow persons like me to frequent; and attending inadequately funded, poorly supported, segregated elementary and junior high schools. It was a time during which everything, and everyone, had a place. Even before I could outwardly articulate or identify what others might consider as inconvenient truths, I inwardly felt the urgency to move beyond the place. I viewed becoming a lawyer as the avenue, the pathway, and platform, by which my drive for self-actualization would coincide with my resolve to live in a country that would strive to align its deeds with the ideals espoused by its Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Dean Epps: In seventh grade, I became fascinated with what I thought lawyers did. I used to watch Perry Mason and L.A. Law. I thought that it would be interesting to represent people in court. I have always enjoyed reading and in high school I read books about several major criminal trials—the stories of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Dr. Samuel Sheppard, to name a few.
I majored in political science in college. Some of what I was
studying involved the law and government. I decided to follow through
with my plan to attend law school with hopes of one day becoming a
courtroom advocate. I did not realize at the time the amount of work
that leads up to a court appearance.
Where did you attend law school and how was your law school experience? Specifically, as a 1L, did you feel that you were prepared for the rigors of law school?
Dean Baynes: I graduated from Columbia Law School. At the time, there were very few students of color and only one African American professor, Kellis Parker, and one woman professor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Professor Parker taught contracts, and Professor Ginsburg taught civil procedure. Law school felt very much like the Paper Chase. The classes were very large, the faculty was not accessible, and grading was based on one exam at the end of the semester. Given my family background, I had to work super hard to not only learn the law but also adjust to the culture of legal education.
Dean Bullock: I attended the University of Toledo. It was a pleasant experience. The professors were approachable, and the small learning environment was a welcome change after graduating from the large campus environment of Michigan State University, or MSU. I felt prepared for law school because: (1) I was always a decent writer and I honed my writing skills in the rigorous writing program at MSU’s James Madison College and (2) I participated in the Council of Legal Education Opportunity, or CLEO, program the summer preceding my law school enrollment. CLEO provided me with the methodical framework by which I approached my legal studies.
Dean Epps: I attended Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, Nebraska. I was prepared for hard work and 1L year was hard work. I attended Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. It is a small liberal arts college. Critical reading and writing were emphasized in the curriculum at Cornell. I was good at both of those things. That prepared me for the challenge of law school.
If you could redo your 1L year, what would you do differently? Put another way, if you could go back in time and have a one-on-one discussion with yourself before the start of your 1L year, what advice would you provide? How would your experience as a Black law student and practicing attorney inform your advice?
Dean Baynes: There were three things that I was not prepared for when I was a law school student. First, I was unprepared for how homogeneous my faculty and classmates were. Second, I was unprepared for the Socratic method of teaching and the unavailability of faculty to answer questions after class. Third, I was unprepared for some of the microaggressions that I encountered from random people who were often not classmates who took it upon themselves to interrogate my qualifications as if they wanted to determine for themselves whether I was “rightfully” admitted to my law school.
If I were to have a conversation with my younger self, I would say: “Just chill! You are going to be the dean of one of the leading law schools in Texas. These early experiences are formative for your development.” In 2020, only 5% of the lawyers in the U.S. are African American; in Texas, it is a little higher at 6%. Having to navigate a very homogenous legal community is something that you will have to get used to, and you will grow to appreciate it as a skill that many of your peers do not have. Second, the Socratic method will provide you with experience navigating difficult people, situations, and questions ensuring that you will come well prepared for any meeting or stressful situation. Plus, as a faculty member, I pledged to use the Socratic method in a gentler manner than some of my instructors. Third, you will learn to develop a thick skin around the microaggressions. Some people do not mean to be mean. They just are not able to imagine a person from a diverse background in certain positions. Your success will serve as a pathway for others. You sometimes must overlook others’ bad behavior or ignorance. The bottom line is that I am who I am, and I cannot worry about what other people think.
