These days the laughter of law professor Leonard Baynes might be even more infectious at the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development at St. John’s University because the director was just named one of the nation’s 100 most influential black attorneys.
The tribute comes from On Being a Black Lawyer, a media company that promotes the causes and contributions of African-American attorneys and publishes “The Power 100 Special Edition,” where Baynes is profiled among other top-lawers.
The award was presented to Baynes, a nationally recognized communications law scholar specializing in race and media issues, at a reception at the The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington, DC on March 2. “It is really an honor to be part of that group,” 54-year old Baynes said in an interview after returning to St. John’s Jamaica campus. “OBABL does great work calling to attention the hardships of African-American lawyers.”
According to the American Bar Association, less than 5 percent of U.S. attorneys are African American, and OBABL seeks to advance diversity in the legal profession.
“Even though this is 2012, as a black lawyer there are still not a lot of people before you, so in essence you are creating your carreer by yourself,” Baynes said.
He has done research on the underrepresentation of people of color in the New York State law schools and judiciary and on issues of racial discrimination.
The award follows an extensive list of past acknowledgments presented to Baynes for his service to the law school community and for his engagement on issues affecting people of color in media and legal affairs.
One of his recent awards came from the American Bar Association, when it named the Ronald H. Brown Prep Program for College Students, which Baynes started, the recipient of its 2011 Alexander Award for Excellence in Pipeline Diversity. It was Baynes’ idea to prepare mainly prospective law students of color for the Law School Admission Test.
“I believe that there are still societal barriers that discourage people of color to succeed,” Baynes said, noting that admission officers should holistically assess each prospective student, not just check their GPAs.
“Their parents could be immigrants who don’t speak English, who may have a high school education or less. They are working full or part time and are active in student stuff and their GPAs are almost where they need to be — these students are special,” Baynes said, “because mommy and daddy can’t help them.”
Baynes teaches Race and Racism in Law, a course on racial discrimination in court, and proper business etiquette on what to wear. The program recently gave stipends of $150 to five students from low- income families, whom Baynes noticed didn’t have appropriate clothing to work in a law office.
“What we are trying to do is to give the students information, support and knowledge about their opportunities so they will make the right choices,” he said. The program began as a four-day session and today stretches over two years.
“That is the beauty of America, it is possible to move from immigrant status to becoming a law professor,” he said, although emphasizing that everything has to be in place to facilitate that.
Baynes is a son of Caribbean immigrants from St. Vincent, where his mother got a high school education and his father dropped out of school for a tailor apprenticeship. When they moved to New York, his father worked in a clothing factory and saved money, then bought a building and started renting out apartments. Eventually they opened up two clothing stores and moved to East Elmhurst.
“They were both actually really smart. You wonder what it would have been like if they had had more opportunity,” he said.
His mother taught him to read before he started school but that was as far as she could go in assisting her children’s education. “When it came to calculus, I couldn’t ask them,” he said.
And preparing for the Law School Admissions Test in high school, he again relied on his peers for help. He was one of three blacks in a school with 200 students.
“I never thought of myself as being black or different before being in that small environment,” Baynes said.
At New York University’s Law School, he was again one of a few black students. “It’s a question of feeling isolated and not knowing who you can trust and relate to,” the lawyer said.
All these challenges on his way to establish a career led Baynes to consider how to support talented people of color like himself, “who don’t have opportunities and for whom law is something that is not in their family background.”
So when he moved back to Queens from having taught in West New England University in Springfield, Mass., and worked at the FCC in Washington, DC, he decided “to give back to the community.”
Michael Simons, dean of St. John’s University School of Law, said Baynes deserved the honors: “Being named to the Power 100 is well-deserved recognition for Len Baynes. He takes on the great responsibility of educating the next generation of lawyers who will be leaders on issues of social justice. Professor Baynes is changing the world one student at a time.”
This year, five students Baynes has known since prep school are graduating.
“I’m really excited about their prospects,” Baynes said. “I hope even if they are not in social justice they will consider it part of their overall carreer.”
He is happy to continue his teaching and work for the prep program. “That may be my legacy,” said the lawyer, who lives in Forest Hills.
“I love Queens’ diversity. It reminds me of my family,” said Baynes, whose parents have both died and whose six siblings are spread across the country.