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Big Law Marks Juneteenth with ‘Blackish’ Star, Office Closures

June 19, 2020, 9:55 PM

While Big Law firms across the country closed to observe Juneteenth, Duane Morris marked the occasion in a different way. The Philadelphia-based firm brought in actor and director Laurence Fishburne, who stars in ABC sitcom “Blackish,” to talk about fighting racism with love.

“You have to love them through this,” Fishburne said of difficult conversations about race with family members in a Friday webinar for Duane Morris employees. “You create change by the way that you live your life.”

June 19 commemorates the effective end of slavery in the U.S., recognizing the date in 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger informed slaves in Galveston, Texas, of their emancipation. That was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, banning slavery.

Big law firms publicized calls for racial justice after the recent death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota sparked protests throughout the U.S. Many are commemorating Juneteenth at a time when the legal industry is grappling with its own diversity issues and critics say these kinds of events are not enough.

More than 1,000 Duane Morris employees and their family members tuned in for the “Juneteenth Town Hall.” Partner and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Joseph West acknowledged that many of the people on the call may be “late to class,” having not have heard of Juneteenth before the calls for racial justice surged after Floyd’s death.

West asked Fishburne to explain Juneteenth “for the people who are late to class.”

Fishburne credited his own work in spreading the word, including to people’s computers and smartphones.

“‘Blackish’ made history for its Juneteenth episode that aired three years ago,” Fishburne said. “Within a week of the show’s airing, Apple put Juneteenth on their calendar worldwide,” he added.

Events, Donations

At least two dozen large law firms are observing Juneteenth this year. Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom and Dechert were the first to announce their observance of the holiday. The surge in firms commemorating June 19 includes Paul, Weiss, Debevoise & Plimpton, Cahill, and Ropes & Gray.

The Duane Morris event was a “continuation” rather than a “culmination” of the firm’s work, said Lisa Scruggs, a partner in the Chicago office who has worked on a number of education reform issues.

She and the other partners praised West for hosting weekly webinars for diverse lawyers that help cultivate a sense of community, especially during the isolation forced by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft also commemorated Juneteenth with a webinar, before closing early. The firm invited Fredara Hadley, a historian of black culture and professor at The Julliard School. Hadley explained the history of Juneteenth, and discussed celebratory music in the black community.

Ruth Merisier, an associate and co-chair of the firm’s Black and Latino Association, said she thought the presentation “was a great balance of truth-telling and celebration.”

Other recent commitments to diversity from Big Law include:

  • Hogan Lovells gave its U.S. employees a ‘day of reflection’ June 5 in response to police brutality and nationwide protests. The firm also hosted a diversity Town Hall with over 1,450 participants, provided in-house counseling sessions, and hosted discussions about identity and discrimination employees have faced.
  • Cooley announced a $450,000 donation to the Equal Justice Initiative. Individual partners and employees have also donated, bringing the firm’s total pledge to almost $750,000.
  • Ogletree Deakins created an Equal Justice Taskforce charged with advancing racial justice in Big Law and beyond. The firm will also raise money for the Equal Justice Initiative.

‘Cosmetic Celebration’

Firms have drawn criticism for observing the holiday despite a lack of diversity in their own ranks.

Black attorneys accounted for less than 2% of partners among the firms surveyed by the National Association for Law Placement last year. Black women accounted for less than 1%, according to NALP.

Civil rights advocate Rev. Al Sharpton criticized Skadden for observing the holiday when the firm “does not have diversity at the top.”

“We don’t need ceremonial, cosmetic celebration, we don’t need to give firms three-day holidays,” Sharpton told Bloomberg Law.

Sharpton said he plans to spend the weekend protesting and pushing for criminal justice reform in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while the Big Law firms “act like they’re doing something relevant.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Allie Reed in Washington at areed@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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