Dean Bullock: I would get involved in more activities that would get me out of the casebook and provide more interaction with practicing attorneys. It is one thing to have book knowledge and academic success; it is another thing to find success in practice. The adage of “it’s not what you know, but who you know and what they know about you” is the variable added to academic performance to complete the success equation. The importance of this “relationship” variable cannot be sufficiently underscored and should be actively acknowledged in the 1L year. This is critical for the Black law student who, in many instances, has little to no exposure to members of the practicing bar and how those members look for and evaluate future talent.
Dean Epps: I focused on my studies my first year to the exclusion of everything else. I did not study in a group. I would advise myself to share the experience with other students. Building those relationships is important. Law school is stressful. Sharing the experience with others on the same journey is important.
As stated in the introduction to this roundtable discussion, Blacks comprise 12.8% of the population of Texas but only 6% of lawyers. What steps are you taking to increase the number of Blacks matriculating at your law school?
Dean Baynes: We are pursuing one traditional method to boost minority enrollment by outreach to students from underrepresented backgrounds. For instance, the UH Law Center recruits at historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, and Hispanic-serving-institutions. We hold a diversity reception for students of underrepresented backgrounds who are admitted to the UH Law Center.
The UH Law Center has a variety of other programs called Houston Law Express that are designed to level the playing field for students from underrepresented backgrounds by either removing barriers to entry or working to boost entry credentials. There are four programs that fall into this category.
First, the UH Law Center has a 3+3 program with the University of Houston Honors College and the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. The program allows students to earn both an undergraduate degree and a law degree in just six years, instead of seven. This program lowers barriers by eliminating one year of college.
Second, the UH Law Center may admit up to 10% of its J.D. class from undergraduate students matriculated at the University of Houston main campus without an applicant LSAT score provided that (1) the student has scored at or above the 85th percentile on the ACT or SAT and (2) the student has achieved a cumulative GPA of 3.6 or above through at least six semesters of academic work. This program lowers barriers by eliminating the LSAT for a select group of law school applicants.
Third, starting in next year’s admissions cycle, the UH Law Center will admit students with a GRE score in addition to students who have taken the LSAT. This program lowers barriers because it means that the student must complete only one graduate school standardized test while an undergraduate. It also allows the student to apply to law school and other graduate programs at the same time.
Fourth, for the past six years, the UH Law Center has run the award-winning UHLC PreLaw Pipeline Program for college students from low-income, first generation, and underrepresented backgrounds, which is designed to increase the credentials of applicants from underrepresented backgrounds.
The results have been outstanding: Program participants have increased their LSAT scores on average between 11-14 points, and over 78 have been accepted into law schools across the nation, receiving collectively over $2 million in scholarships.
Dean Bullock: The mission of Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law is consistent with the goal of increasing minority representation and, in particular, Black representation, in the Texas Bar. Thurgood Marshall School of Law has graduated 13% of active minority attorneys in Texas and has produced more Black Texas attorneys than any other law school.
Dean Epps: UNTD is one of the most diverse campuses in the country. The majority of UNTD undergraduate students are either Hispanic or African American.
Diversifying the legal profession is one of the goals of UNT Dallas College of Law. We take a holistic approach to admissions. Our approach requires that we thoroughly review each applicant, looking at more than their LSAT and GPA, to determine whether that student will be a good fit for our school. We consider a variety of things including leadership roles, military experience, graduate degrees, and life experience.
We are one of the most diverse law schools in the country. Our fall
entering class was 41% students of color and 58% women. We recruit at
HBCUs and at recruitment events targeted at students of color.
Many Black and other underrepresented minority group students are the first lawyers in their families and have little understanding and appreciation of the realities of legal education, especially the paramount importance of first-year grades in obtaining the best employment opportunities. What steps are you implementing at your respective law schools to ensure Black and other underrepresented minority students are successful academically, particularly during that all-important first year?
Dean Baynes: Given the importance of first-year grades, the UH Law Center has implemented the Academic Enrichment Program. In this program, first-year students have access to a tutor for all 1L courses. The tutors host office hours and advising sessions, offer feedback on assignments, and help the students navigate complex issues. Additionally, the UH Law Center also offers the Legal Writing Fellows Program, in which fellows assist students with their legal research and writing questions throughout the semester, as well as provide instruction in fundamental skills, such as citation, grammar, structure, and research, and mastering the art of exam writing.
