Matthew Graham owes his new career path to his fraternity brothers and Thurgood Marshall, the late Supreme Court justice.
Marshall, also a member of the Black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, was a civil rights leader who became the first Black justice on the Supreme Court. Marshall’s story convinced Graham he, too, could become a lawyer.
But Marshall’s success was not the only reason Graham stayed in law school. It was also the fact he saw so few law students who looked like him.
“Representation matters to me. I want to be an example to my children, my family, and the African American community,” Graham told CNN.
Graham, 29, from Baltimore, Maryland, worked hard the past three and a half years to join a profession in which only 5% are Black, according to a 2022 report by the American Bar Association.
He passed Maryland’s bar exam on his first attempt with a high score of 309. Graham has received an outpouring of support from friends and strangers who watched a TikTok video capturing the moment in April when he received the news.
“When I saw congratulations, and I knew I passed it was just awesome. The viral video has just been added fun and getting messages from people saying I’ve inspired them has been the cherry on top,” Graham said.
Graham’s score placed him above 94% of the test takers. In most states you would have to get at least a 260 score on the bar exam to pass. This year the minimum passing score for the Maryland bar exam is 266, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The pass rate for Maryland was 36% for the exam taken in February of this year.
Graham’s score means he can practice law not only in Maryland but in any district recognizing his results.
The majority of US lawyers, at 81%, are White, followed by 5.8% who are Hispanic and 5.5% who are of Asian descent, the American Bar Association reports.
The number of Black attorneys remains low in part due to the cost of law school, expensive test prep courses for the LSAT and the bar exam, as well as the amount of personal responsibilities Black students have, diversity advocates told CNN.
Verna Williams, CEO of the Washington DC-based non-profit Equal Justice Works, said the share of Black lawyers has been steadily low for the past decade. It’s “a shame,” Williams said, and law schools as well as the American Bar Association should work on paving a way for students of color.
Williams works to fund fellowships placing young lawyers in public interest organizations.
“Students of color, particularly Black students, are typically relegated to schools that are under-resourced and they don’t get the type of educational opportunities that are afforded to their White counterparts,” Williams said.
Black students often attend public schools for their K-12 education, which can affect whether they are seen as good candidate for law school, Williams added.
Not only are student loan debt and the cost of prep classes a barrier for Black students wanting to study law, but so is transitional kindergarten, where kids who are not ready for kindergarten go to get ready for kindergarten.
Black children are more likely to live in areas where the public schools they attend have fewer resources along and teachers who are less qualified.
Angela Winfield, chief diversity officer at The Law School Admission Council, a non-profit committed to promoting equal access to law education, said she is trying to narrow the gap in test performance and law school acceptance for people of color by offering free prep tests online.
Students have to pay hundreds of dollars in tests. The LSAT costs more than $200 and the bar exam is close to $1,000. If students choose to enroll in test prep classes, the full package will cost at least $3,000, according to The Princeton Review, which provides a number of services including tutoring and prep tests.
When Winfield was studying for the bar exam, she says she did it by herself and used free resources, including practice tests.
“My parents weren’t economically under-resourced, but they weren’t going to pay $3,000 worth of test preps,” Winfield said.
The non-profit also offers programs to introduce undergraduate and high school students to law school and other legal career opportunities. Winfield says her group has learned many students do not seek a law school because “they never thought about it.”
“They did not realize this path was for them or that they could do it,” Winfield said.
Erika George, a professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, said in addition to lack of funds, students of color often juggle many responsibilities, including taking care of their family.
“Particularly during Covid-19 I have to say, a lot of my students of color had more family responsibilities or responsibilities for extended families in diverse ways. They also have lost family members. All this impacts how well you are doing in law school,” George said.
Those responsibilities can lead to less time to prepare for the bar exam, which is extremely important because the bar exam decides how well you are prepared for the exam and not how well you know the law, George said.
Graham said he worked hard to balance a full-time job as a paralegal and law clerk, while being a new father, to attend night classes at the University of Baltimore School of Law because he was determined to make becoming a lawyer a reality.
Becoming a lawyer was not always in his plans. Graham said he was pursuing a chemistry degree and was on track to be a pharmacist when his fraternity brothers suggested a career change after he won an oratory competition in college.
“Early on in my undergraduate career, I was a pharmacy technician and was on that route, but I felt restricted behind the pharmacy counter, and I have always loved public speaking and loved to debate,” Graham told CNN.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Graham said he began pursuing his new goal despite the many challenges Black students face on their journey to become lawyers.
Next week, Graham will announce the name of the firm he will be joining. As he prepares to start his new job, he said he doesn’t consider himself special.
“Anything is possible. I am not special. I am just someone who had my mind set on something. I worked hard. I knew that maybe I didn’t have as many resources as I would have loved too, but that is not going to stop me from reaching my goals,” Graham said.