As the first woman director of the Baltimore City Civil Rights Office, Kisha A. Brown is a true trailblazer. In 2018, she founded Justis Connection, the only online lawyer referral service exclusively showcasing the talent of Black lawyers. Only 5% of lawyers are Black, a number that hasn’t shifted in over a decade; and Black attorneys, especially women, continue to be undervalued and underrepresented. To disrupt this pattern, Justis Connection seeks innovative ways to build the business of Black lawyers and grow their practices. As part of Black Allyship @ Mochi, we are spotlighting Black-owned businesses, particularly those doing important work to foster a more just society.
When Brown first started law school, people inundated her with requests for legal referrals. Sometimes it would take her hours to find a good referral, sometimes days. It was this process that inspired Justis Connection.
“I had this experience from the minute I went to law school, so that’s 15 years [ago],” says Brown. “I realized that we as Black people do not have a concerted network that connects us. For a variety of reasons — economic, social mobility, demographic changes and so forth — we’re not as cohesive, and I wanted to build the network that would bridge that gap.”
Justis Connection currently serves Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, and has plans to expand nationwide. And as Justis Connection grows, Brown is already building a second startup: DEIProfessionals.com, an online directory that promotes consultants across the country who lead, teach, and champion diversity, equity and inclusion.
We’re honored that she took time out of her busy schedule to speak with us in depth about the vision of Justis Connection, the importance of access, knowing your rights, defunding the police, allyship, and more.
On the power of education and access:
I believe that a better informed person is more likely to proactively engage the legal system. Oftentimes, people will consider something to be a problem, won’t know what to do, and will stop there. If people knew more about the mechanics of the law in its various forms — like family law, bankruptcy law, or tax law, for example — they would be more likely to seek assistance when a problem arises. Engaging the law is rarely about hiring a top lawyer for $10,000. It can simply be showing up for a consultation where you get legal advice that gives you more information to make a better-informed decision. Many folks are disenfranchised from the law and are so used to getting the short end of the stick. They think, “That’s just the way things go,” and are missing out on legal recourse.
It’s imperative to recognize that for things to move in a more inclusive direction in this country, oftentimes we’ve had to battle in the courts. Brown v. Board of Education [was put into motion] 30 years before that landmark case was decided. Legal recourse is only one aspect of making progress in this country. There are many different ways we need to advance institutional systems so they are more reflective of and connected to the people. One way is to hold folks accountable to the law and to challenge the law. That’s where having access to solid legal counsel — just having access, knowing where to go — is a big step.
On the importance of knowing your rights:
I’ll share a recent example in considering legal advice: One of my interns is a young Black male who is a junior at Howard University. He shared how in his senior year of high school, while a star athlete and top-notch student, his teacher accused him of breaking the rules by leaving school to get food, and his punishment was going to be a month suspension and not being able to walk at graduation. What happened was he had gone to take the SAT, and apparently, when you’re off campus, you can come back to school or you can be off for the day. He chose to go back, and on his way, picked up lunch. This particular instance ended up being okay, because the principal changed his mind on the punishment, but my intern said neither he nor his parents would have thought to speak to an attorney. Sometimes you need to have an advocate that says, “According to Section 54 of your own policy, you can’t suspend him for this reason.” There are those in our country who know the advantage having legal advice can bring in personal and professional affairs. It’s time more people had better access to quality lawyers.
So many people get used to being wronged, and think bad things happen all the time and there’s nothing you can do about it. There is something you can do about it, though, and I want to empower folks to know their rights and have resources to defend themselves.
On the role of tech in Justis Connection:
There are online lawyer referral services, but they operate in quantity as opposed to what I consider quality. So I wanted to develop a service that addressed people where they were, knowing that the average person is intimidated by the legal process and does not have access to legal resources. The search results need to be helpful, not overwhelming. I wanted technology to make the legal matchmaking process more efficient and effective. Things like algorithms, auto-matching, and natural language processing make it so somebody could enter their problem, and the system would be able to identify their legal issue.
For most tech companies, you start small and build to your vision. We’re in the process of building Justis Connection, and will be doing a soft launch of the new website with updated functionality this month, and officially launching it in January.