In addition to the Academic Enrichment Program, during first-year orientation, the UH Law Center: (1) connects incoming students with faculty and student mentors (“mentor groups”) and (2) encourages first-year students to join diverse student organizations, including student affinity groups such as the Black Law Students Association, or BLSA; Latinx Law Students Association; Asian Law Students Association; OUTLaw; and other minority-focused organizations like First-Generation Law Students.
Finally, it is a priority at the UH Law Center that faculty, staff, and current and incoming students understand the importance of diversity and inclusion. Without ensuring that our UH Law Center community understands and respects the challenges that some of our students of color face academically, these students will likely underperform. As such, the UH Law Center has introduced diversity and inclusion trainings and workshops, focusing on implicit and explicit bias and privilege, to the entire UH Law Center community beginning as early as first-year orientation, which help our faculty and majority students foster a more inclusive and collegial environment enabling our students of color to thrive and flourish.
Dean Bullock: Education is key. In the past, law schools focused on teaching students how to think like a lawyer. Such training, however, is incomplete. Law schools must also teach students how to be a lawyer. The Thurgood Marshall School of Law’s Office of Career, Professional Development & Diversity Initiatives has taken the lead in hosting workshops and other interactive activities where members of the legal community are invited to discuss with students the expectations of those in the profession. The law school has also engaged the assistance of Mountaintop Consulting to work with students on developing soft skills that will complement their academic performance and prepare students to become not only “practice-ready” but demonstrate “practical ability” to apply the skills learned in a manner that signals immediate value to a prospective legal employer.
Dean Epps: Student success is our top priority. First and foremost, all faculty are available to assist students. Moreover, we have a comprehensive Academic Support and Bar Readiness Program that supports all of our students from fall term 1L year, past graduation, and through bar preparation.
The Office of Academic Success and Bar Readiness: (1) manages the
allocation of resources and development of programs supporting academic
success and bar readiness; (2) coordinates with faculty to incorporate
bar-focused materials and the development of bar passage skills in
substantive courses; and (3) works with individual students seeking to
reach their best performance based on their learning styles, including
bolstering core skills and knowledge, developing strategies for
effective time management, and addressing other academic challenges.
We have all heard the aphorism that in the first year of law school students are scared to death, in the second year they are worked to death, and in the third year they are bored to death. Does it have to be that way? What do you think of the idea of limiting law school to two years of instruction, and the third year consisting of an apprenticeship or internship for law students to learn the nuts and bolts of practicing law, which would serve a function analogous to a residency program for medical school graduates.
Dean Baynes: I favor the status quo. The idea of a two-year law school was an idea that was popular a few years ago. As far as I know, it has not gone anywhere. For the law schools that have adopted a two-year program, it is one that is accelerated with the same number of credit hours but with summer courses included.
I think an accelerated two-year program of legal training is fine for those students who want to graduate earlier. The challenge for the student is that it may limit their opportunities to take advantage of summer internships and other summer positions.
I strongly disagree that law schools should adopt a two-year course of programming with fewer credit hours for several reasons. First, legal education is steeped in tradition. Just about every lawyer in the nation has completed three years of legal education. So, when they seek to recruit other lawyers, they are likely to favor those with a legal education background similar to their own, which is three years.
Second, a two-year course of study would eliminate a lot of additional opportunities for students to demonstrate success, such as leadership in moot court and mock trial competitions, law reviews and journals, and other student organizations.
Third, eliminating the third year precludes students who may have had a rocky first-year academic record from having a further opportunity to demonstrate their academic abilities.
Fourth, having the third year of law school gives students an additional year to take law school subjects that correlate to those covered by the bar exam and provide students additional opportunities to improve their bar performance.
I think that a two-year course of legal study would particularly affect Black students who would be most disadvantaged by the lack of tradition, additional opportunities to demonstrate academic success, and bar-related courses to assist them with studying for the bar exam.
Dean Bullock: I would love it. It would guarantee students’ ability to experience the law in a safe and ordered environment under the joint tutelage of professors and practitioners prior to graduation.
