The quest to get more Black attorneys in Pittsburgh

FIRST-YEAR LAW SCHOOL STUDENT JAMILAH WESLEY, left, with Common Pleas Judge Nicola Henry-Taylor. Judge Henry-Taylor is both a mentor to Black law school students in Pittsburgh and an employer in the Allegheny County Bar Association’s “Summer Clerkship” program.

Blacks account for less than 5 percent of all attorneys in the region, ACBA says


Jamilah Wesley was too excited for the start of law school.

The Richmond, Virginia, native, who just graduated from Old Dominion University (in Norfolk), paraded into the auditorium at Duquesne University, as did the 150 or so other first-year law students.

When the big doors closed, she looked around, and realized that, by her count, there were only three other African Americans in the auditorium.


“It was just mind-blowing,” Wesley told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview, July 11. “Coming from where I come from, coming here it was drastically different. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

It’s no secret that Pittsburgh isn’t Philadelphia, or Richmond, or Cleveland, in terms of its African American population. The city proper continues to lose African American residents; a 27 percent Black population in 2000 has dwindled to about 22 percent today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A Gender Equity Commission report in 2019 revealed that Pittsburgh was one of the worst places in the country economically for African Americans.

And it’s no secret that the Black professionals’ population in Pittsburgh isn’t large when compared to many other places. The Allegheny County Bar Association (ACBA) sports roughly 5,500 members—but less than 175 members, or less than 3 percent, are Black.

Kellie Ware, Esq., the new director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for ACBA, estimated that there may be 50 or so Black attorneys in the Pittsburgh region who are not part of ACBA. Thus, according to Ware, stating that there are less than 250 Black lawyers in the Pittsburgh region…”I would say that is a fair statement to make,” she said.


The Allegheny County Bar Association has a “Summer Clerkship” program, now in its 17th year, which aims to help Black law students and other students of color, those with disabilities or who identify as LGBTQ, connect with corporations in Pittsburgh. That connection leads to real-world practice in the law field, and could lead to future employment with that corporation.

“We have a strong commitment to diversity, especially around Black attorneys and creating more Black attorneys,” Ware told the Courier in an exclusive interview, July 6.

This summer, 11 Black law school students who just completed their first year are participating in the clerkship program. The number of “11,” depending on which way the wind blows, could be viewed as a “high” number or a “low” number. But due to Pittsburgh’s relatively low Black native population, and its reputation across the country for not being a “Black mecca,” the number of Black law school students in the Pittsburgh area is minuscule at best.

The summer clerkship program is open to first-year law students from four law schools—Pitt, Duquesne, Penn State (main campus) and West Virginia. A Courier data analysis from a Standard 509 required disclosure submitted to the American Bar Association revealed that for 2021-22, Black first-year law students ac counted for just 6 percent (26) of the total enrolled (424). As of Oct. 5, 2021, Penn State had 11 African American students labeled “JD1” (first-year), Pitt had 9, Duquesne had 5, and WVU had 1.

Those same schools awarded J.D. degrees to 511 students in the spring of 2021; just 19 (3.7 percent) were Black.

Ware said the Allegheny County Bar Association would love to include more African Americans in its summer clerkship program, but with just 26 Black first-year law students in those four law schools (11 of those who study at Penn State’s main campus, 140 miles from Pittsburgh), the vast majority of Black first-year law students in Allegheny County are already in the clerkship program (11 of 14).

Two of those Black first-year law students are Wesley and Adger Drummond; both are enrolled in the Duquesne University School of Law. Both are not from Pittsburgh. Wesley, as mentioned, is from Richmond, Va.; Drummond is from Greenville, S.C.; both cities have larger African American population percentages than Pittsburgh.

Drummond has family in Pennsylvania, and after graduating from the University of South Carolina, decided to choose Duquesne for law school. Wesley liked the small, collegial feel of Duquesne’s law school, and she was accepted into the law school without ever stepping foot in Pittsburgh before.

Wesley is currently at Babst Calland, the seventh-largest law firm in Pittsburgh. It’s headquarted in Two Gateway Center, Downtown. Drummond is at Ogeltree Deakins, a labor and law employment law firm with offices at One PPG Place, Downtown.

They told the Courier they are enjoying their time in Pittsburgh for law school, but both have reservations on if they will remain in Pittsburgh long-term when they finish law school and become a practicing attorney. Many Black professionals who are not from Pittsburgh have expressed in countless studies and media reports a desire to leave the city due to its perceived lack of a large Black culture. Other African Americans who are Pittsburgh natives have left the city to attend college in, say, Washington, D.C., Chicago or Atlanta, and enjoyed the Black culture there so much that they didn’t want to return to Pittsburgh.

“In Pittsburgh, there is a great sense of community to be an African American attorney here,” Wesley told the Courier. “I’m not sure if this is where I want to be long-term. Being from the Virginia area, “DMV” (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) area, there are just things there that, no matter how much you try to find groups here…as a Black student there are just things that it’s sort of hard to duplicate if you come from (my) background.”

Wesley, however, did say that she’s met Black students and professionals from smaller, rural areas in the Midwest who “love Pittsburgh.”

Wesley’s focus is on real estate or corporate law. She said working at Babst Calland has shown her that “how you learn the law in law school is not necessarily how you apply it in real life.” Wesley said when there’s “actual practice” occurring, “there’s a whole bunch of other factors that need to be considered other than what you learn in class. Things you have to consider that you wouldn’t even think about.”

As she traverses Pittsburgh in her quest to become an attorney, she told the Courier she sometimes feels “alone” in that quest. “I come from Richmond, Va., so it was more frequent to see Black professionals than I have seen up here,” she said. “On the other hand, the Allegheny County Bar Association has been very supportive,” as she’s been able to connect with Black attorneys who are part of the ACBA’s Homer S. Brown (primarily African American) Division.

It’s yet to be determined whether the election of Ed Gainey as Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor will generate more Black professionals either staying or migrating to the City of Bridges. And there are organizations such as Vibrant Pittsburgh, headed by Sabrina Saunders Mosby, an African American woman, that constantly work to make Pittsburgh’s corporate world a more inclusive place for African American professionals. But Wesley, as she begins her second full year in Pittsburgh, said that “retention is hard, especially (with Pittsburgh) competing with other markets like D.C., Atlanta, Houston, Charlotte, New York, Philly, where you have a lot of opportunities.”

Drummond is ready for his second full year in Pittsburgh, too. Right now he’s studying labor and employment law at Ogletree Deakins until August. He told the Courier he also feels there’s a lack of a “Black base” in Pittsburgh from an affluent standpoint. “But I will say that the base that is here as far as Black lawyers, they’ll take care of you, they’ll make sure that you’re not going without, they’ll make sure that you’re heard,” he said.

Drummond added: “The Black lawyers here have definitely opened their arms to me. It’s not many of them, but the ones that are here are full of substance.”

Drummond did not rule out leaving Pittsburgh after earning his law degree. He did notice, though, a significant number of “Black people in Pittsburgh who are successful who aren’t necessarily from Pittsburgh. So, I think that for those of us who find themselves in Pittsburgh, it’s our duty to try to cultivate that (Black) base, grow that base and not only try to take advantage of the opportunities, but get into a position where we can create some opportunities (for others).”




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