Big Law firms are under the spotlight over whether they will follow through on pledges to improve diversity and inclusion, months after the mass protests over racial justice and equity.
Firms last year offered support for Black Lives Matter and efforts to hire, retain and promote lawyers from diverse backgrounds, launching new initiatives to advance those goals. But some Black lawyers say those steps are only a start and that sustained public pressure is needed to keep that momentum going.
“I’m not extremely confident that the Big Law industry will actually work on a diversity pipeline expansion for altruistic reasons,” said Conway Ekpo, in-house counsel at a major Wall Street bank.
“If we want to see a paradigm shift on this issue, clients will have to literally demand that racially diverse lawyers be recruited to work on their matters and promoted at the same rates as their white counterparts.”
Lawyers said it was essential to keep the spotlight on the industry to ensure that Big Law retains diverse lawyers and expands hiring pipelines, particularly for Black women.
“There is understandable skepticism among many Black attorneys because this conversation has been going on for decades,” said Gabriel Yomi Dabiri, team leader of the private debt and alternative finance practice at Polsinelli.
“The real danger to progress in this area is not the idea that nothing has changed as a result of last year, but more that this change will be temporary—and once the memories of 2020’s tragic events start to fade, firms’ efforts will dwindle along with them.”
Advancing Minority Lawyers
Black lawyers made up just over 2% of partners last year, crossing that threshold for the first time in over a decade, according to a 2020 National Association for Law Placement report. Black associates, overall, topped just 5%.
Firms like Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, Greenberg Traurig LLP, McGuireWoods LLP, and Squire Patton Boggs LLP, among others, have examined their internal practices, hosting webinars to educate their associates, partners, and the public on racial inequality, lawyers at the firms said.
The Law Firm Antiracism Alliance, launched in 2020, has worked with more than 250 firms to inform them on anti-Black racism and to implement legislative and regulatory strategies, as other Big Law firms take their own steps.
“The reality is that minority people like me, a law firm leader, and female leaders, have to keep the discussion going internally,” said Ernest Greer, co-president at Greenberg Traurig in Atlanta.
Greer said one initial focus for firms should be on retaining and promoting diverse lawyers already on staff.
Squire Patton Boggs took a step to improve retention by establishing affinity groups, which focus “on career development, training and assignment and critical relationship building,” said Frederick Nance, the firm’s Cleveland-based global managing partner.
Nance said the programs, which allow diverse lawyers to network and speak out about their concerns, are spreading across the industry.
McGuireWoods launched its “African American Leaders in the Law” webcast last summer to give Black leaders in the law a platform. McGuireWoods Chairman Jonathan Harmon said it will continue with one change.
“I changed the title of the webcast to ‘Leaders in Color’ to be a little bit more inclusive and get a broader group of leaders,” said Harmon. “We’ve had African-American and white general counsel appear on ‘Leaders in Color’ and talk about inclusion and racial justice.”
The firm is also planning a diversity and inclusion summit during the second half of 2021, potentially in-person if the pandemic eases.
But creating affinity groups and new platforms is just one step.
Minority lawyers must consistently receive more support and trust from colleagues throughout the firm to improve retention and development, said Morgan F. Mouchette, a partner focusing on family law at Blank Rome LLP in New York.
“What has helped me to stay in this industry and at my firm has been strong relationships with advocates. They consistently look out for me and ensure that I have the things I need to succeed in this corporate environment,” Mouchette said. “Big Law can create all kinds of programming to prompt retention and advancement, but if people don’t feel comfortable and supported, or that the team they work within wants them to succeed, then it’s highly unlikely that they will stay.
“It is clear the entire industry is not doing that,” she added.
Focus on Black Women
Big Law must also pay attention to boosting the ranks of Black women, lawyers said.
“If it’s not clear now the impact of Black women attorneys and how we change the world, I don’t know what else we can do,” said Paula Edgar, founding board member of The Black BigLaw Pipeline, Inc. and former president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association in New York.
“We are the lowest numbers in the legal profession in terms of law firms and partnerships, and yes, the impact when Black women lawyers are supported and actually trusted by leadership and their peers is profound.”
Black women make up less than 5% of associates and represent less than 1% of all partners in U.S. law firms, according to the NALP survey.
“The Black male has received attention because of George Floyd,” Greer said. “The white female has had attention for maybe the last 10 or 15 years. So, what does that mean for the Black female?”
Placing Black women in more leadership roles will have a significant impact for diversity and inclusion, Nance said. At Squire Patton Boggs, he highlighted partner Alethia N. Nancoo who was appointed to the firm’s Global Board and Corrine A. Irish, who was named the firm’s Pro Bono Counsel serving clients across the country. Both appointments came in January.
“Having diverse leadership included within our firm says to our clients, our communities and our colleagues themselves that we are serious about our commitment,” Nance added.
Expanding the Pipeline
Law firm leaders said they are taking steps to also bring in more lawyers of color, even amid the challenges of recruiting during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We’re very focused on how in a pandemic recruiting is different, and showing at least the same level of intensity, if not a higher level of intensity, in recruiting diverse attorneys and charting out the course for them to have more client interaction as they enter the firm,” said Akin Gump Chairperson Kim Koopersmith.
Akin Gump hosted a diversity and inclusion reception for 1L students in late January. The firm also offers three diversity and inclusion summer opportunities for diverse 1L students.
Expanding the law schools where top firms recruit is another avenue. Last year, McGuireWoods expanded the law schools it targets to find qualified law students of color, said Harmon.
“The entire legal industry has a lot of work to do regarding diversity pipeline issues, but despite the challenges of this past year, we were able to get some really good diverse candidates from great schools,” Harmon said.