When it comes to successful women, there are plenty of prominent Black female lawyers who challenge expectations and give our daughters, nieces, and friends someone to look up to. These Black female attorneys not only challenge any preconceived notions that we might have about the judicial system but also are making waves when it comes to policy.
Kamala Harris is the current Vice President of the United States and a prominent District Attorney in her own right. She is the Black woman ever to hold such a high role in the United States government and is an inspiration to people everywhere. Kamala Harris’ legal history spanned plenty of other important United States institutions, like the United States Senate and California’s judicial branch, where she served as the Attorney General.
Kamala Harris comes from a family of scholars and influencers. Her mother worked in medical research, and her father was a teacher at Stanford University. Harris herself got a B.A. in Economics and Political science from Howard University and her law degree from Hastings College.
She is easily the most prominent and influential Black female lawyer in the United States today and is proof that you can reach any goal that you set your mind to if you try hard enough.
Michelle Obama might be best known for being the wife of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States. Still, she is also a celebrated lawyer and an inspiration to the rest of the world. As First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama championed healthy eating and anti-obesity initiatives to eliminate food deserts and promote better lifestyles amongst disadvantaged people.
Before she was the First Lady, Michelle Obama went to Princeton University, where she studied African American history and sociology. After graduating with her Bachelor’s Degree, Obama went on to excel at Harvard Law School before working full time as a lawyer. Initially, she worked in the field of copyright law before working directly for Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley.
She also spearheaded a group called Public Allies, which helped aspiring lawyers in Chicago find a path forward.
Charlotte E. Ray
Charlotte E. Ray is one of the original black female attorneys on our list, and she was undoubtedly a colossal groundbreaker. Born in 1850, Ray had to overcome many obstacles to practice law, both as a woman and as a Black person. She has the distinct honor of being the first American Black female lawyer, which is especially impressive when you consider all of the obstacles that were stacked against her.
Ray studied law at the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth and eventually became a professor at Howard University. During her tenure at Howard University, Charlotte E. Ray got the legal bug and decided to study law. She passed the D.C. bar exam and was officially able to practice before the turn of the 19th century.
Ray even had her own office in Washington, D.C., then moved to New York City. Although she continued to practice law, she returned to her first love, teaching, while in New York City. Still, we remember her as the groundbreaking Black female attorney that she is.
Deborah Batts is another groundbreaking Black female lawyer on our list. She had the distinction of serving with the Southern District of New York and as Manhattan’s District Judge. As a member of the LGBTQIA community, Batts is also the first openly gay federal judge nominated to her post by ex-president Bill Clinton.
Batt’s presided over several enormous cases, including a famous one involving Seth McFarland and Family Guy. During one of the show’s more infamous and controversial episodes, Family Guy was sued for a parody of “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
Bourne Co. Music Publishers accused the show and its founder of copyright infringement and stealing the song to promote antisemitism. Batt’s ruled that it wasn’t copyright infringement and that the song was used for “comedic’ purposes. She also ruled on huge cases like the Central Park Five and worked as a judge and professor at Fordham University until she died in 2020.
Constance Baker Motley
Constance Baker Motley was another Black female attorney appointed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She graduated from Columbia Law School and, through a combination of grit and talent, was recognized by Lyndon B. Johnson. He put her in the federal judiciary, and she rose in the ranks, achieving more senior status by 1986.
Constance Baker Motley also did quite a bit of work with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, offering advice to those in need. She even worked as a trial attorney for the fund while she was still in law school, setting her up for a great career working for the Southern District of New York.
Loretta Lynch is significant because she is the first Black woman ever to be the United States Attorney General, nominated by Barack Obama in 2014. Lynch has had a long and exciting career, starting with her tenure at Harvard in the 1970s and 1980s. She graduated with her Bachelor’s degree and then went on to get a degree from Harvard Law School.
