Breaking the Mold
Written by Renee Betterson
How one woman’s vision is helping to shape a generation of Black Lawyers through access to elite legal education.
The 15th annual National Black Pre Law Conference and Law Fair took place at Columbia University in New York City on Nov. 8-9, 2019. Hundreds of students gathered from across the nation to hear from world renowned speakers and judges and to benefit from workshops on subjects ranging from legal education financing to law school applications. Since the conference began in 2015, over 7000 students have registered to attend and participate in a variety of workshop opportunities and networking events, all of which are designed to bring students together and connect them with the resources they need to successfully navigate law school admissions and legal careers. Attendees also had the opportunity to hear from legal professionals, law school deans, attorneys, and judges in a series of panel discussions such as, "Inside the Careers of Black Lawyers," "The Black Law Students Survival Guide," and more. After the talks, students were invited to participate in a law school fair where hundreds of schools, including many top universities like Harvard and Yale as well as Cleveland State's very own, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, came to set up tables and recruit new students. When the conference ended, hundreds of young, aspiring Black lawyers left Columbia University with the knowledge and connections that can help them to break through the glass ceiling that prevents many people of color from entering the elite world of legal studies and practice. The mastermind behind this revolutionary conference is Evangeline Mitchell, Esquire. She was kind enough to share a few words with The Vindicator about her journey toward making law school more accessible.
Who is your role model and why?
I don’t have any one role model, honestly. Any person I see or hear about, particularly Black people, famous or not, who is walking in their purpose, working towards or in their calling to benefit others, who is doing so with excellence, integrity, grace and humility and who has a passion for leaving a legacy and making a difference however they can — that is a role model to me. People like that force me to push to do and be better.
When did you know that you wanted a legal career?
I made the decision that I wanted to go to law school and become a lawyer when I was a high school student at 16 years old. I watched a PBS documentary series called “Eyes on the Prize.” After learning so much about the struggles of African Americans and the American Civil Rights Movement, that I didn’t learn in school, I felt that it was a call to action in a sense. That, coupled with watching some eye-opening Black movies at the time, compelled me to feel that I personally needed to “do something” to fight for our community. I had always had that tug and pull to make a difference in the African American community. I remember saying that I would be a lawyer and a filmmaker. I felt that by becoming those things, that would provide powerful tools to be able to make an impact in some way.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your professional development?
As a first-generation college graduate and law school graduate, my biggest challenge in trying to figure out my career path was not having any direct mentors. I had to fight an internal battle of what I thought I wanted to do, what other people expected me to do and what I really felt in my gut I should be doing I had to be willing to listen to myself — my spirit and heart, and be able to go out and do the research and make things happen — even when I was unsure if it would all work out. We call it trial and error or learning things the hard way. I purposely didn’t choose the traditional path, and that made things even harder.
I think young people these days should know that we are now in the Information Age. You can do just about anything if you are willing to do the research, plan and execute — and most importantly — do whatever it takes to get things done and simply stick to it, even when it gets really, really hard.
Also, I had to have confidence in my vision. The things I wanted to do were not traditional and not something you saw other people doing at the time, but I kept moving forward and stayed focused on my vision — not worrying about what other people were doing and what other people thought. Back when I was in law school, I made a decision to earn a Ph.D. I knew I wanted to write a book and create a film. I ended up becoming a licensed attorney, social entrepreneur, book writer and self-publisher, conference organizer, non-profit founder, executive director and now filmmaker. All based on my passion for demystifying law school for African Americans. That wasn’t something that people aspired to do at that time. All of this came out of my following my gut.
"I had always had that tug and pull to make a difference in the African American community."
Where do you find inspiration to push the boundaries of societal expectations in education and professionalism?
Faith in God and a courageous and risk-taking spirit because of that faith. I know God has my back. I know that I don’t want to be old talking about what I should have or would have done. I don’t want to live a life of regret. I want to at least try and fail — knowing that our people had so many more difficult things to overcome than the goals I’ve set for myself.
When I look at our ancestors, I know that they had to endure a lot of pain and humiliation, and yet they fought for us, for me and I am indebted to them. I have a responsibility to the next generation and I wholly welcome and appreciate that — even with the tears and bruises that come along with my calling to do more for aspiring Black lawyers.
All of those who had to come before me, who had to live through times where our nation’s laws had created and enforced a system that oppressed us and treated us as property and not as whole human beings. Even my parents grew up in poverty and segregation and my mother has shared stories about having to go wait in the back of restaurants and going to poorly-resourced schools, etc. She was told that college was not an option because she was poor and Black. I’m now able to tell my children that the sky's the limit. Opportunities abound and they can even create their own businesses.
All of those people before me — they are my inspiration. Knowing that I can play some small part in leaving a legacy to help others inspires me to keep going every single day.
What advice would you give to young, Black lawyers who are just getting started?
Go out and seek mentors and get a peer support system so you can connect with others with similar goals who can serve as accountability partners. Join your bar associations, the major local, state and national bar associations, as well as the Black bar associations — and get involved. Let people know what you want to do and find those who are willing to help you. Know that success will not come overnight. It is a process, but with everything you do and learn, you are transforming into a better, more skilled person and you have so much to offer this world.
Keep getting out and meeting people. You have to connect with others who are also trying to be successful and those who have “made it.” Stay connected with those people, as opposed to trying to do everything all alone.
