One Black Attorney’s View On Black Lawyers In BigLaw

A 1996 publication of a document often referenced by students of diversity–“Why Are There So Few Black Lawyers In Corporate Law Firms?  An Institutional Analysis.”  (See link below.)—indicated that hiring choices within large firms both shaped and were shaped by the strategic choices of black candidates.  The net result, it argued, was that all but a very few black lawyers are hired and succeed in firm settings.

In a recent “On Being a Black Lawyer” blog post, the author—Yolanda Young (pictured)–updated a Huffington Post piece wherein she expressed a slightly different opinion.  Young, an ex-lawyer at Covington & Burling, LLP, acknowledged that there was, and is, room for improvement.   And speaking from experience, she detailed her stint at the firm as challenging, to say the least.  But she finds the culture of law firms to be largely responsible, and tasks the infrastructure of firms with having to address the sensitive issue of race.  She also suggests that (in much the same way as with non-minorities) mentors can make all the difference.

At a staff meeting to address concerns where a colleague was reading racial slurs out loud from a Wikipedia, Young says that a partner downplayed the incident. He recalled how, as a child, a pet monkey had got out of its cage.  His mother, he said meaningfully, never cared about the how’s or the why’s.  She simply wanted it not to happen again.  “The analogy was ill advised but the inference clear,” Young explained. “[R]ather than rooting out racism in the workplace, he only cared that the offender cease the behavior and the offended desist complaining about it.”

An author who lectured at Vassar and gave NPR commentaries, Young knew that writing didn’t bring in a whole lot of money, so she took the stint at Covington partly as a learning experience. Indeed, she got to see the “race/power dynamic up front”.

At the firm’s Washington office, she was a staff attorney where she handled what Young referred to as menial tasks; she and other staff attorneys generated binders and attached relevant or non-relevant codes to thousands of spreadsheets, e-mails and the like.  And, she noted, while paralegals had their own offices, as many as 10 staff attorneys shared one windowless office she called a “file room”.

That wasn’t the only way in which they were ostracized, she says.  They were not invited to attorney-only firm functions and weren’t provided maternity leave or jury duty. Perhaps most telling about their role at the firm was their base pay and bonus structure which was half of a first-year associate’s.

Young noted that, while blacks made up a full 30% of staff attorneys at the firm, they made up less than 5% of the “regular” attorneys.  Was this, perhaps, because they were less qualified?  Apparently not. “Covington’s black staff attorneys (like its black partners and associates) hail[ed] from top law schools like Harvard, Duke and Georgetown while several white associates and partners attended schools like Catholic, Kentucky and Villanova (all ranked well below 50).”

Firms like Covington may very will be diverse, and the way that staff attorneys’ workloads are orchestrated may have nothing to do with the firm’s focus on blacks or minorities  but, says Young, since blacks and minorities have no control over case assignments; are not given choice projects and do not advance in the ranks, the firm may not be treating their minorities as equals.

Is this the case everywhere, she wanted to know? She did track down one fellow black graduate–out of a class of 50–who had made partner. How was this done?  The new partner worked hard, but acknowledged she wasn’t the only one who had done so.  “You have to have a partner willing to be an advocate for you,” the partner explained.

As for her own experience, Young stressed that it is very possible that the partner assigned to oversee her group was not bias[ed], himself.  It might be that he was simply better suited for other tasks.  Young remembers that he said it took him 17 years to make partner. “[B]lacks don’t get to stick around that long”, she said.  Still, Young’s point is that, despite the sighing and eye-rolling that the question of whether a firm is unfair to blacks and minorities causes, firms need to do what they can to see that the culture evolves into one that’s as color blind—and as sensitive to talent and potential across the spectrum–as possible.

Note: Covington’s website has a “Diversity” link which showcases its award by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, among other achievements. To go to its site, see here: http://www.cov.com/diversityoverview/

To read more, go here:

http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/faculty_scholarship/1300/  and here

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yolanda-young/law-firm-segregation-remi_b_9188  and here

http://www.onbeingablacklawyer.com/?p=753

 -EM

Law Firm Segregation Reminiscent of Jim Crow

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