In 2021, we honored 5 Influential Black Female Lawyers in History as part of our homage to Black History Month. This February (2024), we celebrate modern-day pioneering Black women who’ve had an incredible legacy in the legal industry with hopes of encouraging and welcoming more young Black women’s voices into our profession.
While we’ve witnessed forward strides Black women attorneys have made, earning respected positions within the corporate landscape, the White House, and most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court, there is still a long journey ahead.
According to data cited in The State of Black Women in The Law 2023 DEIB Assessment Report, Black women comprise nearly 5% of law students and less than 1% of law firm partners.
These statistics showcase a pressing need for continued efforts to create a more equitable landscape for Black women attorneys. The goal should be not just be representation but a consistent commitment to meaningful inclusion and equity.
We’re honored to spotlight seven phenomenal Black women in the legal sphere. Their groundbreaking achievements have not only shattered long-standing barriers but played pivotal roles in shaping some of the most historic “firsts” in recent times.
Deborah A. Batts was a legal prodigy while studying at Harvard Law School, where she continually sought to apply the law in pursuit of social justice. Following her time at Harvard, Batts laid significant groundwork in academia as the first Black professor at Fordham School of Law. Her multidimensional teaching spanned crucial topics such as property law and the evolving complexities of the law as it pertains to non-traditional families.
Batts’s influence reached a historic milestone in 1994 when she became the U.S. Southern District of New York Federal Judge and the first openly gay federal judge in the U.S. She was recognized not just for her academic prowess or identity but also for her courage in navigating complex, high-stakes legal scenarios with ease and precision.
During her tenure on the federal bench, Batts ruled on several significant lawsuits that shaped societal discourse and the legal system. One of her notable decisions was in the Central Park Five case, where the five Black and Latino men wrongfully convicted of assault and rape sued the City of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. Batts opposed the City’s dismissal of the wrongful conviction lawsuit, leading to a monumental $41 million settlement.
Batts’ decisions also proved critical in demanding accountability, such as holding the Environmental Protection Agency responsible for failing to clean up after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The courage and determination of Deborah A. Batts paint an inspirational image of a truly pioneering legal mind, reminding us all about the genuine purpose of the law – to build a fair, accountable, and just society.
Loretta Lynch set a historic precedent as the first Black woman to serve as the United States Attorney General from 2015 to 2017 and the second African-American (after Eric Holder) to hold this office.
Her passion for justice was inspired by her family’s dedication to civil rights — her grandfather helped those wronged by Jim Crow laws, and her father took an active stance in local civil rights matters, often bringing Loretta to courtrooms to watch legal proceedings.
These experiences, at the intersection of civil law and social equality, deeply influenced Lynch. After studying English and American literature at Harvard University and earning her law degree from Harvard Law School, she began her career at a New York-based law firm and then joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York.
In the Eastern District, she rapidly ascended through various high-responsibility roles, ultimately being appointed as the U.S. Attorney by President Bill Clinton in 1999.
Following a stint in private practice, President Barack Obama called Lynch back into public service, affirming her as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District once again.
The culmination of Lynch’s career was her nomination and subsequent confirmation as the U.S. Attorney General after a notably lengthy and contentious debate — a testament to her resilience and legal acumen.
During Lynch’s tenure, she made meaningful advancements in police reform and minority rights, tackling issues of police brutality and discriminatory laws against the LGBTQ+ community.
Recognized as a steadfast civil rights advocate, Natasha Merle has invested her passion for justice in U.S. courts and has made notable strides within the legal field. Her work has concentrated on battling racial discrimination and inequalities.
Merle’s professional journey has been marked by significant trials. She played a pivotal role in the noteworthy Fisher v. University of Texas litigation, defending the incorporation of race as a consideration in admissions and successfully protecting diversity and representation in education.
From 2016 – 2021, Merle served as Assistant Counsel, Senior Counsel, and Deputy Director for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Her career reached a monumental milestone in 2023 when she was confirmed as a U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of New York (EDNY). This appointment was a testament not only to her acumen and perseverance but also to her exceptional commitment to equality.
Merle was the first attorney since LDF’s founder Thurgood Marshall, to be confirmed directly from LDF to the federal bench. She also was the first public defender to serve on the U.S. District Court in nearly 30 years, and only the second judge in the Court’s history to ever serve as a public defender. She is also the sixth Black judge in the EDNY.
Stacey Abrams, an internationally recognized advocate for justice, civil rights, and voting equality, has left an unforgettable mark on both the legal and political landscapes.
Through her tireless efforts, Abrams has been appointed to distinguished offices within state and national politics, making her the first Black woman, as well as the first woman, in such positions.
These roles include serving as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives and taking on the mantle of the House Minority Leader in Georgia, highlighting her incredible leadership abilities and trailblazing spirit.
