When I was 15, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By that time, I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer. I had grown up seeing how not having a lawyer caused misfortune for minorities across the county.
When I was 35, I graduated from North Carolina Central University Law School in Durham and became a lawyer, first with Legal Services, to help people who had few resources and needed a lot of help.
Through the years, the number of Africans Americans becoming lawyers in South Carolina is not very impressive. While blacks comprise about 30 percent of the state's population, they represent only about 11 percent of South Carolina's attorneys. They represent about one in 10 judges in our court system.
While the work of my parents and my generation was to fight for civil rights to open doors of opportunity and rid South Carolina of segregation, we still have work to do to ensure better diversity among our Bar and bench. More diversity will allow our system of justice to reflect the shared values that exist in all neighborhoods across the Palmetto State. If South Carolina continues its present trends, then little hope exists for significant increases in diversity in the legal profession in my lifetime.
Fortunately, there may be some hope with a new approach in the near future. The Charleston School of Law, a private law school, is poised to dramatically boost diversity in the legal profession if its proposed sale to the InfiLaw System goes through as it should later this year. InfiLaw has the potential to graduate a more diverse group of graduates than ever before in our state.
InfiLaw's national record illustrates the following:
The Charlotte School of Law, just 200 miles from Charleston, had an entering class in 2013 made up of 50 percent minority students. As a whole, the school's minority population of students is 39.7 percent, according to InfiLaw.
Similarly, minority students comprise 37.7 percent of students at Florida Coastal School of Law, just a four-hour ride from Charleston in Jacksonville.
The story is the same at Arizona Summit School of Law in Phoenix where 41.5 percent of students - mostly of Hispanic heritage - are minority students.
How does InfiLaw make its law schools look like more of the communities it serves? First, one of its key missions is to provide access to individuals and groups who have been underrepresented in the legal profession. It works hard to find minority students who can excel despite test scores that might indicate otherwise. Second, InfiLaw invests in legal clinics to give students practical experience in underserved communities under the supervision of professor-attorneys. And third, InfiLaw works hard to provide the support that underrepresented students may need so they can graduate and pass the Bar.
My House colleague, John R. King of York, currently is a student at the Charlotte School of Law. He is very impressed with the collaborative, professional, legal education he's getting. He feels, as I do, that InfiLaw will bolster programs and diversity in Charleston.
Across South Carolina, our minority communities, particularly in heavily rural areas, need more lawyers - white and black - who can provide them with the legal services they're lacking.
Instead of denigrating InfiLaw, let's welcome InfiLaw and encourage its commitment to diversity so our legal professionals in South Carolina can look more like the people they help.
North Charleston attorney J. Seth Whipper represents District 113 in the South Carolina House of Representatives. He is a Democrat.
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