Many Black Lawyers Navigate a Rocky, Lonely Road to Partner

Only a relative handful of African-American lawyers persevere on the years-long path to joining a law firm’s lucrative leadership circle.

Jimmie L. McMillian’s path to partnership in an Indianapolis law firm might seem unexceptional — except for a few telling details.

He left behind the South Side of Chicago, where he grew up in a family troubled by domestic violence, went to college in Indiana and then earned his law degree in the state. He joined the law firm, Barnes & Thornburg, and six years ago, was promoted to partner, the legal profession’s brass ring.

But Mr. McMillian, 40, has few counterparts and even fewer role models because he is African-American. Only 5.6 percent of lawyers who hold top leadership positions at law firms are anything other than white, according to a study by the National Association for Law Placement.

For someone “who had no experience, or even exposure, to corporate America, it was a completely new environment for me when I joined the law firm,” Mr. McMillian said.

Fewer than 2 percent of law firm partners are black, according to the study, based on data collected in 2014; black women are even more uncommon in that rarefied air.

Law firms maintain that, despite their best efforts to recruit black associates over the last two decades, large numbers leave for better-paying, more secure jobs or for less quantifiable reasons, like family responsibilities. Only a handful persevere on the yearslong path to joining a firm’s lucrative leadership circle.

But Raqiyyah R. Pippins, 33, an African-American food and drug compliance lawyer who is on the partnership track at the 170-year-old law firm Kelley Drye, said the scarcity of black lawyers in the top, best-remunerated positions was more than just an issue of having few candidates.

“Black attorneys are not always getting the support in the same way as their colleagues,” said Ms. Pippins, a University of Virginia law school graduate who worked for the elite Covington & Burling law firm before switching to pursue her legal practice at Kelley Drye, which has offices across the United States and in Brussels.

“If there’s a pattern,” she added, “it is that a minority associate gets good reviews, but deficiencies are brought up when the conversation turns to partnership.”

According to data tracking African-American representation, the percentage of black partners doubled in the early 2000s, then began sinking in 2008 as law firms adjusted to the recession’s fallout on their business. Minority lawyers were hit particularly hard by layoffs. Like the low percentage of black law firm partners, black associates — who accounted for 4 percent of all firm associates last year — have seen their share of the law firm jobs stagnate in recent years.

The hierarchy of law firms does not suit everyone, said Mr. McMillian, a graduate of Indiana University School of Law, but he says his law firm went out of its way, “from Day 1,” to provide him with the mentoring, experience and relationships needed to become a top-performing lawyer. Barnes & Thornburg, which has 600 lawyers, has nine African-American partners, up from four in 2004 when Mr. McMillian joined the firm.

“I had challenges, including developing my technical skills, and juggling my family responsibilities,” said Mr. McMillian, the father of twin sons born prematurely. “When I came to the firm, I had to learn to develop relationships with people internally.”

“There were cultural barriers,” he added. “I had gone to majority-white schools, but I hung with the people I knew so I never had to develop close relationships with other groups. I quickly realized that in a law firm, your livelihood depends on more than just the work.”

The lack of cross-racial relationships that knit lawyers into teams to handle high-pressure client legal tasks is part of what knocks some blacks off the partnership track, said Deborah L. Rhode, a Stanford University Law School professor and director of its Center on the Legal Profession.

Black lawyers operate in a profession that is one of the country’s least racially diverse, she said. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, she said, shows that some 88 percent of lawyers are white, which is higher than most other professions, such as physicians and surgeons whose composition is 72 percent white.

As part of the research for her newly released book “The Trouble With Lawyers” (Oxford University Press), Professor Rhode surveyed the managing partners of the 100 largest law firms and the general counsels of Fortune 100 companies, most of which said they placed a high priority on diverse employment — but the numbers of nonwhite partners and associates remain stuck at the low levels.

Major firms have initiated programs to strengthen opportunities for black law school graduates, and many firms have a diversity officer to help identify and shepherd minority associates. Sally Olson, the diversity officer at Sidley Austin, said the firm, which is based in Chicago, recruits extensively on law school campuses and offers scholarships to attract diverse summer associates who have completed their second year.

The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, a five-year-old group composed of law firm managing partners and chief legal officers for large corporations like Microsoft and MetLife, aims at the social isolation of minority lawyers in their firms through fellowships for lawyers selected as promising leaders. Mr. McMillian was a fellow in 2012.

Other groups help low-income students better prepare for law school. The Law Preview Scholarship Program, for example, offers scholarships provided by law firms and corporations to economically disadvantaged students. Some of those students have later been hired by major law firms like Vinson & Elkins.

Even so, Professor Rhode said that some law firm partners complained that an inadequate pool of candidates was responsible for the paucity of minorities, including women, in their workplaces. But Professor Rhode said she believed that unconscious biases too often lead law firm partners to assume that minority lawyers — including women — are less competent than their male counterparts.

And as law firms increasingly require each partner to be a profit center — engaged both in generating and maintaining client business — the highest-level lawyers often rely on colleagues who “look like them,” she said.

She cited 2014 research by Nextions, a Chicago business consulting firm, that found that a group of law firm partners gave a much higher grade to an associate’s written legal memorandum when they thought he was white. But the partners gave the same memo, when they believed it to have been written by a black associate, a lower evaluation and predictions of less potential as a lawyer.

“This underscores that unconscious bias and exclusion from networks of support and client development are still common,” Professor Rhode said.

The legal industry’s focus on attracting client business, or rainmaking, as a crucial qualification for partnership has left minority lawyers at a more subtle disadvantage, one minority lawyer noted, because they “do not typically have the contacts or the relationships with corporate executives. Their parents are not playing golf with a general counsel.”

But corporations are putting more pressure on law firms to make diversity a central factor in their hiring decisions.When corporations request formal bids from law firms to represent them in legal cases, they are asking for lawyers with more varied experience and backgrounds — and proof that firms have such people in place.

“Corporations are asking for this more now, and firms see that it is important from a business standpoint,” said Ms. Pippins, at Kelley Drye.

Last year, a group of corporations, including Walmart, which first began its diversity push in 2005, formed the “Engage Excellence” program to encourage corporations to demand more staffing diversity from outside legal counsel.

Companies that sign up, according to the general counsels of DuPont, General Mills, Verizon and Walmart, which started the initiative, pledge to require more diversity among top lawyers and other team members who work on legal matters and to demonstrate compliance with those goals.

“Law firms have to care,” said Mr. McMillian, in Indianapolis, “It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do. Our firm has clients that are diverse in every way, and their customers are also diverse in every way.”

By ELIZABETH OLSON | Article from NYtimes.com