Major law firms have denounced racial inequality and pledged to push for change in the wake of protests across the country, but some attorneys say platitudes alone won’t cut it from an industry still struggling with diversity issues.
“Words are not enough,” said Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison chair Brad Karp. “We need to stand up to racism in all its forms. We need to take action, we need to demand accountability and, above all else, we need to achieve racial justice.”
Dorsey & Whitney announced late Tuesday that it’s terminating a decades-long prosecution assistance program with the Minneapolis City Attorney’s office. The Minnesota-founded firm’s move followed the death of George Floyd while police were arresting him on May 25.
Dorsey & Whitney’s was one of a few concrete actions taken by Big Law firms in the days following Floyd’s death. Although some have written statements of support to their employees and pledged to double down on pro bono work, the industry continues to face calls to diversify its own ranks.
People of color made up about 25% of associates but accounted for less than 8% of equity partners among all firms who participated in a 2019 survey by the National Association for Law Placement. Although those numbers have ticked up over the last decade, critics say partnership opportunities remain hard to come by for lawyers of color.
Black attorneys accounted for less than 2% of partners among the firms surveyed by NALP, while black women accounted for less than 1%.
“These messages are saying that it’s time for accountability and action, but what about the accountability of firms, what about accountability to people in your firms?” said Tsedale Melaku, a sociologist and author of “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism.”
Sending a Message
Floyd’s death, coupled with the other, recent high-profile shooting deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and police confrontations “really ignited a spark that reinvigorated a conversation that quite frankly we know has been ongoing for quite some time,” said Stacy Hawkins, professor of law at Rutgers University and former diversity counsel to Holland & Knight.
This renewed attention to racial disparities and policing tactics has prompted corporations, organizations and, in some instances, law firms to issue statements for the first time denouncing police brutality, affirming black life, and encouraging engagement around these issues, she said.
“People were hurting from this, particularly our black colleagues in ways that just really, really led me to conclude we need to reexamine what we were doing at the firm,” Dorsey & Whitney chair William Stoeri said of the firm’s decision to end its partnership with city prosecutors in misdemeanor cases.
Gary Wingens, the chairman and managing partner of Lowenstein Sandler, said the firm’s statement in response to Floyd’s death was also aimed at its own employees.
“The primary reason was to let our people know and, particularly our people of color know, that they’re not alone in this and that we get that this is a really challenging time,” said Wingens.
Wingens’ statement listed some “concrete actions” employees could take during this time to support one another. That includes making donations to NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southern Poverty Law Center, among others, as well as increasing commitments to pro bono service.
“It’s important not to just throw a statement out there but important to talk about what we can do and give people an outlet,” Wingens said.
Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe is launching a “Racial Justice Fellowship Program” that will allow five of its lawyers a year to work on civil rights issues.
Paul Weiss hopes to form a consortium of law firms and public-interest organizations across the country for a pro bono effort to help root out systemic racism. The firm contributed money to the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union among other groups and said it would increase matches to donations made by its employees.
Paul Weiss was criticized in 2018 after posting a LinkedIn photo showing that its new partner class was overwhelmingly white and male. The firm has since moved to increase diversity in its new partner class and hires.
“I believe fervently that institutions, whether they be law firms or businesses or governments, must stand for something and, at this point in our shared history, every institution in our country, no matter its size, must stand unambiguously for racial justice,” Karp said.
A Shock to the System
Some Big Law firms “have a kind of flavor of the month,” said Schulte Roth & Zabel special counsel for pro bono initiatives Daniel Greenberg. Less than a month ago law firms were “clamoring” for opportunities to assist on Covid-19 issues, but “now that has all changed,” he said.
“I think the more important question is what role have law firms played in addressing the issues, not when they’re on the front page but on an ongoing basis,” Greenberg said.
He cited his firm’s work on systemic issues in the criminal justice system and collaboration with groups like the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization committed to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals.
All of the firm chairs and managing partners interviewed agreed that the current state of unrest and attention placed on racial inequality brought about by the protests has the ability to move the conversation within law firms about diversity forward in ways that it hadn’t in the past.
Still, law firms should start with making diversity and inclusion a reality by investing money and resources to make racial and gender equity intrinsic to organizations. They should tackle not just the obvious blunt forms of racism that occur, but the subtle, tricky forms that can manifest across organizations, Melaku said.
“If you’re putting a statement out now and your house isn’t clean or your house isn’t in order, I’m questioning your commitment to securing racial justice and fighting for equity,” Melaku said.
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