BY DIANA BANKS
For the 24th consecutive year, the Harvard chapter of the Black Law Students Association hosted its Spring Conference event, drawing 300 registered participants from all over the country. This year’s conference featured the theme, “A Motley Mission: Rethinking our Role as Black Lawyers” drawing upon the word “motley” as something that is varied and multifaceted, and the name of legendary Black attorney and judge Constance Baker Motley. Motley was the first Black woman to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court and the original drafter of the complaint in Brown v. Board of Education. The goal of the conference was to explore the multifaceted role of Black lawyers as both legal professionals and representatives and leaders of the Black community.
The conference took place in Austin Hall, with some events being hosted in the Sheraton Commander Hotel. The conference kicked off on Friday with lunch at the Sheraton. Traditionally, HBLSA has asked guest speakers or alumni to present at the kickoff luncheon. This year, conference participants were given a special treat: a moderated discussion and short film directed by HBLSA member Cole Wiley. Wiley is a freelance writer who will begin film school at NYU in the fall. Fitting with the conference’s overall theme, Wiley’s film Search For The New Land explores the consequences of individual choice on larger communities and the balance of profession, community, and sense of self.
Friday afternoon featured a political action panel discussion on “Stepping Up and Moving Forward: Black Lawyers as Political Leaders” exploring how Black lawyers can lead and serve communities. The panel speakers were Professor. J. Phillip Thompson, Associate Professor of Urban Politics at MIT, Tanya Acker, an independent media, legal and political consultant, and Leecia Eve, a 2006 candidate for Lieutenant Governor of New York state and current Senior Policy Advisor to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The panel conversation repeatedly turned to the question of whether Black communities in particular are better served by a focus on electoral politics or by building organized constituencies that will operate independently of election cycles. Ms. Eve spoke of the “courage” it takes to run for office and urged students in the audience to recognize their “tremendous power and potential” to think creatively about the challenges facing communities of color and how those challenges can be addressed.
While this year’s conference theme focused on the roles that Black lawyers play in the legal community and the Black community, there were still events for those concerned with workplace and work life issues, particularly in large law firms. Saturday featured a corporate lunch and career fair, featuring law firms such as Cravath, Covington and Burling, Paul Hastings, Simpson Thatcher, Skadden, and the McKinsey & Company consulting group. An “Off the Record” discussion about the real implications of being a lawyer of color in a large law firm, among other issues, was also featured. Conference goers had the chance to discuss pressing issues and questions in groups of six to ten people at a time. The understanding was that no quotes would emerge from the discussion, encouraging those who were there to speak more candidly about their own views and experiences.
Saturday rounded out the conference events with several panels on race and its impact on higher education. The early morning panel, held jointly with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute on Race and Justice, featured strategies for rethinking affirmative action policies. The weekend snowstorm proved the biggest challenge to this panel, as a few of the scheduled speakers were unable to attend due to cancelled flights. Among the weather casualties were Ward Connerly, the University of California Regent who was instrumental in ending the use of affirmative action in the UC system, and Ted Shaw, Director-Counsel and President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
UCLA Professor Richard Sander, author of several studies on Black law students, discussed his work and its implications for the use of affirmative action. “I appreciated the fact that Professor Sander was willing to come before a crowd of people who undoubtedly disagreed with his life’s work and opened himself up to honest debate and questioning,” said 3L Taj Wilson. “While I disagreed with most of his underlying presumptions and measurements regarding the impact of affirmative action, it was a nice change to be able to engage in such a debate in person.”
Saturday afternoon brought another panel on Harvard and Race, with a discussion by Harvard’s Senior Vice Provost on Diversity Evelynn M. Hammonds, Visiting Professor Daniel Coquillette, Diversity Consultant Sharon Jones, and HLS 3L Alexandria Lee. “The panel was enlightening in that we saw how as students of color we are quietly bearing the burden of subtle racism every day at this institution, but there are institutional channels to pursue to have our concerns addressed,” said 3L Antonia Floyd. “It was thought provoking and urgently necessary.” Others agreed, and the panel will now be a fixture for future Spring Conferences.
The conference ended with Sunday’s Inspirational Brunch, held at the Sheraton. Sponsored by Bryan Cave, the brunch wrapped up the successful weekend. Harvard BLSA Members, Harvard Black Alumni, distinguished speakers, panelists, and guests came together to establish connections and community while rethinking their roles as black lawyers.