On the importance of having a lawyer who understands the experience of Black people in America:
It was a conscious decision to make Justis Connection a platform for Black lawyers. Initially, I went back and forth between people of color and Black people; I wanted to be more inclusive, but I also recognized that the experience of all people of color in this country is not the same. And as a result of not having the same experience, there are different ways in which different cultures navigate in America. Some of my early research showed that Latinx people would be open to using this network, but Asians might not be as much, because they already have their own networks that they’re very aligned with.
I made a choice then to focus on Black people because as a Black woman, I’m attuned to our experience in America: how it’s unique amongst all people of color, and how we have had to bear the brunt of racism in all of its forms more than anybody else, save perhaps Native Americans. And this is not to rank people in terms of oppression, but to recognize that the experience is different.
We have had, and still have, experiences where the law is crafted, either by the letter or by its interpretation, to deny us success, deny us equal access, and deny us the same life and liberty that others are able to enjoy in this country, and as a result, we have a unique set of needs, and need to have folks who are culturally competent to be able to best represent us and best represent our needs.
At the same time, we have internalized the edict of whiteness and white supremacy, so oftentimes Black people will go and get a white lawyer. This might mean getting someone who does not know or understand your personal circumstances. You’re paying someone who is at a deficit to that information, and you are going to have to teach them and explain to them and hope that they understand it, believe it, and are able to then utilize it in the way that best represents your interest. In general, there is great value in choosing somebody who has cultural competency.
On what part of the justice system needs the most immediate overhaul:
That’s a big question, but one way you could see it is that if so many folks weren’t dragged into the criminal justice system, we wouldn’t have to worry as much about prosecutorial discretion, harsh sentencing, prison violence, and all of those things. So you could say that policing is a big thing that needs to change. Police are the gateway.
I was reading an article by a Black woman who used to work for the Baltimore City Police Department, and she was sharing her perspective about defunding not being a good idea. I actually think that reducing funding from the police is a good idea. We can get caught up on the wording and the semantics, but fundamentally it’s that money from the police budget can be used in more substantive and progressive ways to have greater impact. In many major cities, no other department is getting anywhere near what the police are getting. In Baltimore City, the police are getting one third of the budget. […] I personally think there’s a lot of value in the conversation around deconstructing police departments and exploring more people-empowered, non-lethal methodologies to protect and serve communities.
In giving ourselves a little grace, this is still a relatively young country — and although it feels slow, there have been consistent efforts and progress to advance justice. However, now is the time to re-examine existing systems.
On what we can do to ensure more fair outcomes for Black people in America, and allyship:
For some folks, it might be about forgetting what you think you know about Black people. I think that even we, as Black people, forget how much of who we are is crafted in this country in a way that depicts us as the underclass, the criminal, the whore, the derelict, the cheater, the loser, the thief, the unemployed. There are all these representations that everybody has been digesting and consuming. Even us. So for folks to step away from that, to recognize that this is a part of the American story that has literally been written and manufactured, and to be able to say I’m going to step away from what I think I know about Black people — that is the first step. Experience us in a human-based way and one-on-one, rather than making judgments about a whole culture.
If we have greater affiliation as humans with one another, we’ll treat each other differently. So maybe when you see the boss underpaying Lakeisha, instead of following the narrative that has been crafted by this country about who she is, if you’ve gotten to know and see her, maybe you will speak up. And that, I think, begins where we can actually talk about people being “allies.” It happens because this is just who you are. You’re stepping up and standing in places that feel natural and normal to you based on being a human and respecting other human beings. Not from a place of, “Oh I got to put on a cape and be an ally.” Nobody wants to put on a cape every day. Nobody wants to have to step up and think,”Oh Lord, if I don’t say this nice thing about Lakeisha in the meeting, I might not be considered an ally.” By the time they go through their anxieties and come up with all these excuses, the time has passed and it’s too late to say anything anyway. It’s overthought and overshot and you talked about being an ally, but you never showed up as one. Because it was a thing to do and not who you are.
To support the work of promoting Black lawyers and matching people of color with lawyers who understand them, donate to Justis Connection and learn more about the work they do on Instagram and Facebook.
Mochi magazine’s Black Allyship @ Mochi column is an ongoing project that urges an awareness of racial injustice in the United States, particularly the oppression of Black people in America. The articles, resources and opinions we share are a call to action, an open discussion, and a place to take a stance against anti-Black racism. Read more about the column here.
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