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Judge Keisha Wright-Hill, Judge Camille Banks-Prince, Judge Shamieka Rhinehart, Judge Teresa Raquel Robinson-Freeman and Ronda Bazley Moore speak during a panel session celebrating Diversity Awareness Month at the LexisNexis Raleigh Technology Center.
Ambitions find fuel in the most normal of moments – watching a family member or TV show, getting a friendly suggestion from a stranger, or listening to a librarian. That’s how each journey started for four African-American attorneys who became friends in law school and went on to public service, practicing law from the bench. They call themselves Sisters Who Rule.
Judge Shamieka Rhinehart, Judge Camille Banks-Prince, Judge Keisha Wright-Hill and Judge Teresa Raquel Robinson-Freeman became close friends while attending law school at North Carolina Central University. While judgeships were never their communal plan, they overcame significant odds to forge such an outcome. They spoke during a panel session celebrating Diversity Awareness Month across RELX and LexisNexis Legal & Professional while visiting the LexisNexis Raleigh Technology Center.
Inspired by Something Mundane
For Judge Camille Banks-Prince, becoming a lawyer was a childhood dream inspired by the TV show Divorce Court. As a 10-year-old, she watched people arguing and advocating in front of a judge. “A dream can be inspired by something mundane,” she said. “I ended up going through school knowing I was going to be a lawyer.”
A guidance counselor had a different opinion and told her in 8th grade that she didn’t have what it takes to be an attorney. “I’m the type of person that when you tell me that I can’t, I’m going to show you that I can,” she said. She is the fourth African-American district court judge in her county’s history.
Judge Teresa Raquel Robinson-Freeman was an N.C. Teaching Fellow and initially set out to become an English teacher like her mother and sister.
“I never wanted to be an attorney,” said Robinson-Freeman. “I was never even exposed to any attorneys to see that was a pathway for me.” A lawyer visiting campus suggested she attend law school, something she had never considered. “That was the first time anybody had ever said that to me. And I was 22-years-old.”
But even as a well-rounded student with strong academics, Robinson-Freeman received a rejection letter. Undaunted, she went to the law school to see what she could do differently next time. There she learned the letter had been a mistake. The law school granted admission to her on the spot with a full scholarship.
Diversity Problems Persist
The roles and accomplishments of the Sisters Who Rule are magnified considering the low numbers of women and minorities practicing law – diversity in the field leaves much to be desired. The American Bar Association reported 170,000 more lawyers in the U.S. in 2019 than in 2009. Despite growth in the professional population, Male (64 percent) and Caucasian/White (85 percent) lawyers dominate the legal landscape. The percentage of minority attorneys has held constant over the same period with Black/African-American at 5 percent, Asian at 2 percent, Hispanic at 5 percent, and Native American at 1 percent.
Yet diversity is fundamental to advancing the rule of law. The perception of the legal system is shaped by public impressions of the professionals within it. Trust in the rule of law is improved when legal professionals more accurately reflect the populations they serve. According to the ABA, “If the legal profession is not racially inclusive, the public may conclude that the justice system is unfairly controlled by one racial group and does not represent the interests of the population as a whole.”
Role Models and Programs Make a Difference
The stories of these four judges reinforce the value of role models and programs in making progress towards greater diversity.
Judge Keisha Wright-Hill was in 9th grade when she was assigned to write a research paper. “I went to the library and my librarian introduced me to Thurgood Marshall,” Wright-Hill said. She discovered his accomplishments and legal record and saw that he was a champion of the poor. “Because of that paper, that’s what determined my trajectory of life. I have wanted to be a judge ever since.”
Further research brought her to N.C. Central. “I was doing my research on law schools and found that N.C. Central was number one for women in the country as far as looking at the ratio of women and faculty.” She was appointed to the bench in Georgia in 2012.
Judge Shamieka Rhinehart credits her grandmother and working-class mother for her career success.
“She taught me that I am more than the circumstances that I face in my low economic community. In fact, I can be a help to many people,” she said. Rhinehart followed her uncle into law. He was the first appointed African-American district attorney in her area. But success for her was far from assured.
She was not initially accepted to law school. After a housing change, an alert friend forwarded a letter from the law school that she almost missed. It was an invitation to participate in the Performance Based Admission Program (PBAP) at N.C. Central.
The PBAP gives a limited number of applicants who show promise of success a chance to prove themselves in a two-week, non-credit program. “I was able to accept the invitation and I became an attorney,” Rhinehart said.
With hard work, determination, and a little luck along the way, these four friends overcame the odds and found their way to the bench. Their friendship provides an enduring base of support, especially in the tough times. “A lot of people don’t understand that the buck stops with my signature,” Rhinehart added. “I call them all the time, because I can trust them, and I know they understand me, and they have my back. That is so important.”
By Ronda Bazley Moore, Vice President, Global Talent Development
Patrick O’Neil, Director, Global Corporate Communication, Technology LexisNexis Legal & Professional