The Justis Connection wants to make Black attorneys more accessible to Black clients
Cassaundra Brownell, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” from Maryland, was relieved when she found the Justis Connection, a company that links potential clients with Black attorneys. After failing to see results with an attorney she hired to help her launch an architecture firm she purchased in May, Brownell felt a Black attorney would be a better option.
It seemed “like we had to prove something to him,” she said of her first lawyer. Brownell said she felt that he pushed aside her needs, responded slowly and even expressed a lack of confidence in the new business. “So, we had to make a change. We were looking for someone where our needs could be met, versus feeling like we had to build credibility with the attorney first.”
Brownell learned of Kisha A. Brown’s Justis Connection on LinkedIn and immediately contacted Brown, who then connected her to multiple Black lawyers in her area. She eventually hired Kerry Davidson, a Black attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School and has served her firm well, Brownell said, providing “first-rate service” in a timely manner.
Her case illuminates a point Black lawyers and advocates have been making for some time: Black clients feel that they receive heightened support and more favorable results from Black lawyers than with non-Black legal aid. And unlike Black lawyer associations like the National Conference of Black Lawyers and The National Black Lawyers, which some have relied on to find Black legal representatives in their cities, the Justis Connection specifically works on making those client-attorney connections. Advocates say this is important, adding that more Black lawyer representation in the legal field can be compared to studies that suggest Black patients with Black doctors receive more competent care.
“For us, having a Black attorney is such a bonus because he relates to us. They have gone through some of the same challenges that we go through as a Black entrepreneur,” Brownell said. “With a Black lawyer, you start with credibility; you don’t have to build it with them. They understand you. There’s a greater sense of urgency in responding to your needs.”
According to the 2022 American Bar Association National Lawyer Population Survey, only 4.5% of lawyers are Black, with 81% white. Additionally, only 5.4% of public defenders are Black, according to an estimate from Zippia, a jobs and career website. With Black people disproportionately incarcerated compared to other races — 38% of people in prison or jail are Black, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, although Black people make up only 13.6% of the U.S. population — the chances are low that they’ll be able to find a Black attorney to handle their case.
These startling numbers were a major factor for Brown, a labor and employee relations attorney, to launch the Justis Connection in 2021. The service is available in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., and will expand later this month to Atlanta, Chicago and Orlando, Florida. Next year, the company aims to set up networks in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Texas. Brown also has plans for California and other parts of the country.
“I felt the need for this from the minute I started law school,” Brown, a Georgetown Law graduate, said. “I had people asking, ‘Hey, do you know somebody who does family law? Do you know somebody that does criminal law?’ And on and on. And then you sort of go through your phone, and you start emailing folks because you want to make that connection. And that’s something most Black people experience because we don’t have Black lawyers in our inner circle.”
There are about 30 attorneys in the Washington, D.C., area in Brown’s directory so far, with skills ranging from family law, criminal law and estate planning to tax and business law.
“It shouldn’t have to be this way, but it is,” Brown said. “So, aligning Black people with Black lawyers is the right thing to do, not only for that person, but also for the system because when we challenge the system and the wrongdoing that occurs to us, the system shifts.”
Davidson, whom Brownell hired through the Justis Connection network, said it is important for Black people to seek help from an attorney early in the process instead of as a last resort.
“And the thing about a Black attorney is that he or she would be much more relatable to Black clients,” Davidson said. “The Black attorney will understand exactly some of the hardships that they’re facing because the attorneys themselves have seen it in either his own family or personally or with people he’s close to. There’s a personal connection.”
That personal connection is what clients who want Black representation hope will result in a deeper commitment, which they believe can lead to favorable results.
“It can be much more difficult for white attorneys to understand that the motivation for some of the things that happen to a Black client would be predominantly racial and motivated by animus,” Davidson said. “It’s not their experience. So, he would say, ‘Why would people be doing all this horrible stuff to you? I don’t want to investigate this case, because there’s no way you could have enough evidence to prove that people are doing this.’”
Davidson said he proved an employment discrimination case where “the employer put the Black people in one building and the white people in another building and treated the two groups completely differently. It’s extremely hard for a white attorney to believe that could happen in this day and age. So, he wouldn’t want or believe in the case.”
Anu B. Kemet, another attorney in Maryland who is in the Justis Connection network, said the sensitivity Black people have for each other because of shared experiences makes working together a natural fit — and makes Brown’s networking company viable.
“We care more about one another,” Kemet said. “My whole life experience has been nothing but people who look like me always looking out for me. I went to Morehouse College as an undergrad. I went to Vanderbilt Law School and divinity school. No Vanderbilt graduate has ever helped me or looked out for me. Black people understand more about the issues that we face, particularly in the family law and criminal law sphere that are uniquely our issues.”
Kemet joked that the experience of having a Black attorney working for you is like having a Black DJ spin music at a club: “Would you want to go to a Black club with a white DJ? You can, and you might have a good time. But it’s probably not going to be the same.”
However, even with connections being made, a significant problem still exists: There are not enough Black attorneys to address the needs of Black clients. Kemet, who has been a partner in his boutique firm, the Kemet Hunt Law Group, for 20 years, said that deficiency is disheartening.
“The endemic and systemic choking of Black opportunity within this field is very complex,” he said. “The first thing is the schools themselves are designed to promote a particular body of people and not another body. It’s the history of this country. My law partner and I have been together for 20 years, which makes us one of the longest-lasting partnerships for a Black firm.”
For that reason, Brown said, the Justis Connection is hoping to be a pathway for changing the status quo for clients seeking Black representation.
“It’s really inspiring the work that Black lawyers do because we’re connected to our community’s success in a really personal way,” Brown said. “‘You look like my cousin.’ ‘You went to school with my niece.’ ‘We’re in the same fraternity.’ ‘We go to the same church.’ ‘I’m from that area, too.’ There are all these different intersections that we have. And so, there’s this natural connection that most Black lawyers have that inspire our ethical obligation to zealously advocate for our client, no matter who they are, what they look like.”