Walk In My Shoes

A day in the life of Danielle Johnson, a Black woman attorney

Danielle Johnson 

By Danielle Johnson JD’16

Photograph by Michael J. Clarke

Danielle Johnson’s essay is reprinted with the permission of the Boston Bar Journal, where it appeared on May 28, 2020. She is a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, where her practice focuses on elder housing and disability benefits.

If you approach the steps of the Edward Brooke Courthouse (named after the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate post Reconstruction) around 8:45 a.m. on a Thursday morning—colloquially known as “Eviction Thursday” in Boston—there is a seemingly endless line of people, mostly in street clothes, waiting anxiously to get through the security screening. I approach, dressed in a suit and dress shoes with my hair neatly dreadlocked. I walk quickly past the lines of waiting litigants with my bar card and driver’s license in hand. I am a young African American woman and I am an attorney. In court, I am both an anomaly and a chameleon, depending on whom I encounter.

The Court: The Tale of Two Lines

The familiar discomfort starts outside the courthouse. To get through the door of the courthouse to the Eastern Housing Court sessions on the fifth floor, I must walk past the long lines of fellow people of color waiting to submit themselves to the security screening—which often includes an electronic pat-down—before being allowed in the building. It is my weekly routine to swallow the discomfort of the two lines; one short line for predominantly white attorneys and another longer line for the litigants, including my clients, predominantly people of color. I present my bar card and driver’s license, and after close inspection—notably which are not scrutinized for my white colleagues, who flash their cards and proceed before me—I am allowed to pass the first test and enter the foyer of the marbled courthouse.

Inside, the courthouse is buzzing, and the clamor of chatter and movements echo throughout the hallways. I make my way up to the fifth floor for the call of the lists. Exiting the elevator, the scene that awaits can overwhelm an unsuspecting person, but it is business as usual for Eviction Thursday. The two “Attorney of the Day” tables are set up to provide quick legal advice, one for pro se landlords and the other for pro se tenants. The area is so crammed with people that one cannot see the Attorneys of the Day. This is not surprising given that in 2019 alone, 39,600 households faced eviction in Massachusetts. Of these, 92% of the tenants were unrepresented; in contrast, more than 70% of landlords were represented.

At the Attorney of the Day table for tenants, I flip through the dockets and see the usual massive number of new eviction cases—about 150 in total—and 55 motion hearings on the two lists. The day will be long. I brace myself for the ongoing series of tests that I will face, each of which will demand that I prove who I am, making Eviction Thursday an even more exhausting day.

The Client: “You’re My Lawyer?”

Finding my client among the sea of black and brown faces who are anxiously searching for answers from anyone who might be willing to listen is doable if I have previously met the tenant. Today is not that day. Working in legal aid, where there is a mismatch between high demand and limited resources, I often walk through the hall shouting out names of clients I will meet for the first time in court. When my first call does not yield a response, I call again. Success! I formally introduce myself to the client and field the expected question: “You’re the attorney I spoke with?” Surprise mixed with suspicion registers on my client’s face. For my clients, it is my youth that is concerning. I am used to this look of doubt as an attorney who practices exclusively with elders; this is my second test of the day. It is the unspoken challenge to my legitimacy raised by my appearance. I deflect their anxiety with humor using stereotypical images of attorneys common to their generation: “I must look adolescent, not the Matlock or Perry Mason you were expecting?” To get past the awkwardness, I direct my client’s attention to the goal for the day and what to expect in the courtroom. But sometimes this is not sufficient assurance. I confidently explain to my client that this is “not my first rodeo,” and hope that I have gained their trust. I leave them to their thoughts and move on to find opposing counsel.

“In court, I am both an anomaly and a chameleon, depending on whom I encounter.”