Lynch’s early career centered around putting away violent criminals in New York City. She made her mark and caught the attention of Bill Clinton, who appointed her to the Eastern District. From there, she became a law partner and then went back to the Eastern District before finally moving along to be the United States’ Attorney General.
Although there was one other Black Attorney General before Loretta Lynch, Eric Holder, she was the first person who was both Black and a woman, making her historically relevant and something to aspire towards clearly.
Jane Bolin was another Black female lawyer who attained a big first by graduating from Yale Law School and joining New York City’s Bar Association as the first Black woman to do so. She also was the first Black female attorney in the New York City Law Department and went on to do great things on New York City’s Domestic Relations Court. When you consider that all of this happened in the early part of the 1900s, you can appreciate just how groundbreaking Jane Bolin was.
She also came from a family of lawyers, working with her father before moving along to the New York City Corporation Counsel office. She also tried her hand at law, running for the U.S. House on the Republication ticket. Although Bolin lost, she still cemented her role as a lawyer to pay attention to and someone to take seriously in the realm of New York politics and law.
In addition to her work with the law, Jane Bolin was a fierce advocate for educational rights and worked as a board member for the NAACP and National Urban League. She also did pro-bono work for the National Council of Negro Women.
Barbara Jordan was an essential Black female attorney who worked tirelessly for civil rights. In addition to being a massive part of the African American Civil Rights Movement, she also broke ground as the Black person in the Texas Senate and the first Black woman in the House of Representatives from a southern state.
A prominent Democrat, Barbara Jordan fused her legal knowledge with her love for politics and was asked to make many speeches on behalf of the party. She was the recipient of many honors, including for her work uncovering Richard Nixon’s wrongdoings.
She also got the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her continued efforts in the field of civil rights and justice. Although Barbara Jordan was never nominated for the nod, there was talk of her running as Jimmy Carter’s Vice President. Although that never happened, Kamala Harris paved the way for young Black girls to dream of the White House years later. ‘
Mary Ann Shadd
One of the earliest suffragettes, Mary Ann Shadd, was instrumental in working for anti-slavery causes and educating Americans and Canadians about the evils of chattel slavery. She was born in 1823 and died in 1893, so her work is extraordinary given the context of her lifespan.
Shadd worked not only as a Black female lawyer but also as a publisher and journalist. In addition, she was a teacher from time to time and was heavily involved in the Underground Railroad.
Shadd’s work on the Underground Railroad was very hands-on, helping enslaved people escape to Canada. Since the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, slave hunters could head to the northern states and capture formerly enslaved people, bringing them back to slavery in the south. So Shadd and her family became Candian citizens and helped others do the same.
She also worked tirelessly to promote the Union Army’s cause near the end of her life and was a staunch supporter of women’s rights too. She’s a prominent member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and Canada notes her as a Person of National Historic Significance.
Vaino Spencer is one of California’s most influential Black female lawyers and has the fine distinction of being the first Black woman to get a judgeship in the state. Spencer was also highly active in many different organizations and always paid it forward by helping fellow Black women find mentors and achieve greatness. She was one of the primary founders of the National Association of Women Judges and Black Women Lawyers Association.
In addition to her remarkable legal career, Vaino Spencer was also an accomplished dancer, even appearing in a few different silver screen films. She attended both Los Angeles City College and Southwestern Law School and is one of the first Black women to pass California’s bar exam.
Elreta Melton Alexander-Ralston
North Carolina-born Elreta Melton Alexander-Ralston is highly historically significant for having a successful degree in the southern United States as both a woman and a Black person. Although Alexander-Ralston wasn’t the first Black female lawyer to work in North Carolina, she was among only a few.
She rose quickly and became a North Carolina District Court Judge after graduating from Columbia Law School, where she was the first Black woman to attend. Although Black people had graduated from Columbia Law School, only three men preceded Alexander-Ralston, which illuminates the sexist and racist hurdles that she had to overcome.
