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Reclaiming Their Space

Three Black women attorneys on race, diversity and justice in Western New York

Published in 2021 Upstate New York Super Lawyers Magazine

Photo by: Yves-Richard Blanc

Immigration attorney Siana McLean was just trying to see her client in a detention facility on a weekend. “I had to see them because I had court on Monday,” she says. “The facility officer was asking, ‘Why are you here?’ And I’m showing him the hearing notice. He’s like, ‘Oh, you just made that up.’ I didn’t even get to meet with my client in the attorney room because that officer decided I was lying—I couldn’t have been the attorney.” 

As a Black woman attorney, McLean’s experience isn’t unique—fellow lawyers Sarah Washington and Marissa Hill Washington, also Black women practicing in Buffalo—can recount similar anecdotes.

Washington, a commercial litigator, says that in Buffalo, “There’s like two or three Black female attorneys in private practice.” As president of the Minority Bar Association of Western New York, she works to broaden law students’ professional horizons and promote diversity across the legal industry. “A lot of minority students go to law school, and we’re just happy to get there that we don’t always think, ‘What am I going to practice?’ Or they might think they can only be a DA, or they might think they could do criminal law. But they don’t know there’s immigration, there’s mediation, there’s business and commercial litigation,” Washington says. “It’s just about exposure.”

For family law attorney Hill Washington, it’s also about “demanding your flowers.” “In this profession, as a woman and as a minority, you demand your respect, you demand your flowers, because no one else is out here doing it for you,” she says. That’s why, on a shared Zoom call with her two peers, she took a moment to pepper in some applause after she listened to McLean’s follow-through at the problematic detention facility.

“I raised a whole lot of hell on Monday morning,” McLean says, “and it’s never happened at that facility again.”

 

As the country attempts to reckon with its racial history in the George Floyd era, public and private institutions—especially legal and judicial institutions—are under increased scrutiny when it comes to diversity and inclusion. A 2020 National Association for Law Placement report on diversity in U.S. law firms revealed that Black women made up just 3.04% of associates. The numbers in Buffalo are just as bad. But Washington, McLean and Hill Washington aren’t stymied by the statistics. They are determined to change them by increasing racial parity within the legal community and producing improved outcomes for communities of color. 

McLean says change will come as privilege is acknowledged and leveraged justly. “For me, it’s about [understanding] privilege,” says McLean. “There’s a whole lot of people not acknowledging that that’s actually a thing.” 

The Path

Each lawyer had a unique journey to the law.

McLean’s family and teachers knew she would become an attorney when she was in elementary school. “Everybody knew,” she says, “because I told them I wanted to be a lawyer.” Born in Kingston, Jamaica, McLean grew up in Canada, where she became a naturalized Canadian citizen. 

Today the immigration attorney specializes in deportation defense cases. She’s of counsel at Muscato & Shatkin in Buffalo and owns SJ McLean Law Professional Corporation in Canada. 

“I just recently got licensed in Canada, so immigration work is all I do on both sides of the border,” she says. Immigration spoke to her partly because her Christian faith encourages her to “welcome the foreigner,” and partly because of her personal experiences as an immigrant, and all the confusion and emotion the experience can kick up. “Humanitarian work,” she calls it. 

“She is the person you call when anyone needs help,” Cianna Freeman-Tolbert, a partner with  Whiteman Osterman & Hanna’s immigration practice group in Albany, says of McLean. She recounts an incident when one of her clients was granted asylum in New York but didn’t have anywhere to go. Freeman called McLean, who immediately said, “Just hold. I’m gonna find something.” Within a few hours, “Siana called all the people she knew in the Buffalo area and she was able to find a place for the woman,” says Freeman. “That’s the epitome of Siana—it wasn’t even her client.”

The desire to help children and their families prompted Hill Washington to specialize in matrimonial and family law. “Adoptions are my ‘feel goods,’” she says. “They’re a lot of paperwork, but there’s nothing like being on that appearance and seeing a little kid get a new family.” 

Hill Washington’s early aspirations weren’t for the law. “From the time I was a child until college, I wanted to be a doctor—specifically a child psychologist or psychiatrist,” she says. “I love working with kids.” 

But science courses at the University of Pittsburgh proved challenging. “I actually lost all my scholarships and almost failed out because science was not for me,” she says. “It just felt like Charlie Brown’s teacher was talking to me.” 

After a “come-to-Jesus” moment, she pivoted to classes she enjoyed, which led her to the law. Her grades skyrocketed, and then an internship with her “uncle,” Paul Vance, who specializes in high-end divorces at Buffalo’s Vance & Zeis Law Firm, showed her that she could combine her interest in the law and her desire to work with children. 

“She’s the right personality in terms of compassion, concern, and integrity that [family law] requires,” Vance says. “I jumped at the opportunity to have her come and work for me. She took to it like a duck to water.”

Kind of how Sarah Washington takes to advocating for diversity.

While Washington was growing up, her father, impressed with her tenacity, and her talent in negotiation and debate, would often refer to her as a “Philadelphia lawyer,” she remembers. That set her on her path. But as a 1L, she struggled to find a place, so she reached out to the MBAWNY and the Rochester Black Bar Association. “I was looking for a mentor with similar experience, and these are the places I found them,” she says. The agencies also served as a great place to ask the basics like, “What is billable time” and “Should I wear a blazer to court?”

Washington eventually landed at Goldberg Segalla and did a lot of thinking about the relationships that got her there. “It put a passion in me to want to give back,” she says. “Having somebody who looks like you or who may have a similar background or financial situation is so important.” 

