James A. Britton, labor attorney and adjunct professor for Wayne State University Law School.
Black History Month is a time to reflect on the accomplishments, advancements, and struggles of African Americans. Though Black populations have made progress throughout history, there is still much work to be done across every sector, particularly law. Several Black attorneys have paved the way for not only new legislation but for Black students who aspire to practice law, leading to a push for equality from the courtroom to the boardroom.
At a time of heightened racial tension, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and social injustice, Black lawyers have become even more essential to African American communities and the legal progress of the country. Black legal trailblazers of the past have cleared the way for a new generation of Black lawyers, including newly-hired adjunct professor for Wayne State University Law School, James Britton.
Thurgood Marshall was appointed by former President Lyndon B. Johnson to the Supreme Court in 1967. With an illustrious career, Marshall is one of history’s most notable Black attorneys and serves as a role model for many. James Britton has always chased a career in law thanks in part to Marshall.
“I’m one of those people who always wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. At first, I wanted to be a Civil Rights lawyer like Johnnie Cochran or Thurgood Marshall. I consider that to be working in the public interest as a union side labor lawyer,” said Britton. “My belief is that labor rights are human rights.”
A legal career that spans several years, Britton’s passion for law and equality led him to a path of labor law. Now, in his new role as adjunct professor at Wayne State’s Law School, he intends to give students a tangible image of Black law professionals while guiding them through labor law. Combining his love for law and his knack for education, Britton will now lead the next class of Black attorneys.
“I’ve always wanted to teach just as a part of who I am and wanting to make a contribution,” said Britton.
Nationally, Black attorneys make up just five percent of all lawyers. Representing 13 percent of America’s population, African Americans account for 38 percent of prisoners and the number continues to grow. The presence of Black legal teams helps to shift the dynamics in court as well as the legal sector across the board. Through shared experiences, Black lawyers can help to navigate and defend other African Americans who fear they will not receive fair and equal treatment under the umbrella of law.
“Black lawyers bring a certain perspective depending on where you’re from and you can certainly help people with the perspective that you bring,” said Britton. “I think the same is true for prosecutors and defense attorneys.”
As the legacy continues, Black lawyers are hoping to spread the word to African American students on the importance of pursuing a career in law. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) reports African American students accounted for close to eight percent of incoming law students across schools, up from 7.6 percent in 2020. Marking 2021 as the largest incoming class in 10 years, as well as the most racially diverse class ever as per the LSAC, African Americans are chasing careers in law now more than ever.
“I think it starts as early as grade school. Just sort of talking about [it], more people like me going into schools; high schools, colleges, talking about what we do, why we do it and why it’s important,” said Britton.
Voting rights for Black communities have been under attack. As legislation is passed making it more difficult for African Americans to get to the polls, positions are in place to oversee the process and ensure empowerment for the voices of all voters.
To help further the commitment to fairness and equality for African Americans, Britton was recently sworn into the Wayne County Board of Canvassers for the Democratic Party. Responsible for certifying elections for all local, countywide and district offices, Britton will also have a hand in the inspection of the county’s ballot containers every four years and conducting recounts, as needed, for every aspect of government within the county o which he is appointed.