Alexander-Ralston worked as a trial attorney until she was officially elected to represent North Carolina in its judicial system. She made an unsuccessful bid for North Carolina’s Supreme Court and lost, but is still revered and remembered for her groundbreaking and crucial work.
Of course, not all trailblazing lawyers are the Vice presidents of the United States or the first female Black judge in New York. Tracey Meares has used her law expertise to teach students and professionals how to become more diverse and inclusive. Meares is an expert in law and justice, especially as it relates to communities throughout America.
Tracey Meares was the first Black female professor to be tenured at Chicago School of Law and Yale School of Law. She is an expert in police relations in urban communities and was a part of Barack Obama’s Task Force for 21st Century Policing. Meares still teaches at Yale and continues to use her legal expertise to educate those around her, like in this video:
Janai Nelson is one of the most accomplished lawyers in the field, working with race and diversity in the courtroom. She is currently the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and has used that position to bring justice to the court through her work as a lawyer and as a leader.
Nelson’s specialties are voting rights and election law, and she has led several successful lawsuits against states with restrictive voter laws. She has served as counsel before the Supreme Court, in New York, and in Texas.
Janai Nelson is a lawyer but uses her law expertise in the fields of academia and leadership, making changes through research and policy changes. She was named a Fulbright Scholar and did a year of research in Ghana, Africa. Here is her introduction video for the NAACP:
Until this year, Rachael Rollins was the district attorney of Suffolk County, Massachusetts. She was not only the first Black woman to hold the position, but the first woman to be elected as well. Rollins’ specialty is criminal justice and she is a huge advocate for prison reform around the country.
In 2021, President Joe Biden elected Rollins as the District Attorney of Massachusetts. She holds this role still and will continue to until the next election cycle. Rollins has made a huge difference in the incarcerated population in Massachusetts by working towards decriminalization of smaller offenses and greater justice in the prison system.
Rachael Rollins is not afraid to state her mind and make brave claims, often flying in the face of the standing legislature and other lawyers. She has stood up for her own beliefs and spent her career working towards justice, as we see in this video:
Lacy L. Durham
Lacy L. Durham is more than just a lawyer–she provides a voice for the young law students and lawyers in Dallas and around the world. As the chair for the American Bar Association, Young Lawyers Division, Durham has been able to create a space for young lawyers to speak their minds and increase justice in the field.
Durham is an ERISA and tax law specialist who has been recognized with multiple “40 Under 40” awards and young female leadership awards.
She is currently based in Dallas and uses her influence to guide young lawyers and increase the diversity in the political field.
Kendra Stephen is a lawyer, a business mogul, and a networker. She decreased the overall expenses and availability issues of her law firm by going completely online. This step increased her ability to help clients worldwide and hire more lawyers.
In addition, Kendra Stephen created and runs the website hirealadylawyer.com. It is a database of female lawyers from all across the country and is constantly being updated. Stephen is a part of this database and continues to take on cases and provide informational videos:
Stephen’s innovations in her own office and the online database have created exponential changes in the world of law. Female lawyers are often passed by, and her website creates a way to find the perfect lawyer for anyone’s needs. She has increased the availability and visibility of female lawyers everywhere.
Sia Baker-Barnes is one of the foremost personal injury lawyers in the country, working out of West Palm Beach, Florida. She has been in the industry for several decades now and is still dedicated to making sure that each of her clients gets the healthcare and help they deserve.
Baker-Barnes specializes in personal injury for young children, either injured by negligence or abuse from various parties. Through her work, children who were told they would never walk again have been given adequate medical care and have gone on to live full lives.
Sia Baker-Barnes hasn’t made a difference on a national level like many of the other women on this list, but she is continually creating change in the lives of her clients. Through her legal expertise, people with nowhere to turn can find the help they need and restitution for their injuries.
