This summer, the deaths of George Floyd and others sparked demands for systemic reform, including in the legal profession. And law schools were among the institutions that jumped at the opportunity.
Now, five Black women law school deans will be recognized for their efforts to reshape legal education and provide law students and young lawyers with the tools needed to combat racism.
“In law school leadership, many people have often asked the question of what am I supposed to do, how am I supposed to react to these horrendous events, and what can I do as a leader of a law school to respond,” said Penn State Dickinson Law Dean Danielle M. Conway.
“That is what’s been the greatest impact. Showing your colleagues how they can respond,” she added.
The Association of American Law Schools (AALS), one of the country’s leading voices in legal education, will award Conway, Washburn University School of Law Dean Carla D. Pratt, Howard University School of Law Dean Danielle Holley-Walker, Boston University School of Law Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig, and Rutgers Law School Dean Kimberly Mutcherson, with its inaugural Impact Award in a virtual ceremony on Jan. 5, 2021. The deans will be noted for their work in helping the group create the Law Deans Antiracist Clearinghouse Project in the wake of nationwide protests over racial equality.
Conway reached out to the other deans about the idea after Floyd’s death.
“Danielle Conway video called me one day and held up a photo of Black faces and she didn’t say a word. I knew that those were the faces of Black people who had been killed by police action. She then held up another collage of photos with the Black law school deans. Danielle said any one of these faces on this dean collage could be over on the other photo and she was right. I have a Black son and when I saw George Floyd, I saw my son. Danielle really was the one who said let’s do something collectively,"Pratt said.
Launched in June, the project offers a website for law school administrators and faculty with resources, including books, articles, and studies, to address racism in legal education.
AALS’ recognition of the project comes at a time when there are more Black women law deans than ever, Pratt said. According to the AALS directory, there are 19 minority women law deans, including the five women being honored.
“It’s a moment to celebrate,” she said. “To have AALS, one of the core institutions in legal education, recognize us says that they see us and value our contribution to legal education.”
Four of the five award recipients spoke separately with Bloomberg Law about what the recognition means for representation in the legal profession and how the presidential election may impact legal education.
These conversations have been edited for clarity and length.
Bloomberg Law: What does winning the AALS’ inaugural Impact Award mean to you?
Carla D. Pratt, dean at Washburn University School of Law: For me, it was validating because you get pushback when you’re doing this kind of work and sometimes it makes you question if you should be doing what you’re doing.
To get that kind of recognition from AALS was just a wonderful thing.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean at Boston University School of Law: The other deans and I have all grown up in a world where if you’re African American and you start talking about racism, it can be viewed as not appropriate because it’s a topic that so many white people don’t talk about. So, this recognition shows that it’s not only appropriate but it’s important work and necessary and this is the exact kind of impact that law deans and law schools should have.
Bloomberg Law: Why is seeing five Black women law school deans achieve something like this important for representation?
Danielle M. Conway, dean of Penn State Dickinson Law: Representation is critical.
For other upcoming young Black lawyers, especially women, the message of us winning this and being recognized for this work is straightforward. It says I’m holding this seat for you and I’m warming it for you because you’re going to do many more things that are much better than what we’re doing today.
Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of Howard University School of Law: The AALS recognizing five Black women law school deans shows what happens when leadership in an industry becomes more diverse in general. It means you have a voice that’s deemed important.
Bloomberg Law: Why did you decide to create the Law Deans Antiracist Clearinghouse Project?
Conway: More than representation alone, it was about how we as Black women were experiencing leadership [positions] and what our communities were asking of us.
Also, it was about what our students were asking of the 200+ law deans. Our community was asking for answers about fairness and justice and equity, particularly in the criminal law system. We heard questions. Why are we continuously seeing this disproportionate impact on Black and Brown people? What are law schools obligated to do?
After the murder of George Floyd, there was an emotional toll on us as parents and mothers and aunts of Black children, so that was the unifying theme of the project.
Bloomberg Law: What was the reception from your law school colleagues and the general public of the project?
Pratt: My students, as well as other deans across the country were very supportive and appreciative. And people in leadership were saying they would take the framework and use it at their school and get their faculty to talk about what it looks like to create an anti-racist agenda.
Every school is different. There’s no one size fits all when doing this type of work and we recognize that but wanted to create some framework to get people to get started.
Onwuachi-Willig: From the Black community, the reception was very appreciative because we used our platforms to make statements so they felt less compelled or pressured or burdened to speak.
My students were thankful too because many Black students are doing this work on top of the work of being a law student which is really unfair.
The response from the white community has also been positive. They wanted to be involved.
Bloomberg Law: What are your hopes and expectations for the project now?
Pratt: Deans and law professors have a unique opportunity to reshape legal education.
I was really surprised at how many lawyers initially said that there was no systemic racism. I saw that that was our fault because we didn’t teach them about it while they were in law school.
So, what I’m hoping is that law schools, we can reimagine our curriculum and make sure that no one graduates from law school without understanding how race and racism have impacted law and other institutions in our society and continues to impact them.
With that shared understanding we have a better opportunity to collectively combat racism together.
Holley-Walker: I’m hopeful because what I’ve been hearing from law students nationwide is that they’re even further along than their professors in the leadership in terms of believing that this profession is one that can make a huge impact in terms of creating more racial justice in the U.S. and around the world.