Angela A. Bell is a native of New Orleans and 1998 graduate of the Southern University Law Center (SULC) in Baton Rouge, LA. After law school, she spent 10 years working at the First Circuit Court of Appeal where she gained an expertise in appellate law. In 2008, she went to work as a law professor at SULC, where she has taught Legal Writing, Constitutional Law, Professional Responsibility, pre-law, bar review, and Law and Minorities. In addition to her teaching, she is faculty advisor to theSULC Journal of Race, Gender, and Poverty. Prior to entering law school, Bell served as Program Director for the National Council of Negro Women of Greater New Orleans.
Professor Bell is a committed public servant who frequently lends her time to causes involving at-risk children, prisoner re-entry, and the plight of the indigent. Professor Bell engages in advocacy work and is a regular speaker in her community as well as for professional organizations. She has participated in local, national, and international media interviews and collaborations to discuss her advocacy work, including La Presse (France),MSNBC, NBC Nightly News, and National Public Radio (All Things Considered). Areas of expertise include restorative, social, and racial justice, criminal justice, and civil rights and human rights issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Pre-Law School Days
● What was your life like before you went to law school?
Most of my pre-law school days were spent in New Orleans, which is where I was born. I lived a middle class lifestyle, but was keenly aware of the fact that that was not the case for everyone in the city. At that time, poverty in the city was very high, and it was often generational. I recall being aware of it, and I recall being bothered by it. That curiosity never left me. It shaped me. It had a lot to do with me majoring in Political Science in college. It also had a lot to do with me becoming the Director of a non-profit before law school. It definitely informs my scholarship now.
Before law school, I married and began a family. At that time, my views on service and volunteerism were as narrow as my life’s focus. I lived a life that was focused on the needs of a few people, largely my immediate family. That changed after law school. Before law school, I viewed service and volunteerism as options. After law school, that changed as well.
● What did “being a lawyer” mean to you then? How did you come to this understanding?
I felt being a lawyer meant having power and appeal reserved for a select group in society. I felt that you had to gain admittance to this professional society if you wanted to possess these things. As a young person, these were my only impressions because I didn’t have interactions with lawyers, hadn’t read about them and was not taught about them in school. I knew only what television had imparted to me.
● What drew you to become a lawyer?
The appeal of what I perceived to be an influential, select society, but not because I wanted to feed my ego. I wanted the training and access law would afford me as a social change agent.
The Law School Days
● What was studying law like for you? Was it what you imagined it to be?
I entered law school with no point of reference. Once I enrolled, students told me that it was hard. The challenge exceeded what I could have ever imagined. For the entire three-year period, I thoroughly prepared for each class and I read, outlined and studied daily. It took me a while to understand how I learned and it took me a while more to understand what, of the voluminous assigned reading materials, I actually needed to master and be able to apply. Once I understood these things, the time I studied did not change, but the way I studied did.
● What stories, images, or practices sustained you while you studied?
I prayed a lot and always, in return, got a revelation that I was purposed to be a lawyer and that, in my life, law would be a ministry of some sort. I was convinced that I was called to study law so I found solace in the knowledge that I was purposed to succeed and not fail. This image sustained me.
● Besides taking the bar exam, how did you transition from being a law student to being a lawyer?
I first underwent a mental shift from being a theoretical thinker to a practitioner entrusted with serious problems and responsibilities. I soon realized that I needed to grow a lot more as a professional in order to fully deserve the trust that I was given. I identified seasoned attorneys who I wanted to emulate and they became professional mentors. I engaged them a lot. I also read judicial opinions and legal periodicals regularly. This helped expand my knowledge base and it enabled me to put many legal doctrines and challenges into their proper historical context.
The Post-Law School Days
● How have you incorporated your legal studies into your everyday life (either in your career or outside of it)?
I have been a lawyer for twenty years. I am now in the second phase of my career. I spent the first ten years working in an appellate court. Using my legal research, writing, analytical and communications skills is what I was hired to do. I have now been a law professor and an activist scholar for ten years. This requires those same skills plus a lot of critical thinking and interpersonal skills. I am also a member of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), the American Bar Fellows and the National Black Lawyers-Top 100, and I am a NLG Scholar. These various posts require me to incorporate my legal studies.