Another lawyer dutifully doing her day-to-day job, Selwyn Whitehead is located in California and focuses on bankruptcy, taxes, and estate planning law. She owns her practice, which is a huge feat for a lawyer of color. Whitehead has been in the business for years and knows the difficulties of being a woman of color in law.
In addition to owning a law firm and helping customers through bankruptcy and tax issues, Selwyn Whitehead hosts a weekly talk show on a local radio station. The show is dedicated to small businesses and how the law affects taxes on them. Here is a video with a transcript of her show.
Through her private practice and her talk show, Selwyn Whitehead has brought visibility to women in the field of law, especially Black women. She doesn’t have national accolades but continues to work as a lawyer and make a difference in ordinary people’s lives.
Esther Agbaje is a Black female lawyer and the state representative for the 59th district of Minnesota. She is an experienced lawyer and runs on a platform of diversity and inclusion. When in office, she used her years as a lawyer to help her navigate the difficulties and drawbacks of representation.
Esther Agbaje is working towards an equitable and just society, starting in her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a Nigerian immigrant, she represents Minneapolis as a lawyer, a leader, and a regular person with experience in the city. Here is a video profile of Esther Agbaje.
Wilma A. Lewis
Wilma Lewis is currently the district judge of the court of the Virgin Islands. Previously, she was the first Black woman to be the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. However, before becoming a judge she was a lawyer for many years, earning experience in the courtroom and beyond.
Most of Lewis’ legal career began when she started working for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington D.C. after graduating from Harvard Law School. Lewis was elected by both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to be district attorney and continues to serve the court in this capacity until her term runs out.
Ada Elene Brown
Ada Elene Brown broke many records, by being the first African American woman nominated to a federal judge position by President Donald Trump. She is also one of four active indigenous American federal judges and uses her experience to bring justice to the courtroom and beyond.
Of course, Brown was a lawyer before she was a judge. Her law specialties were criminal and civil law, and she spent many years before the bench before she moved behind it. The experience Brown gained in the legal profession enabled her to continue working in the legal system as a judge.
As a judge, Ada Brown has worked on both state and federal levels. She is currently the judge of the northern district of Texas and continues to work on bringing diversity and justice to her courtroom. Here is a video profile of her:
Raychelle Tasher currently works as a bankruptcy and litigation lawyer in Saint Louis, Missouri. She specializes in bankruptcy law and has received several awards for her work in the field, including the National Bar Association’s 40 lawyers under 40 award.
Tasher works with young women of color to increase diversity in the courtroom. She serves as the president of Ms. J.D., a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing women of color as lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals.
Raychelle Tasher has worked with marginalized communities, people of color, indigenous communities, and many other people to create a safer world in Saint Louis and Missouri in general. She has been recognized many times for her excellence in the legal world and deserves every accolade.
Although these are genuinely the top Black female attorneys, there are several more movers and shakers who made waves for their time and helped pave the road for other Black women to succeed in politics and the legal realm.
Here are three additional honorable mentions, although there are countless more. There are also plenty of Black women who are working in the legal profession, not as attorneys or lawyers, but as paralegals or researchers who are also extending a hand to help others get to the top.
Lutie A. Lytle
Lutie A. Lytle succeeded at a time when many Black women did not. She was one of the first, if not the first Black lawyers in the United States. Lytle did unbelievable things, passing the bar exam in Tennessee in 1897 and practicing law all over the United States. She famously worked in New York and Kansas, although she had additional casework elsewhere.
Jacqueline Ann Berrien
Jacqueline Ann Berrien is one of the most critical recent Civil Rights Black female lawyers in modern history. She worked tirelessly for the cause, and Barack Obama recognized her contributions and appointed her to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to aid others in getting a fair shake in the world.
Top Black Female Attorneys & Lawyers, Final Thoughts
There are plenty of black female lawyers and attorneys out there, many of them icons. This list is far from comprehensive, but it does showcase some of the best of the best. If you need inspiration, look no further than some of the ladies on this list!