–Danielle Johnson JD’16

The Bench and the Bar

Housing courts tend to have their usual players, so locating a specific attorney is not often difficult. Again, today is not that day. Like a chameleon, I pass unnoticed through the tenants crowding the halls while waiting anxiously for the courtrooms to open, and quickly scan each white individual in a suit. In the courtroom, shades of brown dominate, speckled here and there by clusters of ivory. I am not the only person of color, or the only woman, or the only person of modest economic means. Even so, there is a clear dichotomy: The majority of the tenants are minorities while the majority of attorneys are white and male. Then there is me.

As the list is called, the attorneys jockey for seats in the jury box. In that segregated space, protected against the huddled masses packed into the courtroom, the color scheme flips; today, I am the only grain of pepper in a sea of salt. I sigh, recalling the day the court officer singled me out: “Hey, you can’t sit there. You a lawyer?” Moving past colleagues to an empty seat, I speculate that they are wondering: “Does she know this section is for attorneys?” This is the daily reality of what it means to be an attorney of color in Massachusetts, navigating unwritten tests to prove that I exist, I am qualified, and that I belong.

Once the call of the lists begins, the doors to the standing-room-only courtrooms are shut. Any defendant not present in the correct courtroom for the call will be defaulted. Most tenants who answer are visibly anxious. Once referred to court mediation on the third floor, some will go over agreements with a housing specialist, but most will be diverted to sign, without the benefit of a hearing or trial, the pre-drafted form agreement for judgment offered by the landlord’s attorney. This is accomplished quickly in the hallway, often with no understanding on the part of the tenants of the document they have signed, including the waiver of their right to request a stay, seek reconsideration, or pursue an appeal. Instead, they blindly focus on the quickest option that allows them to remain in their home and escape the stress of being in court.

My client, who was previously pro se, had signed such an agreement for judgment with the landlord. The slightest breach of any of its conditions, including all incorporated lease terms, is deemed material and could trigger an execution for possession—and the agreement waived all stays of execution. But today, there will be no execution for possession. Today, I have prevailed in negotiating an amendment to the “sword of Damocles” agreement, and substituted a sustainable repayment plan with sufficient time to access third-party rental assistance through the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program for the onerous agreement for judgment. I also connected the elderly client to the court’s Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP). I am the most pleased with my success in changing the basis for the eviction from “fault” to “no-fault,” thereby protecting my client from mandatory termination of their Section 8 housing choice voucher.

I have passed today’s last test. I achieved a successful outcome. I demonstrated my competence to my client and proved my negotiation skills to an opposing counsel with whom I had not worked in the past.

Legal Aid and the Massachusetts Bar

Back at my office at Greater Boston Legal Services, my shoulders relax. Here, I am not burdened by expectations to conform to the culture and hierarchy of a Boston law firm. I am not oppressed by inadvertent stereotyping nor subject to daily microaggressions that would stunt any lawyer’s professional growth. Notwithstanding, my dominant experience navigating my chosen profession is one of alienation, exclusion, and discomfort—the price that I pay under the “invisible labor clause” for being a Black woman legal aid attorney in Massachusetts, serving the poorest people in Boston who are predominantly people of color, like me.

In my career, I have experienced racism, gender discrimination, and elitism. My experience is not unique. Throughout the Commonwealth, attorneys of color are called upon to prove their qualifications daily, to colleagues, clients, court personnel, and even clerks and judges.

The 2019 demographic survey conducted by the Supreme Judicial Court, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, revealed that out of 22,743 participating attorneys, 20,043 (86%) identified as white, and only 494 (2%) identified as Black or African American, 519 (2%) as Hispanic or Latinix, and 574 (2%) as Asian. These numbers make clear what my experience has proven—there is a gross lack of minority representation in the Massachusetts bar.

This is not a “woe is me” story. It is a call to action for cultural diversity in law firms and legal organizations and, more importantly, for reflection on and recognition of each of our implicit biases. My day is over, but these challenges will repeat tomorrow and next week and every month thereafter with a new list of scared, mostly poor, minority tenants, assembled in lines to enter a courthouse named for the first African American attorney general of Massachusetts, all in effort to get “justice.” We should do better. We can do better.

Suffolk University Boston Law School 

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