Lack of racial diversity among America’s appeal court attorneys and judges has inspired Juvaria Khan to do something about it. She is the brainchild behind The Appellate Project, which aims to get more people of colour at the highest level of the judicial system.
People of colour make up 30% of law school students in the US yet very few will make it into the elite practice of appellate law.
The field is lacking in diversity generally, as the figures from the Federal Judicial Center show. Of the 882 judges on the federal appellate bench, only 39 were black and less than 1% were black women. Currently, just five black women are serving as Article III appellate judges – roughly 1.6% of the appellate bench – even though black women constitute around 7% of the US population.
Only 22 of the 882 have been Hispanic, of which only six were women. Fifteen have come from an Asian American/Pacific Island background, and there has never been a Native American on any federal appellate bench.
This stark imbalance prompted Juvaria Khan to launch The Appellate Project. It aims to empower law students of colour to thrive in the appellate field so that the highest courts can better reflect the communities they serve. There are three main programmes: an appellate-focused clinic at Howard University School of Law in Washington DC, an outreach/mentoring programme and a summer fellowship programme.
Diverse communities not represented
Khan has experienced first-hand the lack of diversity in the legal profession. She was inspired to study law after her own experiences with the legal system. She explains: “I grew up in a small Muslim community, and the backlash after 9/11 was immediate. It was jarring to see how quickly things can change and how differently the law can treat you. I became very interested in understanding how decisions get made in our legal system and the nexus those decision-makers have to the marginalised communities most impacted by their decisions.
“I wanted to go to law school to do civil rights work, but I didn’t know how one gets to do that work or how to navigate these legal spaces. The beginning of my legal career often felt confusing and overwhelming.
“My first meaningful introduction to the appellate courts was when I began doing impact litigation. I was constantly following what these courts did. Because of the way the law intersects, what happens in another case often impacts yours.
“Appellate courts are unique because they decide matters of law, so there are no juries or new facts presented. Appellate judges undertake a deliberative process where they decide what our laws mean and how they apply to all of us. Appellate attorneys get to shape those arguments and, not infrequently, become judges themselves.”
“Given all that, what struck me most was just how little diversity, especially racial diversity, was in these appellate spaces amongst both attorneys and judges.
The frustration of seeing a narrow subset of the population, making decisions that might impact communities that are least represented, led to a light bulb moment and the idea for The Appellate Project was born. At the end of last year, Khan left her legal job to work full time on developing the project, which launched last month.
Reaching out to students
In its first programme, The Appellate Project is partnering with Howard University School of Law to bring an appellate focus to its historic Civil Rights Clinic. This is the first appellate-focused clinic at an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Usually, such clinics are confined to law schools like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, which is where the majority of appellate attorneys hail.
“Our second programme is our Outreach programme, which aims to engage law students around the country with appellate work and address the information and opportunity barriers these students too often face when it comes to appellate practice.”
That includes a mentorship programme, whereby law students interested in appellate work are paired with appellate attorneys; events highlighting appellate issues that disproportionately impact communities of colour; talks on appellate practice at law schools around the country; and networking opportunities with members of the appellate bar.
As Khan points out: “Because appellate work is considered so ‘elite,’ the appellate bar itself is quite insular.” This can make critical networking opportunities otherwise quite difficult, particularly for law students of colour outside of those networks.
Appellate practice training
The third programme The Appellate Project is developing is its Incubator, a fellowship whereby students who are accepted will spend the summer intensively training on appellate practice. It includes placement in internships to develop both their skills and their networks.
“We hope that they finish the summer feeling empowered to do this work, with a supportive community that will last long after the summer ends,” she says.
“We are also excited for the appellate bar to get to work with these students and see how amazing they are. There are a lot of highly qualified law students who are outside the narrow networks where most appellate recruitment and hiring is typically done, and we look forward to working with them.”
The response to The Appellate Project has heartened Khan. Recognition that the lack of diversity has been a long-standing issue, and there is a willingness to take action. “It’s wonderful to see how many members of the appellate bar want to get involved—as mentors, at our networking events, as teachers, and more. That support matters, because this work is only going to be as effective as we as a community make it.”
Her advice to students who find law school tough because they don’t have any connections to the industry is to keep asking questions and know that they belong in these spaces. She admits to feeling alienated and overwhelmed as a student and sought the help of professors. The first professor she spoke to was less than helpful.
“I told him I felt out of place and that it felt like everyone was speaking a foreign language,” Khan recalls. “And he said, ‘you’d better figure out how to learn the language,’ and that was it. But when I went to another professor, she told me I was the fifth person that week who had told her they felt the exact same way. So, keep asking for what you need. People want to help; you have to find them. And know that, no matter what anyone says or implies, you belong.”
Law firms need to take a more holistic approach to hiring and to challenge long-held assumptions about the way things are done to improve diversity.
Emphasising the point, Khan adds: “Representation is important for representation’s sake. But it’s also about strengthening our legal system to better realise “equal justice under law.” It benefits all of us to have the full diversity of our communities represented. If everybody in the room shares a similar background, you lose the diverse perspectives and lived experiences you need to reach the strongest legal decision. And in the appellate field, those legal decisions have a huge impact on all of us.
“That includes our most fundamental rights, such as our ability to vote, how we’re policed, our religious freedom, the quality of our education, healthcare, immigration protections, and so much more. It benefits all of us to have different voices in the room when those decisions are being made.”