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Black Firm Leaders Drive Big Law Social Justice Efforts

Aug. 24, 2020, 9:40 AM

Big Law firms led by Black chairmen, managing partners or presidents are backing up their efforts on social justice and anti-racism with their money and their time.

Greenberg Traurig LLP, for example, announced July 28 that it’s committing $5 million over the next five years to supporting causes that address systematic racism as part of its Social, Racial, and Economic Justice Action Plan.

Black firm leaders from Greenberg Traurig LLP, McGuireWoods LLP, Squire Patton Boggs, Beveridge & Diamond PC and Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod LLP are also engaging in other ways to examine their firms’ internal practices. They include: hosting webinars to educate their associates, partners and the public on racial inequality and working with the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance.

Many of these efforts have been launched or have intensified in the wake of the killing of Black Americans including George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. and Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Ga.

“I don’t see what’s happening now as just about George Floyd. I see it as America speaking very truthfully to its racism,” said Ernest Greer, co-president at Greenberg Traurig LLP in Atlanta.

“Ahmaud Arbery was shot by two white men during his neighborhood jog. In today’s era of social media and video, the actions of a small group of individuals are now quickly exposed to the masses. I like to think of this as America revealing its ugly side. I like to call it the big reveal.”

As protests swelled across the country, law firms and companies issued statements voicing their support for racial equality. But the small collection of Black firmwide leaders in Big Law contend that more than words are required to address racial equality issues.

“What we’re all hoping for more than anything else is that this interest in George Floyd will make people not go back to what was happening before,” Benjamin Wilson, chairman at Beveridge & Diamond PC, said.

“It’s not enough to be neutral or color blind. We want to be anti-racist.”

Opening Wallets and Building Bridges

Some law firms with Black leaders at the helm are putting money into organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and law students interested in social justice work.

Greenberg Traurig’s five-year $5 million commitment will span many of those avenues, according to Greer.

“We will do some of that through our continued support of the non-profit organization Equal Justice Works and some of it through our law firm: partnering with clients through interesting issues on which we could lend power to law students or those who want to do pro bono service or public interest law,” Greer said.

The firm also held its “Day of Giving” campaign in June, in which its African American Affinity Group and others in the firm raised more than $115,000 to give to over 30 different charitable foundations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

At Squire Patton Boggs, the anti-racism financial impact comes through the firm’s broader pro bono services, Frederick Nance, the firm’s Cleveland-based global managing partner told Bloomberg Law.

The Squire Patton Boggs Foundation provides fellowships for law students—most of whom are African American—with an interest in social justice and poverty law, Nance said. He estimated the firm’s more than $1 million in foundation fellowship funding is worth over $10 million in pro bono legal services.

Additionally, Nance said that the firm’s public service initiative, called Squire Patton Boggs PSI, works on pro bono litigation involving constitutional rights matters which overwhelmingly impact people of color, including death penalty cases.

Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod LLP has provided pro bono legal services to Lotus House, Miami’s only homeless shelter exclusively serving women and children for nearly 20 years. Most recently the firm has supported “the development of the nonprofit’s new $25 million facility in Overtown, a historic African-American neighborhood in Miami,” Albert Dotson Jr., managing partner of Bilzin Sumberg, said.

The firm was also one of the many that joined the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance. Launched in June, the group’s action items include developing a legal inventory of laws and policies that result in negative outcomes for people of color. The aim is to inform and implement legislative and regulatory strategies to address anti-Black racism.

“The focus is to prioritize and support anti-racism and to create commitments and goals within our firms, as well as our communities,” Dotson Jr. said.

The alliance held its inaugural summit virtually in July. Nance, Greer, Dotson and McGuireWoods Chairman Jonathan Harmon were among the attendees. As of August 18, over 250 law firms have joined the alliance.

‘Silence and inaction are not an option’

Shortly after the protests started, Squire Patton Boggs’ African American Resource Group made recommendations to the firm’s Global Board about how the team should address racial equity.

“They made a series of recommendations that our Global Board adopted under the mantle ‘Standing Up for Our Values,’ ” Nance said.

“I’d note that the policy begins with the firm affirming the following Guiding Principles—(a) Black lives matter, (b) White supremacy is wrong, (c) White privilege exists and measures must be taken to rectify the harm that it causes, and (d) Silence and inaction are not an option,” Nance added.

“While those things might sound obvious in the context of what’s going on now, I daresay that getting large majority institutions to make those statements as recently as a year ago would probably not have been possible.”

Greenberg Traurig’s Greer said the firm is hosting a series called “Courageous Conversations” about every 45 days with leaders in law, business and politics to educate on social justice issues. A July public webinar featured Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League and firm shareholders.

Greer said the firm had the organization speak to social and economic justice issues it’s tackled since Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education.

The same month, McGuireWoods started an “African American Leaders in the Law” webcast for “raising awareness and giving people who have a voice a platform,” Harmon said.

The firm has also formed a task force to reach out on racial equity and criminal justice issues in Black communities where it has strong connections to local stakeholders, Harmon said.

“I convened this task force with a lot of our young lawyers, who had been protesting,” Harmon said. “We didn’t take a shotgun approach. We focused on three cities—Charlotte, Raleigh, [N.C.], and Richmond, Va.—so we could be at the table.”

“We see that this is going to be a long-term process. We’re in it for the long haul,” Harmon said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com; Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com

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