I also use my legal studies in my personal life all the time. This happens in a range of ways, such as when I watch the news or read communications from my daughter’s school or interface with contractors performing home repairs. My legal studies have definitely paid off.
● What do you tell people who ask you what it’s like be a lawyer?
I tell them, in my case, it’s not glamorous. It doesn’t even make me rich. For me, it’s like being an unofficial public servant to all of mankind because outcomes that lawyers obtain rarely only impact the parties listed in the official documents. Legal changes extend exponentially. My days are long, stressful and exhausting. Most of my work with the public is pro bono, volunteer work. My work with my law students involves me training them to surpass my greatest professional accomplishment.
This requires me to perform at my best each day. In this regard, one has to be at peace putting the interests of others before your own interests at times and to be accepting of not getting attribution for every single accomplishment or victory that you may have had a hand in. The demands are great, but the rewards are even greater. It’s the most fulfilling life imaginable, and I feel my being an attorney is a great honor.
● What, if anything, do you want to share with our readers?
I have three departing thoughts. First, I would like the readers to know that many people mistakenly treat all lawyers as a single group of people who do the same thing. I would like people to recognize that, within the profession, there are many specialty areas. All lawyers don’t do the same things, nor do they earn the same pay.
Next, I would like the readers to consider the fact that all people― not just lawyers―have the power to make far-reaching, impactful, life-changing advances in society. No one should wait on the next person to act when a change is needed. If you have the skills and the courage, you should seize the moment.
To illustrate my point, I will use two examples of social changes that I have been involved with. About eight years ago, I was curious about the state of Louisiana’s decision to house inmates in solitary confinement on an indefinite basis and without any proof that these inmates committed a violation of a prison rule when they were initially placed in solitary confinement. My curiosity led to a research project, then a publication, then six years of advocacy work on behalf of two of the inmates in the group known as the Angola 3. They were placed in solitary confinement in 1972 and had the distinction of being held in solitary confinement longer than anyone else in the United States. Robert King Wilkerson remained in solitary confinement for twenty-nine years, released in 2001; the late Herman Wallace, released in 2013, was in solitary confinement for forty-one years; and, Albert Wo0dfox, released in 2016, was in solitary confinement for forty-three years.
What’s significant here is the fact that there are people who volunteered over twenty years, others who volunteered a single year and many more who volunteered spans of time in-between to free these men. The Angola 3 team consisted of activists, childhood friends, academics, artists, students, citizens of Louisiana and other states, clergy members, members of the faith community, lawyers, family members, members of the international community and prisoners. We did interviews, articles, plays, exhibits, prayer services, second lines, rallies, press conferences, lobbying and more. This effort was successful because of ordinary individuals who saw a need and stepped up to fill it.
A second illustration involves Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law, which allows felony convictions when only ten of twelve seated jurors vote to convict. This law was first enacted in 1898 by lawmakers who openly said on the record that they enacted laws to “protect the supremacy of the white race.” Three years ago, I joined forces with a few other individuals to end this practice. At that time, we had little more than a vision. Countless talks and publications later, in 2018, we have witnessed this history. On May 14, 2018, the House of Representatives voted 82-15 to place a proposed constitutional amendment to end the practice on the ballot. That was the final legislative step. The vote means that, on November 6, 2018, Louisiana votes will decide whether to join forty-eight other states in requiring unanimous jury verdicts in all felony trials. If successful, this will lead to the single most impactful criminal justice reform to take place in Louisiana’s history due to the sheer volume of people directly and indirectly impacted by the non-unanimous jury system.
I have seen this non-unanimous jury effort evolve from a small, polite discussion to an organized effort to an uncontainable movement. This happened because of the collective efforts of a number of courageous people who dared expose an injustice dating back from Louisiana’s Jim Crow era past. These people were fearless and willing to serve. They didn’t ignore the problem and wait on the next person. Because of them, a relic of white supremacy and a poignant threat to justice has been threatened and is now on life support.
Finally, I would like readers to recognize that there is a direct conflict between being a people pleaser or a social climber and a social change agent:
Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences…”
-Susan B. Anthony
The world needs fewer people pleasers and social climbers and more social change agents!