CCAC’s ‘Men of Merit’ to Increase Success of Black Male Students
James Barnes doesn’t do divorces, wills, or criminal law. So, he says, as far as his relatives are concerned, he’s essentially useless.
But for a start-up looking to secure its intellectual property, a family business looking to take the company public, a media conglomerate planning to buy out a competitor, or any business that needs to stay compliant with ever-changing federal securities law, then Barnes is on the very short list of attorneys to call.
And even though it was for none of those reasons, when the Community College of Allegheny County called and asked him to kick off its 2018 “Men of Merit” Fall Speaker Series, he gladly accepted.
The series is part of the college’s broader “Men of Merit” initiative, a student program focusing on increasing the retention, campus-community engagement and academic success of male students of color. The initiative is a collaborative effort with the Achieving the Dream National Reform Network and helps mentors support and endow students with critical insight on how to persevere, overcome barriers and achieve academic and life success.
Barnes’ advice along those lines was threefold: education is the great equalizer; always do the best work you can, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Academic success wasn’t Barnes’ problem—not at first, anyway. As he told the students assembled in the auditorium at the Foerster Center, Sept. 6, his scholastic achievements in high school in New Jersey earned him an Ivy League scholarship to Dartmouth College.
“I grew up poor, with a single mom who was loving, but tough, and who made it clear that the only standard was excellence,” he said. “She also taught me the importance of not giving up—because when I got to Dartmouth, I was not ready. The lowest math class was calculus—I’d never had it. I struggled. I knew I had to step up my game. So—later than I should have—I asked for help. By my junior year I was equal to or better than my classmates, most of whom had come from the best schools in the country.”
After Dartmouth, Barnes went to Howard University Law School because of its history and atmosphere—and because he had an uncle who was a professor there. And because he did exceptionally well on his first-year law final—he was invited to a reception at one of the top firms in Washington, D.C. where he was introduced to what being a top-tier corporate lawyer could mean.
“Lawyers get paid well. Lawyers at big firms get paid extremely well. I didn’t know jobs like this existed when I was your age,” he said. “A lot of people get caught up in the prestige of places like Harvard. My advice: Excel where you are.”
He did it at Howard, and when he got to the firm of Buchanan Ingersoll, he was told no African American first-year associate had ever made partner—he became the firm’s first Black managing partner. He was then hired away by Reed Smith, then Pepper Hamilton. He is now a partner at Blank Rome.
“Yeah. First Black partner is great, it’ll be in my obituary—but it’s yesterday’s news,” he said. Be a lifetime learner. Be excellent today. If you see someone doing something you want to—ask them how it’s done. And the corollary to that is believe in yourself. Always bet on yourself—it’s the best bet you can make.”
"CCAC’s ‘Men of Merit’ to Increase Success of Black Male Students," by Christian Morrow was published in The New Pittsburgh Courier on September 14, 2018.