Dean Epps: Law school intentionally provides a rigorous course of study. This is necessary because practicing law is hard work. It requires time, discipline, and commitment. I am not supportive of taking steps to lessen the challenge.
The idea of turning the third year into an apprenticeship or internship has arisen because law schools traditionally have not equipped students to practice law upon graduation. The traditional focus has been on theory rather than practical experience. At UNTD College of Law, equipping students with practice skills as well as legal knowledge is one of our goals.
We believe that it is important to provide a legal education aimed at
excellence in developing the full range of practice-related
competencies. Many of our courses provide a skills segment allowing
students to combine classroom instruction with practicing a skill
(drafting, interviewing, negotiating, oral advocacy). Additionally,
students are required to complete nine hours of experiential education.
This credit is earned in the form of a legal clinic, externship, or
other courses, all designed to allow students to do the things that
lawyers actually do.
While earning a J.D. is an accomplishment about which a law school graduate can take pride, doing so does not make one an attorney: Passing the bar does. What steps are you implementing at your law school to improve the bar passage rates of Black law graduates?
Dean Baynes: The UH Law Center has implemented several programs to improve bar passage for all graduates, including our Black students. In addition to workshops, simulated practice sessions, and one-on-one advising, we have skills courses focused on preparing for the bar exam. In recent semesters, we began having joint events between our affinity groups, including BLSA, and our bar program to encourage dialogue regarding concerns and questions surrounding the bar. This collaboration allows our minority students to seek individualized bar prep support. Further, the UH Law Center offers bar scholarships to alleviate some students’ financial anxieties, which allows them to focus on preparing for the bar exam. Lastly, each semester, I guest lecture one class on mindfulness, meditation, and the power of positive thinking. In that class, I encourage student success.
Dean Bullock: We have placed stronger emphasis on developing students’ critical reading and writing skills in our tutoring sessions and in our academic success program. Students work with our academic success department to create an academic action plan customized to their academic progress for success in law school and on the bar. We have incorporated more timed essay writing in our courses, and students take bar prep courses in their third year. Finally, our academic success program works with our recent graduates providing mentoring, coaching, workshops, and other support while the graduates are studying for the bar.
Dean Epps: At UNT Dallas College of Law our efforts are targeted at ensuring that all of our students pass the bar exam on their first attempt. We are constantly looking for ways to improve our program so that it supports this goal.
UNT Dallas College of Law has a relationship with Barbri that allows
us to use bar preparation related materials as part of our internal bar
preparation program. As part of this relationship, students receive a
Barbri course at no additional cost to the student.
The most recent data from the National Association for Law Placement highlights racial disparities in employment outcomes for recent (Class of 2019) law graduates: “White/Caucasian graduates had the highest rate of employment in bar passage required/anticipated jobs [at] … 79.8%, while the rate … for Black … graduates [was] … 62.4%.” What can law schools do—or do better—to address such disparities?
Dean Baynes: Because many Black graduates are first- generation law students, they especially benefit from the UH Law Center’s Passport to Success Professional Development Series, involving exposure and access to career options, employers, and experience. The students are exposed to legal career resources and different practice areas, learn to create and market a strong personal brand based on prior work experience targeting legal employers, understand how to research and understand employers and their hiring processes, and learn successful strategies for gaining legal employment experience. Career development training offered to students helps to enhance employment opportunities.
Generally, legal employers consider the whole candidate when recruiting. However, a few select types of employers—large law firms and federal judges primarily—evaluate law students by using law school grade point averages as a minimum criterion. These employers also recruit very early in students’ matriculation—after the first semester and first year. This may put some first-generation students (many of whom are Black) at a disadvantage since they may take a somewhat longer period for them to learn how to earn high marks on law school exams. In addition to encouraging employers to recruit later, law schools should offer first-generation students additional academic support, such as focused training in time management, outlining, and law school test taking strategies, in order to obtain high grades during their first semester and first year of law school.
