Big Law is stepping up efforts to recognize Juneteenth, which falls on Saturday, after last year’s protests and firms’ own diversity shortcomings put a spotlight on racial inequities in the U.S.
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld is hosting a Pulitzer Prize-winning author Friday for a talk; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius is helping to distribute food to the needy; and Squire Patton Boggs is hosting what it describes as candid exchanges on race in offices globally. Those are just some of the activities firms have planned—and most firms also gave workers a paid day off.
“We are observing Juneteenth as a commitment to racial justice,” said Mary Ellen Connerty, director of diversity and engagement at O’Melveny & Myers.
Juneteenth, which commemorates the effective end of slavery in the U.S., is getting particular interest from firms after the killing of George Floyd while in police custody last year spurred protests throughout the U.S. Law firms stepped up their activism in response, providing legal help and donating to equal justice projects.
“There was a moral reckoning last year,” said Tony Pierce, the partner in charge of Akin Gump’s Washington office. “We are in a service business where our job is to look forward and figure things out. That’s what our clients want, and in the last year, I have never seen so many clients interested in this.”
More than 500 Akin Gump employees have signed up for a talk by Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books, including “On Juneteenth.”
The activities come as law firms have relatively little progress of their own to show in efforts to diversify their ranks.
Less than 2% of firm partners are Black, and less than 1% are Black women, according to National Association for Law Placement data. The slow progress has drawn scrutiny from industry critics, including corporate clients who want representation by legal teams that more accurately reflect the country’s diversity.
Occasions like Juneteenth, Connerty said, “are opportunities for minorities to be seen and heard. We want to recruit more minorities, but it’s probably more important to retain the people we have and make sure they are heard and that there is a dialogue going on.”
Her firm, O’Melveny & Myers, is hosting University of Mississippi professor Shennette Garrett-Scott to discuss Juneteenth.
Squire Patton Boggs is hosting forums in offices globally to focus on what Juneteenth represents.
The forums are designed to help identify ways to eradicate the lingering effects of institutionalized racism, said Frederick Nance, the firm’s global managing partner for the U.S.
“We don’t see it as being just another holiday,” Pierce said. “We see it as an opportunity for reflection and to learn about racism and racial justice.”
Some firms are incorporating service into their Juneteenth commemorations. Morgan Lewis is holding a community activity in Washington for lawyers and staff to help pack and distribute food through Small Things Matter, a group that helps people with food, literacy and crafting programs.
Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state and ensure that the last of the enslaved Blacks were free. That was nearly three years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
President Joe Biden planned to sign into law Thursday a bill that makes Juneteenth the 11th national holiday on the federal calendar. Federal workers would get June 19 as a day off with pay, or the Friday or Monday that falls closest to it if the holiday falls on a weekend.
Most of the largest firms are observing Juneteenth as a holiday this year and are giving employees a day off—though not all are. Nance, of Squire Patton Boggs, said the firm decided against a holiday.
“We need honest conversation about what’s going on and how we are relating to each other,” he said. “This is a regular workday and we want people to speak up.”
Here are some other firms’ Juneteenth activities:
- Latham & Watkins, which launched two speakers’ series on racism and inequality last year, in June added a program with Preston Mitchum, a Black gay activist and Georgetown University Law adjunct professor, to talk about the significance of Juneteenth.
- Sidley Austin hosted attorney-professor Hannibal Johnson to talk about the events that led to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and Juneteenth’s historical significance.
- Duane Morris on Friday is holding a town hall discussion with Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), whose son was shot dead after a man pulled up next to his car to complain about the “loud music” they were playing.
- Hogan Lovells this week is holding a Zoom discussion with Dr. Robert J. Patterson, a Georgetown University professor of African American Studies, who is writing a book about reparations and Black communities.
- Dechert, which regularly holds town halls or hosts “Stand Against Racism” speakers, earlier this week hosted Tonya Parker, a Texas judge who identifies as gay, to address the topic of understanding oppression.
- Foley & Lardner is hosting Lynne Jackson, the president and founder of The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, and the great-great-granddaughter of Dred Scott, the name plaintiff in the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court case, Dred Scott v. Sandford.
- Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which also decided against a day off, has had employees sign up for community service activities such as a supplies drive for local Boys & Girls Clubs.