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‘Are you the defendant?’: Black law student mistaken for defendant at court

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(BRISTOL, R.I.) -- Like many other law students, Brooklyn Crockton says she was inspired by the movie Legally Blonde, where protagonist Elle Woods goes to law school, discovering herself in the process.

“I saw this woman being her authentic self, inquisitive and beautiful. And I thought, ‘Hey, I can do that,’” she said.

So, she did. Crockton is a student in her third and final year at Roger Williams University School of Law where she is also the vice president of the Black Law Student Association.

“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to go to law school. I can actually remember my very first time in a courtroom when I was 6 years old,” Crockton told Good Morning America.

Crockton, who is conditionally barred in Rhode Island, said she was nervous, but excited when she arrived at court last Thursday for a pretrial hearing. She would normally be accompanied by her supervising attorney, but he hadn’t yet arrived when a sheriff’s deputy asked her to step out of a line of attorneys waiting to enter the courtroom, she said.

The deputy had talked to some other attorneys on their way in, so Crockton said she didn’t think anything of it until they began to speak. She said the deputy told her she was not on his list before asking if she was a defendant.

“I was very taken aback. I'm almost never rendered speechless,” she said. “But in that moment, I realized I would never forget this interaction for the rest of my life because for no other reason that I could contrive, I was mistaken as the defendant in this line of attorneys.”

While Crockton has heard other Black attorneys’ share similar experiences, she didn’t want to believe that she was being discriminated against.

“So, once I sat down in the courtroom and I'm turning the situation over in my head, I kind of get this realization that maybe I am considering other things outside of race as a way to minimize the situation that had just happened,” she said.

“I felt like I was drowning and no one could help me. And that's the best way that I can explain what I felt in the moment and a little bit after in the courtroom.”

Crockton shared her story in a TikTok video that quickly went viral. It currently has over 400,000 views.

The Roger Williams University School of Law told GMA in a statement that it is "grateful" and "proud" that Crockton shared her story of bias.

"As soon as we learned of the incident, we reached out to the state judiciary and sheriff’s office to work together to address it," the school said. "At RWU, we also have been addressing this through our training of students, including a new required course on race and American law, and we are engaged with our alumni, members of the practicing bar, and the state’s judiciary in our work to create a less biased and more equitable legal system."

The Rhode Island Judiciary said in a statement it is looking into the incident.

“Although the Division of Sheriffs is not under the supervision or control of the Judiciary, they are our justice partners and the State Court Administrator has been in touch with the chief of the Division of Sheriffs about the video," the Rhode Island Judiciary said. "While both the Judiciary and the Sheriffs require implicit bias training for their staffs, an encounter like this is an opportunity to talk about and challenge the assumptions we make about the people that come through our courthouses every day. That is what we intend to do.”

Unfortunately experiences like Crockton’s are not uncommon for Black women in law. Alicia Luncheon, an Atlanta-based criminal defense attorney, started sharing many of her experiences as a Black attorney in the South on her TikTok channel @theluncheonlawyer.

Luncheon spoke to GMA about the discrimination she has faced after not meeting expectations of “the lawyer look”. She says this pressure to 'look like a lawyer' is especially strong for recent graduates starting their careers.

“You're an attorney, there is no look. People still, even in 2022, feel like a lawyer looks like a white male, period,” Luncheon said.

After trying to assimilate to these expectations in the past, whether through the way she talked or dressed, she realized that she was being profiled anyway, despite these efforts.

Luncheon talked about one encounter where she had to show someone her website even after presenting her bar card because they still didn’t believe she was an attorney.

“So at some point I said, Well, y'all treat me the same regardless. I'm just gonna talk and act and dress, how I want to dress and talk and look and act. And I feel that when I became more comfortable with myself, and expressing, you know, my version of being a lawyer, I felt that I did better at my job, connected better with clients and I saw much more successful results.”

Luncheon started her TikTok channel after seeing “social justice creators” talk about cases like those of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. She then decided to post to provide her perspective and presence as a Black woman in law.

“Somebody commented that they've never seen a Black lawyer before," Luncheon said. "They had never met a Black lawyer and that person is a lawyer themselves. And at that point, I was like, 'wow, you know, like, we need to be in this space.'”

According to the American Bar Association’s 2021 Profile of the Legal Profession, only 4.7% of all lawyers in the United States were Black. The report found that lawyers of color made up just 14.6% of the legal profession.

Luncheon emphasized the need for change to ensure that Black women are treated fairly in their positions and urges other Black women pursuing law to stay true to themselves.

“Other people are going to try to throw you off your game. And you're going to get those microaggressions, you know, those comments and the racism unfortunately in the field,” she said.

“But if you want to continue on that path, and you want to stay on that journey, I would say that you know your value, you know your worth, you know what you've done and you know your stuff," Luncheon said. "And every single time when you get in there and you show them that you know what you're doing, that's gonna outshine any of those negative connotations and you're gonna do well, but it's definitely tough. But, we need you in this profession.”

Both Crockton and Luncheon said they know the importance of having diverse voices in law and hope to continue sharing their own with their content and throughout their careers.

“For all too long we have seen the ramifications of corporations and legal minds making decisions for people of color without their input,” Crockton said.

“I think that bringing people to the table that hold different experiences and have experienced intersectionality will only enrich the conversations and bring to light aspects that might not be uncovered by those who have experienced immense privilege," she said.

Crockton said she reminds herself, “Not only am I here, but I also very much deserve to be here.”

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