Dean Bullock: It boils down to education and exposure. There must be education on the part of both students and employers on the value of having someone on the team who has diverse perspectives, problem solves from a different angle, and interacts in ways that bring out the best in that team. There has to be exposure on the part of students and employers to demystify the “other” for the realization that there are more similarities in our humanity than there are differences in how people visually appear.
Some years ago, I worked with the American Bar Association Law Practice Division’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee in piloting a program with the six diversity-rich law schools of our HBCUs. At an event dubbed “Talk2Ten,” participating organizations had their lawyers speak to 10 law students for 10 minutes. The pilot program allowed practicing attorneys to find law students and engage with them in face-to-face online video meetings, and the goal was to encourage real, personal interaction among practicing attorneys and a diverse set of students. The pilot, while short lived, was successful. Lawyers from firms that did not have HBCU law schools on their interview schedules were impressed with their discussions and many agreed to serve as mentors to the students with whom they spoke. While the goal of the program was not to create job opportunities for the participating students, it was necessary exposure for all and did provide an opportunity for students to broaden their network and further their careers.
Dean Epps: Through our Office of Career and Professional Development, UNT Dallas College of Law offers resources that help students effectively utilize their law degree as they navigate a changing job market.
I do not think addressing this disparity is an issue for the schools
to address. Our role is to educate and equip students so that they are
ready to enter the job market. UNT Dallas College of Law provides
students assistance in preparing for the job search and in finding jobs.
Employers have to be ready to look broadly at what a student brings to
the work environment and be willing to extend opportunities.
Thank you for your participation in this roundtable discussion. Do you have any closing remarks?
Dean Baynes: Law school education provides students with premier training that allows them to succeed in any field whether it is litigation, corporate law, alternative dispute resolution, politics, or business. More members of our society should consider getting a law degree. For students of color, the profession needs you. Your mere presence provides legitimacy to our legal system. There are many members of our community who do not have access to lawyers. So, your presence helps to provide our communities with more access to justice. Lastly, as a lawyer of color, you will see the law, and you will see the opportunities that others will see. Your diversity will be your “superpower” that gives you a leg up that others may not have.
Dean Bullock: Thank you for the opportunity to participate. My closing thought: Diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion are not about change. Diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion are about harnessing the value of persons with different experiences so that the whole can indeed be better than the sum of the individual parts.
Dean Epps: Thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts and more importantly information about the UNT Dallas College of Law. I can be reached at: LawDean@untdallas.edu if anyone has a question for me. Our admissions office can be reached at email@example.com.TBJ
MILES J. LeBLANC,
a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, is assistant general counsel to the Legal Services Department of the Houston Independent School District. His public-sector law career includes serving as an assistant district attorney in Taylor County; a law clerk for Judge Jorge A. Solis of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas; an assistant attorney general in the General Litigation, Consumer Protection, and Administrative Law divisions of the Office of the Texas Attorney General; and in-house legal counsel to the University of Houston and Houston Community College.
LEONARD M. BAYNES,
now in his seventh year as dean, is the ninth dean and first Black dean of the University of Houston Law Center. Baynes is a communications, business, and diversity law scholar. He is the co-author of the recent casebook, published by Wolters Kluwer, titled Communications Law in the Public Interest and has authored more than 25 law review articles. Baynes received the Diversity Trailblazer Award from the New York State Bar Association in 2010, was named a Diversity Champion by the National Diversity Council in 2019, and was named to the Lawyers of Color Power List by the Lawyers of Color Foundation in 2020. He received a B.S. from New York University and a J.D. and an M.B.A. from Columbia University.
JOAN R.M. BULLOCK
is the dean of Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law. A Michigan lawyer and CPA, she is a past chair of the American Bar Association Law Practice Division, or LP, and is currently representing LP in the ABA House of Delegates. Additionally, Bullock is a fellow of the American Bar Foundation and a member of the Council of the ABA Section of Science and Technology Law, serving as vice chair of its Membership and Development Committee.
as served as dean of the UNT Dallas College of Law since July 2018. She has been in legal academia for 21 years. Epps served as a judge advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps and managed the Albany Office of Georgia Legal Services Program before becoming a law professor. She is from Lonoke, Arkansas.