Successful African-American lawyers offer experiences, advice

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Judge Carmen Kelsey talks about how hard it was for her to get in to law school and tells students not to let their race affect their goals Wednesday in Room 218 of the nursing complex.  Monica Correa

Judge Carmen Kelsey talks about how hard it was for her to get in to law school and tells students not to let their race affect their goals Wednesday in Room 218 of the nursing complex. Monica Correa

Honorable Judge Andrew Caruthers congratulates Lisa Tatum, president of State Bar of Texas, for being the first African-American president of the bar.  Juliana Huff

Honorable Judge Andrew Caruthers  congratulates Lisa Tatum, president of State Bar of Texas, for being the first African-American president of the bar. Juliana Huff

Panelists invite students to on-the-job shadows.

By Paula Christine Schuler

Judge Carmen Kelsey of the 289th Judicial District Court in Bexar County said she grew up indigent and knew she could not help her family if she could not help herself.

Five practicing African-American legal professionals joined a panel moderated by criminal justice Adjunct Dexter E. Gilford, J.D., in honor of Black History Month to discuss issues for black Americans in the legal profession in Texas Feb. 20 in the nursing complex.

Panelists included Attorney Tamu K. “TK” Floyd, J.D; Judge Carmen Kelsey of the 289th Judicial District Court in Bexar County; Lisa Tatum, president of State Bar of Texas; Judge Andrew Carruthers; and criminal defense attorney Stephanie Boyd, J.D.

Each panelist agreed students should consider passion first; if there is strong passion, then the student will find a way to pay for it and get through to graduation. “Foremost, it starts with your desire,” Floyd said. “If law school is an excuse for not really knowing what you want, then don’t.”

She said many students do attend law school and waste a lot of time and expense only to realize with regret they should have done something else.

Gilford asked how much representation minorities have in legal professions and if diversity is threatened or is still a viable value.

Panelists quickly moved to say diversity is critically important.

Tatum said, “There absolutely is value.”

She said diversity helps with the exchange of ideas and backgrounds.

Tatum said minorities are not proportionately represented in law professions in Texas and acknowledged the agreement of all the panelists that diversity is important for the exchange of ideas and understanding people.

“The challenge is how to get the numbers (of minority professionals practicing in Texas) to recognize their value and recognize themselves,” she said. “What are the needs we want the diversity to address?”

Floyd said diversity is valuable, but minorities have to take responsibility as individuals.

“There is diversity on this panel, our beliefs, backgrounds, even though we look kind of homogenous,” Floyd said.

“Companies want to know who is working on their cases,” she said. “They don’t care about your race. They want to know you are qualified.”

She said students can get themselves into law school and then pass the bar exam, but it is not race or other factors of diversity that will keep them employed in the legal profession.

She described her background of working for various international law firms, her work as a clerk in an appellate court just under the federal U.S. Supreme Court and her degree from an Indiana university.

Factors of diversity go beyond race and gender and can include differences of background in terms of education, international work experience, faith, and exposure to different cultures on large and small scales.

Compared to a lawyer who has lived and worked only in San Antonio, an attorney trained in Massachusetts or an attorney who has practiced in Hawaii and grew up in Puerto Rico brings diversity to work here in this city.

Panelists agreed law students need passion more than money or family.

Carruthers said, “I went to law school without buying a single book.”

He said others were getting $100,000 loans and living a high life.

“I lived bare bones,” he said. “Money is no barrier to you going to law school.”

Tatum said she received a full scholarship when she attended college in Massachusetts after being contacted by diversity recruitment staff.

She said, “It was not my race or gender, but my geographic location that was the diversity for me.”

When choosing a college or a major, panelists backed each other up and agreed passion was the thing to consider first; if there was a strong passion, then the student would find a way to pay for it and get through to graduation.

“Foremost, it starts with your desire,” Floyd said. “If law school is an excuse for not really knowing what you want, then don’t.”

She said many students attend law school and waste a lot of time and expense only to realize they should have done something else.

Floyd said, “If you have a true desire, then be open geographically.”

She said students might want to stay home, but if North Dakota sees a student as a source of diversity for their school because the student is from Texas, then that might make full scholarships possible.

She said the students need to be open to living in areas they do not like. “You can do anything for three years,” Floyd said.

Panelists gave tips on preparing for the LSAT exam, which is required for entrance into law school. They advised students to take English, logic and math classes.

Carruthers said he thought it took a lot more to be an engineer than to be a lawyer. “If you can read and write and understand the English language, you can make it through law school.”

He said law school requires skills with logic, debate and strong reading comprehension.

Panelists discussed hard work and moving past real or perceived obstacles, such as lack of property or social support, to achieve dreams.

Each panelist extended a warm welcome to any student to contact them for questions or advice or to arrange to spend time shadowing them while they work in the courts.


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