Strength in numbers is a mantra touted by any organization looking to make its mark, but it’s the mission behind that strength that sets them apart. In the case of the California Association of Black Lawyers, collective strength is more than just a mission–it’s a necessity.Throughout California’s far-flung counties, attorneys that make up each individual Black lawyer organizations in the state can sometimes be counted on one set of hands, making it hard to create change where they are. It’s a problem that comes with the ever-staggering realization that 70% of California’s lawyers are white despite 60% of the population being people of color, according to the California Bar Association.

However, for over 45 years, CABL has become a lifeline for Black lawyers to garner collective strength towards issues that matter to them–whether it’s lobbying or voting for new legislation centered on Black issues or helping to appoint judges that change the face of the state’s judiciary.

That’s what CABL’s founders set out to do when they first established the group in 1977. Today, the first statewide Black lawyer organization in the country boasts 6,000 Black attorneys across 10 affiliate groups and is continually helping pave the way for new legislation that brings a voice of equality to longstanding issues facing African Americans in California.

“Take even something as simple as the Crown Act,” CABL president Aileen Casanave says. “Before that legislation, our children couldn’t wear their hair in their natural form to school and we had to pass a law in California that allowed them to do that. That was in 2020. You can imagine what things were like in 1977.”

Casanave, who served as the president of the Santa Clara County Black Lawyers Association for seven years before reaching her position as CABL’s president, knows the frustration of smaller associations to get legislation passed in areas where Blacks are greatly outnumbered.

“[CABL] allowed attorneys to join a statewide organization and bring the power of that whole  6,000 attorneys, judges and paraprofessionals to an issue in Kern County, to an issue in the Inland Empire,” she said. If a school closes in Oakland, even though it may not impact Los Angeles, those in the LA chapter of CABL lobby alongside the lawyers in the school’s to fight against other legislators or state officials making arbitrary decisions that affect the Black community. It’s exactly the kind of thing the organization’s founders had in mind when they set it up.

Early Goals for Equality

It was during the 1976 National Bar Association Convention in Houston, Texas that several Black California attorneys and judges gathered to create a statewide bar organization to address issues facing Black lawyers and judges in California. After that NBA conference, a number of informal meetings in Oakland and LA were held among prominent Black lawyers to decide that a statewide association should be formed. Their initial meeting included members of the Charles Houston Bar Association and the John M. Langston Bar Association, two notable Black lawyer organizations focused on civil rights. They were assisted by the Black Lawyers of San Diego County (now the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association) and the Black Women Lawyers of California.

One year later, Robert L. Harris, the president of the Charles Houston Bar Association, called the first session of this historic meeting to order. Noted early founders and participants in the organization included Justice Wiley W. Manuel, the first Black California Supreme Court Justice in California’s history, as well as Assemblyman Willie Brown, who would eventually become the first Black Mayor of San Francisco. Donald McCullum of Oakland, also a noted civil rights attorney and longtime NAACP attorney, was elected CABL’s first president. Other officers elected were Naomi Young as Vice President in Northern California, Ivey Dailey as Vice President in Southern California, Irma Brown as Secretary, and noted civil rights John L. Burris as treasurer. Judge Ben Travis was elected Chair of the Judicial Section of the organization.

The primary mission of CABL when it started was to change the face of the judiciary in California and to influence the course of events pertinent to Black people. The objectives and purposes included “the stimulation of Black lawyers in organized bar activities, to seek out and eradicate the roots and causes of racism, and to prepare the high standards of integrity, honor, and courtesy in the legal profession,” according to their bylaws. Other objectives included to vigorously defend Black people from those who would consciously or otherwise deny them basic human and legal rights.

“That was the reason back then, and it’s still the reason today,” Casanave says. “Now, when someone wants to reach out and get a truly collective opinion or voice of the state of California, as it reflects the African American legal opinion, they can come to us and they don’t have to go affiliate by affiliate.”

Growing Into Prominence

Today, CABL is routinely sought out to give opinions and write support letters for various topics and candidates. When Shirley Weber was running for California’s secretary of state, the organization wrote a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom that helped contribute to her being nominated to the position in 2020. Last week, when Patricia Guerrero was named as the first Latina Justice to the California Supreme Court, Casanave said she got a call from the Secretary of Judicial Appointments thanking her for the support that CABL put behind her.

“If we didn’t have a statewide voice, we wouldn’t have got that call, if we hadn’t teamed up as a single unit to fight on behalf of all Californians,” Casanave says.

Part of the strength of that voice is helping it echo into the future by opening up opportunities for young attorneys who practice law outside of more established areas like criminal law and civil rights litigation. Areas where Casanave has developed the organization’s offerings for conferences and special programs include technology and patent law.

“When I started that, I saw that this was a big hole [in our organization],” Casanave said.  “Issues like police reform have been facing African Americans forever. However, now we’ve been moving into this one space that wasn’t represented really well by the Black community. There were a ton of Black technology attorneys that just weren’t members of CABL.” Over the last several years, CABL has begun events like legal technology training events at Google and Facebook.

“We were able to pivot and still maintain our focus on criminal and civil issues that impact African Americans, but then also move into what’s happening in the technical forefront,” Casanave said.

Inspiring the Next Generation

Aside from reaching out to law schools throughout the state, CABL’s been able to connect different generations of its members and new law students through a regular event called the Judges Fireside Chat. Hon. Risë Jones Pichon, the former supervising judge for Santa Clara County Superior Court, would invite Black law students into her home, and CABL would bring in an array of senior CABL members to talk about their experiences studying or practicing law at various levels in their careers and pair off into groups in order to network and talk through a variety of issues they face in their current roles.

A judge would match up with an attorney who has been practicing for seven to 10 years and maybe wants to become a judge, and then the seasoned lawyer would match up with a newer attorney or recent law grad. Though this event is currently working primarily with law students from University of San Francisco and the University of Santa Clara, Casanave says the next goal is to bring an event like this to law students in LA and the Inland Empire.

“That’s how we keep our law students in school,” Casanave says. “Because it’s so easy for them to fall off with things–not just work, not just school-related. It’s holistic things like finding a place to get your hair done near your school or finding a church to go to. These are all things that having a Black attorney mentor who looks like you and talks like you and laughs like you, and and you know has that cultural understanding of some of the things that you’re going through.”

Nearly five decades since CABL started, its role as a lifeline continues to endure for those within the Black legal community as well as allies and those looking for support, opinions and feedback on legislative decisions, policy questions and other areas where a Black perspective is needed.

While growing the organization from hundreds to thousands is part of the strength in numbers CABL’s founders hoped to achieve with their vision, the ability to be included and listened to in various conversations affecting California’s legal landscape is the mission that continues to endure.

“If somebody is having an issue, they will run it by members of CABL to see what our opinions are,” Casanave said. “We’ve achieved a status that allows us as attorneys to really impact the laws of the state of California.”