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Black Male Legal Group Challenges Industry on Representation

Dec. 28, 2020, 9:45 AM

A group of prominent lawyers, spurred by the deaths of George Floyd and others, is pushing to address the challenges faced by Black men in the legal industry.

1844, whose name pays tribute to the year Macon Bolling Allen became the first Black man admitted to practice law in the U.S., is a group of 60 Black men from large law firms and corporate legal departments. In October, they released a report that documents the challenges Black male lawyers face around issues including representation, retention and promotion.

Nearly 60% of the members said they were passed over for an opportunity in their office despite having the needed experience, according to the report, and 44% of members are the only Black male attorneys at their organizations.

Four 1844 members spoke with Bloomberg Law about the work ahead, and the impact of this year’s social justice protests on the legal industry.

These conversations have been edited for clarity and length.

Bloomberg Law: How would you say the legal industry has improved for Black male lawyers and what’s still needed?

Geoffrey Young, partner at Reed Smith LLP: There has certainly been progress.

There are prestigious firms that are trying their best to improve the number of Black lawyers that they have, and the recent push is a direct reaction to the racial demonstrations earlier this year.

However, the push by firms to diversify their ranks puts the few of us, Black male attorneys at a firm, in a really difficult spot of figuring out how to help with the long-term success of other diverse lawyers versus continuing to make inroads in our own professional paths. More should be done by firms so Black and other diverse lawyers are not put in this dilemma because this is a situation that I think a lot of firms have not considered.

Dino Bovell, counsel at NBCUniversal Media LLC: At a basic level, to quote “Hamilton,” Black men continue to fight their way into “the room where it happens.” Yet, progress is slow to non-existent for Black men ascending to the leadership ranks of large law firms and Fortune 500 companies.

A lot of the efforts by Corporate America to nurture the Black male talent pipeline typically stop at recruitment, overlook or outright ignore retention, and have been surface-level at best.

Bloomberg Law: How has your experience speaking up about race and discrimination at work been impacted following the racial tension from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others?

Emeka Chinwuba, partner at Baker McKenzie LLP: I have been happy with how forthright the conversation has been. I’ve never had colleagues speak frankly about how such unfortunate events affect their Black colleagues, and actually listening.

People may say well that can’t happen to any of you because you’re educated and have great jobs. But, when I get into my car on a Saturday morning, I’m not wearing a suit but my shorts and t-shirt and I don’t have my Columbia degrees stuck to my face. It shows that such a tragedy could happen to anyone irrespective of any perceived status or pedigree.

Now, we’ve been able to express ourselves more openly with lots of people listening and genuinely engaging to find ways to reverse such tragic trends.

Bloomberg Law: How can young, incoming Black male attorneys make an impact in terms of race and discrimination at their law firms?

Conway Ekpo, in-house counsel at a major Wall Street bank: The number one focus of any Black lawyer is you have to be on top of your game. Your work product must be unassailable. That means no errors and no room for mistakes.

You can’t think that you are going to excel just by putting in a lot of hard work and hours. That’s a great dream, but that’s more of a pipe dream. It’s going to require you to be humble about the realities of how people succeed. And when you look at how successful attorneys do it, they don’t do it alone. They have help. They seek out mentors and sponsors religiously and make sure that they are constantly being fed with the best practices.

It’s not fair to be forced to be perfect. But those are the terms that we deal with.

Bovell: Be excellent at your craft but also be yourself.

Don’t compromise who you are for any firm or organization. We as Black men have been conditioned to compartmentalize and code switch to survive in these corporate spaces. But that comes at such a high cost to your emotional and psychological well-being. Let your white colleagues see who you are—what music you enjoy, what food you like. Your work will suffer for as long as you continue to put on an act for your colleagues.

So, being a revolutionary is quite simple—it starts by being yourself.

Bloomberg Law: How does the legal industry ensure that this year’s goals to help with diversity and inclusion stay in place?

Chinwuba: At the end of the day, all these discussions have to lead to actual results over time.

There are no guarantees real results will be achieved. It’s recruiting, mentoring, nurturing, promoting—it’s the whole cycle. It’s an ongoing process and doesn’t stop at the law school or even entry level at a firm.

The hope is that we can continue with steady progress and we all can be part of the catalyst for change.

Bloomberg Law: What do you expect to happen within the next year?

Ekpo: What we would hope is that this was an awareness moment that has allowed systemic change to take place within these organizations and that they recognize that you can’t just throw your hands up and assume that change will happen on its own.

You have to disrupt biases and if you don’t, nothing will change. It’s not enough, as we say in the report, to be not racist, you have to be an anti-racist. You have to get up and take some affirmative steps to recognize: one, there is a problem; and two, unless we actually do something, this problem is not going to correct itself.

If we leave these dynamics unchanged, we’ll be having this conversation in 30 years. My children and others will go down this road, having the same conversations that we’re having now and we’re still going to be 3-4% of law firms. And our representation still won’t be where it should be.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com