Never ever give up on your goals and dreams. Be relentless. It’s okay to fall down, but just get back up and keep moving forward. You are needed. You are wanted. Your presence and your voice counts. Your success is our success. You, your achievements, all the things that you are doing and will do, matter and are significant. For African Americans, as a group, it is all about our community. Remember and take pride in that and know that, even if no one tells you to your face, we as a community embrace you, are proud of you, love you, see you, and want to see you succeed.
Lastly, your law degree not only empowers you to work for others, but most importantly, it enables you to work for yourself. You have been trained in how to prepare and do research on your own. Those skills are invaluable for you to create and build anything you set your mind to. Create and build.
Can you talk about the origins of the conference and the challenges you faced in making it a reality?
I just simply had the desire to reach more of our people in a more tangible way. I was realistic in knowing that a lot of people probably wouldn’t read my thick books and there were so many people outside of me who had expertise, perspectives and experiences that Black pre-law students could learn from. When I created the conference, I had never really organized a big event before. I just made the decision to do it and then followed through. I had no idea whether or not the event would be successful. I didn’t know if people would show up or if I would get financial support, or whether it would have longevity. I just decided to do it, and I did. It has been going strong for 15 straight years without missing a single year — even [through] life-altering events such as marriage, two children, medical issues, etc.
My only goal was to reach out and help students who had come from backgrounds like [mine], who didn’t have anyone as they were going through the process. I just wanted to help Black, first-generation pre-law students with dreams of becoming lawyers. The conference came out of my own frustrations and the many mistakes I made in the application process, during law school, etc. I [took] so many missteps. I didn’t do well on the LSAT, I almost didn’t get into any law school despite my straight A’s. There were so many things I didn’t know because I went through the process alone without any mentorship, advising or insider insight as to what I was doing.
My primary goal was to bring aspiring Black law students together with those who were knowledgeable [and] who could give them access to the information, resources and connections needed so they could be more excellent, strategic and competitive law school applicants, students and graduates. I knew that people thought that many Black students were not competitive. I remember trying to explain to people that a lot of that had nothing to do with ability but simply not knowing what we didn’t know. I thought this event could play a role in letting us know what we were up against so we could have a strategy and a better understanding of what was expected so we could create a plan going forward. I think my goals have been achieved. In many ways, we’ve done well, but I think there is so much more potential there. I want us to do so much more.
"You are wanted. Your presence and your voice counts. Your success is our success."
Since beginning this journey, you’ve organized 15 different conferences that have hosted thousands of students. Is there any particular moment or memory that stands out for you?
However, the one thing that stands out the most is not necessarily one moment or incident. Whenever I receive an e-mail or a LinkedIn message from a former attendee who is now a law student or a lawyer and they share how the conference meant so much to them and is a reason why they went ahead and pursued their law degrees and succeeded, it lets me know that I need to make sure to keep things going — no matter what. Those “moments” stand out every time.
It has been over 15 years. Truthfully, it hasn’t necessarily gotten any easier. Conferences always take an extraordinary amount of planning and effort. However, as long as there is this great need and you know that there is something that happens, particularly in our community, when we get good, credible information, and when we SEE those who look like us who are sharing because they want us to succeed, then I know that lives are being changed. That is the motivating factor to continue moving forward. Every single person we can help matters. I can’t speak for other communities. But the Black community needs it.
If you can share, when and where will the next conference be held?
Our next conference will take place Nov. 13 and Nov. 14 in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts.
Looking ahead, what are your hopes/goals for the conference in the next decade?
This year, we are incorporating a workshop on how to start your own law firm, ways you can make a difference in your communities right now and we will expand our work on ways that Black people can utilize their legal training to benefit and uplift the Black community. I also want to add some hands-on components — perhaps enabling students to do a mini mock trial, moot court, client counseling session, etc.
Additionally, we will be launching a mentoring program because I want to make sure that every attendee has an assigned mentoring circle made up of a law student, lawyer and peer supporters who are also aspiring lawyers. I would like to have someone in place who is responsible for trying to check in and stay connected with our attendees to make sure they have information and support from us for as long as they are on this path towards earning their law degree. Despite the hectic nature of my own life, I am committed to doing more to try to make time to mentor more personally, and to have lunch and dinner with more aspiring lawyers. Every little thing helps.
Further, I want us to do a far better job of keeping track with past attendees. We care and want to keep up with them and find out where they are now. With thousands of past registrants and attendees, that’s a big job. However, I want to be sure that we connect with our alumni, and have many more come back and give back by pouring into the new attendees for future events.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
I think it’s important that we all strive for greatness. In anything you do, be it law school or anything else, make it about more than you. Have a spirit of service. Help other people in whatever way you can and with whatever you know. Choose to make an impact and not just a living. Understand that you will reap what you sow. Make the decision to give and pour into others. Trust me. It will absolutely come back to you, even if you don’t see it right away. I sometimes look back and think about that “one person” who did make a difference in my life and that “one person” who could have. Be that one person who does. And always look at ways you can be a contributor and not just a taker. Being this type of human being will enable you to stand out and will open doors you may not even think to knock on.
I want to give a special thanks to the English Department and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel honors college for supporting my trip to the conference last Fall.