In 2019, Washington, a commercial litigator, won the 2019 Honorable Judith S. Kaye Commercial and Federal Litigation Scholarship. 

Goldberg Segalla partner Joseph M. Hanna, a past MBAWNY president, nominated her for the scholarship. “[Judge Kaye] was a champion of diversity in the legal profession,” Hanna says. “[Sarah] is paying it forward.”

Obstacles and Opportunities

Yet even with years in practice and good work under their belts, sometimes people still don’t think they’re lawyers. Not when they show up to court in a suit, not even when they present the proper credentials. 

“Once a bailiff has said to me, ‘Oh, are you dropping off something for an attorney?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I am the attorney,’” says Washington. “That happens so often with bailiffs and court staff who think that because I’m young, and because I’m Black, I’m not the attorney.”

“I’ve had some of the older white men call me ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’ and things,” says Hill Washington. “And I’ve had to correct them and clap back in emails because ‘If I was a man, you wouldn’t say this. If I was white, you wouldn’t necessarily say this.’”

And while the past year has seen mega brands create ad campaigns with language like “We must dismantle white supremacy” (Ben & Jerry’s) or “For once, don’t do it” (Nike)—while others like Walmart, Sony, Target and JP Morgan pledge to pump millions into diversity grants—diversity initiatives only go so far if the right people aren’t in the room. 

“I get excited to hear about this program or that,” says McLean, “but the numbers don’t change, and that’s because a lot of times it’s just lip-service.” 

Despite this, the three attorneys have found that embracing their racial and cultural heritage expands their professional reach and impact. Hill Washington’s work in family court—80% of her practice is devoted to representing children—enables her to help kids of color and their families feel more at ease within the legal system. 

“I try to get people in the room for a mediation that have diverse backgrounds and are similarly situated so clients feel more comfortable,” she says.

She also ensures she has a presence in overlooked communities. 

“I’ve made it my personal mission to go places like Niagara County,” Hill Washington says. “And there is no one else there, no people of color in family court.  And if you look around the waiting room, probably 80 percent to 90 percent of those litigants are African American or a minority of some sort.” 

McLean similarly says that her experiences as a Black woman enable her to represent her clients well. “It is both a color thing and also a cultural thing because I’m Jamaican,” she says. “And so I can understand that there are certain things that are cultural that [other] people are not going to understand. To have an attorney that knows why you speak the way you speak, understands why this may have happened, understands why it’s so difficult to even get certain documents makes a tremendous difference.” She says that having an attorney who’s a cultural insider “allows for enhanced representation, for production of better evidence packages for court, and for business.”

On April 21, 2021, as millions of Black Americans and others sighed with relief after hearing the guilty verdict in the George Floyd murder case, Washington wrote a letter to the MBAWNY members. Here’s an excerpt: 

“We are grateful for the verdict those jurors came to, however, it is premature to vindicate our criminal justice system. While Derek Chauvin’s trial was taking place, police in the United States killed an average of three people a day. Accountability is not justice until it happens on a regular basis. Our laws must be reformed to reset the balance between law enforcement and civil rights. We hope that the lessons learned from the death of George Floyd and its aftermath will result in police reform beginning with the passing of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. This is the time to make your contribution to the effort of moving our nation forward.” 

Washington hopes members will use their voting power to select officials who will support police accountability at the local, state, and federal levels. “We must demand the change that we want to see,” she says. Quoting the late great Congressman John Lewis, she encourages MBAWNY members to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America.”  

Hanna, who’s committed his entire legal career to increasing diversity in the legal profession, says that the change the legal industry needs is necessary but slow-moving. “It’s been a struggle to advance the causes and spotlight the issues related to diversity in the legal profession,” Hanna says. “But in today’s current climate, there’s even more of an importance of focusing on and advancing the careers of the underrepresented in the legal profession.”

Onward and Upward

So how will the three continue to get into good, necessary trouble?

McLean is doing whatever it takes to help refugees around the globe find safety and security. “I have the ability to provide opportunities for persons to find safety in either Canada or the U.S.,” she says. Her goal is to help her clients be reunited with their families and “function and flourish in safe environments.” Just as importantly, she insists that it’s critical that the U.S. and Canada “actually give people those opportunities freely, and not just certain people.”

Hill Washington has sought out leadership positions to improve outcomes for those communities where many litigants are Black but the lawyers are not. She chairs the Family Law Committee for the Western New York chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of New York and is revising the AFC guidelines through the association’s Fourth Judicial Department Attorney for Children Advisory Committee.

“We are updating [the guidelines] to the 21st century to be more appropriate and applicable across the board,” she says. “With everything that I do, I try to recruit people to come and serve as AFCs [Attorney for the Child] in family court, especially minorities and especially male minorities, because there is a shortage of attorneys to represent children who look like them.” 

And Washington is still leading the MBAWNY. “Sarah has used her presidency to put an appropriate focus on social justice in Western New York,” says Hanna. “She’s done a great job of putting together presentations and round tables and has also focused on bringing in partners, judges, and prominent government officials to work with underrepresented attorneys in law school.” 

Washington says MBAWNY’s work has raised awareness throughout the region about the importance of hiring and retaining attorneys of color. “Many law firms and companies have required their employees to take diversity and inclusion training,” she says. “This is something I hope to see continue, but I also hope that firms and companies continue to retain and promote diverse legal talent.”

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