Ever since her early active involvement in civil causes, Abrams showcased the promise of a leader and pioneer. After graduating from Yale University’s Law School, Abrams further developed her legal skills, which led to her appointment at the young age of 29 as Deputy City Attorney for Atlanta.
Abrams’ historical contributions go beyond her tenure in office. Her dedication to citizen engagement and voting rights led to tireless work through initiatives such as the New Georgia Project and Fair Fight Action.
Abrams strives to level the playing field for all voters, underpinning her legacy as an inspirational Black female lawyer and leader committed to dismantling barriers for marginalized communities.
As the first Black woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 2022, Ketanji Brown Jackson cemented her place as a trailblazer in the American legal system. Her pivotal nomination by President Joe Biden and subsequent confirmation by the Senate broke barriers in the Supreme Court’s 232-year history.
From a young age, Jackson showed academic brilliance and passion for the legal field. Excelling in speech and debate competitions during high school, she later graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in government. Her honors thesis examined the role of coercion in plea bargaining, signaling an early interest in nuanced legal issues.
Jackson’s tenure with the U.S. Sentencing Commission proved instrumental in amending sentencing guidelines, significantly reducing racial disparities within the federal judiciary system and showcasing her commitment to equal justice.
Additionally, she gained invaluable experience as a law clerk to several federal judges, honing her legal acumen through exposure to diverse law practices.
Prior to her Supreme Court nomination, Jackson held judicial positions on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In these roles, she demonstrated a steadfast commitment to upholding the Constitution and ensuring equal justice under the law.
As the first federal public defender to join the Supreme Court, Jackson’s appointment underscored the depth and breadth of her legal expertise. At 53, she stands as the second-youngest justice on the bench, with the potential for long-term influence.
Throughout her confirmation process, Jackson faced numerous challenges but remained unwavering in her commitment, exemplifying the perseverance and dedication that often characterizes the journeys of influential Black female lawyers and judges.
A lawyer by training, Michelle Obama has left a lasting impression on the legal field, rivaling her significant contributions in public service. As an associate at the Chicago office of Sidley Austin LLP, she specialized in marketing and intellectual property after graduating from Harvard Law School, where she was part of the advocacy for the enrollment and hiring of more minority students and professors.
After pursuing a high-impact career in law, Michelle transitioned into public service, bringing her legal acumen to roles such as an assistant to the Mayor of Chicago and the Assistant Commissioner of Planning and Development. In these roles, her expertise contributed substantially to the shaping of public policy and community initiatives.
Michelle Obama’s historic tenure as the first Black First Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017 shone a spotlight on a wide range of social issues. She utilized her platform to advocate for poverty reduction, healthy living, and education. It’s often overlooked that Michelle Obama’s legal career set a foundation for her public service, creating a legacy that intertwines law, advocacy, and a commitment to social justice.
In addition to her achievements in public service, Michelle’s exceptional storytelling skills have earned her recognition at the Grammy Awards. She won two Grammys, becoming the only former First Lady to do so.
Michelle’s awards were in the Best Audiobook category, where she took home a Grammy for the narration of her inspirational self-help memoir, “The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times,” in 2024. This followed her first win in 2020 under the Best Spoken Word Album category for her acclaimed memoir, “’Becoming.”
These achievements emphasize Michelle Obama’s multi-faceted, history-making career and influence beyond the confines of law and politics.
Our list of influential Black female lawyers and judges in recent history wouldn’t be complete without Vice President Kamala Harris, whose journey in the legal profession is punctuated by numerous historical “firsts.”
Beginning her legal career with a focus on prosecuting sex crimes, Harris progressively climbed the ladder and served as San Francisco’s Community and Neighborhood Division Chief.
She took the initiative to establish California’s first Bureau of Children’s Justice. Her relentless pursuit of justice propelled her to become the first Black woman and the first person of color to be elected as the San Francisco District Attorney in 2003.
As DA, Harris’s conviction rate soared up to 67% in just three years, and she initiated the “Back on Track” program, intended to reduce repeat crimes by providing low-level offenders with job training and other initiatives.
In 2010, Harris achieved a new milestone, taking office as the first woman, first African American, and first South Asian American Attorney General of California. As Attorney General, she championed justice by obtaining a settlement that was five times the initially proposed amount during negotiations with five of the country’s largest financial institutions over improper mortgage practices.
Harris also made significant strides towards transparency, creating the Open Justice initiative — an online platform designed to make criminal justice data publicly accessible.
Her breakthrough journey continued when Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016, marking her as the first South Asian American senator.
Reaching the pinnacle of her career, Harris shattered multiple glass ceilings in the 2020 United States general election, emerging as the first woman, the first African American, and the first South Asian American Vice President of the United States.
Harris’s remarkable journey, filled with unparalleled ‘firsts,’ significantly contributes to her pioneering and inspirational role within the legal industry and carries her historical influence well beyond the realm of politics.
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