When Brittani Miller enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Law School, she was arguably a step ahead of other future lawyers. As a paralegal in the U.S. Air Force, she worked closely with lawyers for four years, and she’d begun to do work beyond the usual paralegal tasks. 

But for students of color, entering the disproportionately white legal profession can be daunting no matter how much experience they have.

“When you look at walls of people and their pictures and nobody looks like you, it’s intimidating,” said Miller, who is African American and recently completed her first year of law school.

As of 2017, only 5% of active attorneys identified as black, 5% as Hispanic or Latino, 2% as Asian and 1% as Native American, according to the American Bar Association’s National Lawyer Population Survey.

Enter the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Diversity Clerkship, which offers students the chance to follow their first year of law school with paid summer positions at private law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. The students are selected through a competitive process and then matched with employers with whom they work for 10 weeks. Their responsibilities can range from attending client meetings to reviewing and revising contracts. Since the program began in 1992, nearly 500 students have participated. 

The current cohort consists of 19 students of varied ethnicities, race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic backgrounds, said Bryant Park, diversity and inclusion outreach coordinator for the State Bar at a gathering last week to celebrate the 2019 clerks. 

Miller, who was placed at Alliant Energy Corporation, said it’s rare for first-year students to have the chance to clerk.

“Being able to get into some of the firms and corporations as a brand new… law student is really awesome,” she said, and it lets her see what kind of work she might like to do in the future. 

But the positions offer more than work experience. It’s a chance to see “that you can be helpful, you are absolutely wanted in these careers, and here are all the people who don’t look like you but they’re going to help you get there,” Miller said, noting the support she’s found on the job. ”They might not look like you, but they’re definitely behind you 100%.” 

As clerks, the students take on challenges they haven’t encountered in the classroom. On her second day on the job, UW Law student Lo Nelson, who clerks for health care insurance company Quartz Health Solutions, Inc., was told to check for compliance between a Quartz document and a document of one of the company’s vendors. 

“I was like, ‘OK, yeah. Yeah, definitely,’” Nelson said, though she had done nothing quite like that in her law school contracts course. “I was reading HIPAA for the next three to four days and understanding what the federal regulations required,” Nelson said, and she found and helped correct a discrepancy. The task was daunting,“but that’s what I’m there to do, and now I can say that I can read regulations,” she said.

Nelson, who is African American, said she applied to the Diversity Clerkship program because she’s “a visible racial minority.” 

“I wanted to be in a program that would be accepting of that and wouldn’t be shocked and would be willing to create a culturally competent environment so that I can be successful with my legal career,” Nelson said.

Some of this year’s clerks grew up in rural areas “where lawyers are sorely needed,” according to the State Bar. One of them is Forrest Gauthier, a member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin who grew up on the tribe’s reservation. A first-generation college student, Gauthier said he hadn’t planned to continue his education beyond college. 

He changed his mind about a year after his graduation as he recognized how policies like the Termination Act of 1953, which disbanded Native American tribes and allowed their land to be sold, had affected his community. Before Termination, Gauthier said, his tribe was one of the wealthiest in the nation. “It devastated my tribe from all aspects across the board, from health to the economy to culture,” Gauthier said. “We have never recovered.” 

“That kind of was always in the back of my mind (but) I didn’t really realize it until later on in life,” Gauthier said. “I don’t want something like that to happen again to my community or other communities like mine.”

He had done other work, like obesity prevention, before returning to law school.

“It was going places, but it wasn’t the kind of change I wanted,” Gauthier said. “The best way that I thought I could help remedy those issues was by going into law and looking at it from a law perspective.”

Now, having completed his first year at UW-Madison Law, Gauthier clerks at Boardman & Clark LLP. He said he didn’t know what to expect in the role but has found the environment welcoming. “They were very supportive and very open-door,” he said, adding that many lawyers came to introduce themselves to him to “to ease (him) into the firm.” As a clerk, he’s been writing memos and shadowing lawyers' meetings, and he may later learn to do mediations.

Other clerks came from other countries to study law in Wisconsin. UW law student Rongyi Lin, who lived in China until last year, hopes to become a business lawyer for an American firm, whether in the U.S. or in Asia. He now clerks at the Milwaukee City Attorney’s Office, where he conducts legal research, observes hearings and drafts documents. He’s been happy in his post, where he says staff are willing to help him and keep him busy.

It’s Lin’s first internship in the U.S., which he applied for after hearing recommendations from others in an association for Asian students. “Each of them told me it’s a great experience, so I have no reason to give up this opportunity,” Lin said. 

It’s not just the students who benefit. Christopher Hughes, a managing partner at Madison-based law firm Stafford Rosenbaum LLP, said the program consistently provides high-caliber employees.

“Every year I’m blown away by how good they are,” Hughes said. “I wouldn’t want to be a law student competing with the group that comes through this program by any means.”

At Thursday’s event, the State Bar recognized Stafford for having participated as a Diversity Clerkship employer for 20 years. Hughes said the clerkship plays a key role in Stafford’s diversity and inclusion efforts, “but I think there’s really a lot more we need to do.”

One step, he said, is building cultural competency among the firm’s current staff. The firm now requires its lawyers to complete at least one credit of diversity and inclusion continuing education each year. Additionally, to reduce barriers to participation, the firm now offers some of those trainings in-house and allows lawyers to list up to 20 hours of diversity and inclusion work, whether in training or at other events, as billable hours. 

As far as actually diversifying the staff, he said, “I think our strategy is really long-term.”

“We have to start making inroads and getting to know people as law students and hopefully they’ll get to know us through the clerkship program or otherwise,” Hughes said. “And then ultimately, if they like who we are, they’ll want to join us as attorneys.”

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.