Five percent of lawyers are Black. Matthew Graham aims to change that.

Matthew Graham was reluctant to allow his wife to record him as he opened his results from the Maryland bar exam. She was insistent. Now he’s glad he did.

The video was captured by Graham, 29, who graduated from the University of Baltimore Law School in December, as he opened the email. His wife, Ciara Graham, 29, and their 11-month-old daughter, Celine, stood over his shoulder.

“I just felt overwhelmed,” said Graham, who was in tears before he even clicked the results that day, April 21. “I was anxious to finally see it.”

Matthew Graham, who attended the University of Baltimore School of Law, passed the bar exam on his first attempt, scoring a 309 out of 400. (Video: Matthew Graham)

He erupted into a celebration of joy when he read the word “congratulations.” He screamed it out loud. Then, while jumping up and down, he shouted repeatedly, “I passed the bar!”

Not only did Graham pass the bar — the final step to becoming a lawyer — but he got a standout score of 309 out of 400, landing him in the 94th percentile. The minimum passing score in Maryland is 266, and the overall pass rate in the state for the February 2023 exam was 32%.

While Graham was ecstatic about his bar exam results, he didn’t expect anyone outside his immediate circle of family and friends to care for him. The internet proved him wrong. His wife shared his jubilant reaction video on TikTok, and it has been viewed more than 7 million times.

“It just feels great,” said Graham, who grew up in Frederick, Md. “It’s difficult to process.”

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Graham was especially moved by the outpouring of support, he said, because he knows how rare his story is. According to the American Bar Association, about 5 percent of all lawyers are Black — and that number has been stagnant over the past decade — even though about 14 percent of the US population is Black. There are also racial disparities in bar exam scores. In 2022, the first-time pass rate for White examinees was 26 percent higher than Black test takers.

“The lack of diversity in the legal field has direct implications for the legitimacy of the legal system,” said Verna Williams, the CEO of Equal Justice Works, a DC-based nonprofit aimed at supporting public service lawyers and promoting equality and justice in the legal system. “Law touches everything in society. It’s essential that there be diversity in all its dimensions, including gender, ethnicity, economic status, as well as race.”

About 86 percent of lawyers are non-Hispanic White people, even though White people make up just under 58 percent of the US population.

There are several factors that contribute to racial disparity in the legal field, Williams explained, beginning with unequal access to education. Students of color are “very often relegated to school systems that are not really well-funded or well-resourced,” Williams said, adding that law school admission tests also “seem to favor people who have the funds to sign up for courses.”

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When Black students graduate from law school, they are left with loan debts that are 97 percent higher than those of White law school graduates, she said. Given the lack of diversity in the legal field, often, “Young Black folks don’t see being a lawyer as a reality.”

Sharing stories like Graham’s “is extraordinarily important,” Williams said. “He is an inspiration on so many different levels.”

“It’s the kind of thing that helps people have more faith in the system,” she added.

Getting to where he is today, Graham said, was no easy feat. He enrolled in law school as an evening student and worked full-time during the day as a paralegal and law clerk. For 3 ½ years, he said, he had no room for error.

As a young Black man, Graham felt he didn’t have the same financial resources as many of his classmates, and while he wished he didn’t have to juggle his schoolwork and day job, “I didn’t have the option.”

“You have to have resources to get into law school,” he said. “The legal field favors those who have more economic resources, and on average, African Americans have less than other races.”

Despite the challenges, Graham was determined to become a lawyer, and he was willing to do whatever it took to complete his degree — and pass the bar exam on the first try.

“It was a huge amount of pressure,” he said. “Especially having a young baby and being a new husband.”

“I worked as hard as I could and finished near the top of my class,” said Graham, who graduated a semester early.

Still, one major obstacle remained: the bar exam.

When it came time to study, Graham hunkered down. For nine weeks straight, “I put in about 55 to 60 hours a week,” he said. “I left myself no choice to fail.”

When he walked into the exam room on Feb. 21, his nerves were immediately calmed by his environment. He was taking the exam at Martins West, a banquet hall in Woodlawn, Md. — which happened to be the same venue where he married his wife in 2021. The two have been together for 10 years.

“My wife was so important to my success,” he said. Taking the exam in that room “just felt like peace.”

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When he finished the two-day test, Graham was confident that he had passed, but he started to worry about other states releasing results. “I noticed that the pass rates were super low,” said Graham, who saw that Pennsylvania had a 44 percent overall pass rate and that in Tennessee, only 36 percent of people passed the exam.

“Maybe I didn’t do that well; maybe this could go badly,” he recalled thinking.

Relief washed over him when he received his score after two months of anxious anticipation. Graham was sworn into the Maryland State Bar Association on May 25 as a licensed attorney. He is working in Frederick as a litigation associate for a law firm.

Now that he is officially a lawyer, Graham hopes to become a mentor to prospective law students — particularly those who feel underrepresented in the field.

“I want to be an inspiration to African Americans here and African Americans in Ghana, where my parents were born,” he said, adding that he is planning to do speaking events at schools and that he will volunteer with nonprofit organizations that support anyone who wants to join the legal profession.

“I want to share my story and uplift people,” Graham said. “You can make it through, just as I did.”

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