March 12, 2021

“No One Succeeds Alone”: The Critical Importance of Role Models in Empowering Women of Color to Succeed in the Legal Field

Anne K. McKeig Associate Justice, Minnesota Supreme Court

Part of a special series recognizing Women’s History Month

Women make up 50.8 percent of the United States population.  Women of color make up 20.2 percent of the population of women.  Despite these statistics, the prevalence of women—and women of color specifically—within the legal field is disparate.

  • Women account for only 35 percent of the legal practitioners.
  • Women of color make up only 8.57 percent of all attorneys.
  • Women fill only 1 percent of all (state and Federal) judgeships.
  • Women fill only 22 percent of state judgeships.
  • Women of color fill only 8 percent of state court judgeships.

These statistics, and the disparity they represent, indicate a colossal failure by the legal community to uplift, support, and sponsor women of color.  Tsedale M. Melaku discussed this failing in her 2019 article Why Women and People of Color in Law Still Hear “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer.”  She explained that there is an unwritten (but undoubtedly experienced) “inclusion tax” forcing people of color to expend “time, money, and mental and emotional energy required to gain entry to and acceptance from traditionally white and male institutional spaces.”

My personal experience, from childhood to Justice, serves as an example of why representative mentoring structures are imperative for women of color within the legal community.

Growing up on the Leech Lake reservation, my access to influential women was extremely limited. I was the only daughter surrounded by four brothers, two older and two younger.  My father was a union man, and because of the remoteness of where we lived, work could be scarce.  My mother, a Fulbright scholar, worked in Indian Education at my high school.  She was an incredibly strong woman who led our family through many challenging and difficult times, including a catastrophic house fire, two of my brothers being hit by a drunk driver (one of whom lived despite the odds), and my father losing both legs to diabetes followed by his untimely death, all while managing a family of 7 on a low income.

In high school, I looked into becoming a dentist because I thought our dentist was a very nice man.  Thankfully, I realized that was a poor choice because I didn’t enjoy science.  How law entered my mind, I have no idea.  It certainly was not from television, because we had two channels, and Hee Haw was not much of an inspiration.  My mother had attended St. Catherine University and, as her only daughter, it seemed like a logical choice for me.  At St. Catherine’s, I was exposed to diverse, strong women—all with impressive career goals.  The majority of the professors were women, and they encouraged my desire to become a lawyer. Though I still had not been exposed to anyone like me (a Native woman) who was a lawyer, I knew that other women from St. Catherine’s had become lawyers and judges, and this reinforced my goal to become an attorney.

After St. Catherine’s, I attended Hamline Law School, where I met one Native student.  But she was in her 3-L year and graduated shortly afterward.  I do not recall meeting any other women, let alone women of color, that I felt a connection with while in law school. Although I did find great friends, I felt isolated.

After law school, I joined the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.  There I was surrounded by strong women who were very influential and supportive.  These women, and my other colleagues, all seemed to know where they were going.  I, however, felt adrift.  It was not until I had the good fortune of meeting District Court Judge Robert Blaeser that my career plans began to solidify.  Judge Blaeser provided me with mentorship from a person who was from, and appreciated, my Native heritage. He could see the passion in me, and helped bridle, mold, and direct my drive.  He accepted me with all of my limitations.  He stuck with me through my eye-rolling phase, my less-than-stellar pregnancy wardrobes, and when I nearly burned down the family justice center by neglecting my waffles that were stuck in a malfunctioning toaster.

My mentorship with Judge Blaeser morphed into friendship, and has been pivotal to my success as an attorney, Judge, and now Justice.  He is one of the people who encouraged me to apply to be a Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court so I could become an example for others who, like myself, didn’t have friends in influential positions.

I would love to say my transition to the supreme court was flawless, but it was not.  I felt like a fish out of water.

I had read My Beloved World by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  She wrote, “Many of the gaps in my knowledge and understanding were simply limits of class and cultural background, not lack of aptitude or application as I feared.”  Her words echoed my thoughts, and shortly after I was appointed I had the good fortune to meet her.  It was exactly what I needed at the time, because she instantly infused me with confidence that I was not only worthy, but that I was capable. Her affirmation reinforced my individual value to the court and reminded me how important and essential it is to receive validation from others with whom you feel a unique bond and connection.

I cannot highlight enough the importance of having a mentor who can see, understand, and feel your history, struggle, resilience, and drive.  The legal community could vastly improve the experience of women of color by developing a culturally-competent mentoring structure.  One of the best ways to do this is to cultivate a group of well-established attorneys of color who can provide mentoring, friendship, and sound career advice to the young women of color entering the legal field.

When, at long last, the bar is representative of our communities of color, our communities will be better off.  Our lawyering and judging will become more grounded in the reality of experiences that have long been ignored by the majority.  I hope that I have played, and will continue to play, some small role in making this happen.

The Honorable Anne K. McKeig joined the Minnesota Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in September 2016.  A descendant of the White Earth Nation, Justice McKeig is the first Native American female to sit on any state supreme court, and her appointment created a women’s majority on the Minnesota Supreme Court.