Thursday, March 4, 2021

Count the Black Lawyers

I was an associate at Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison from 1988 until 1991. These almost three years were impactful even though my time there was brief. To say that I learned a great deal is an understatement. My work at the firm took me to places like Gracie Mansion, and to Hollywood for several weeks to perform due diligence for a music publishing company. My time there was further evidence of my African American family’s dramatic upward mobility in just six generations. My maternal grandmother was the granddaughter of enslaved African Americans. She worked as a maid and cook before she went back to school. With a sixth-grade education, she passed the New York State licensing exam for cosmetology. She opened a successful hair salon, and she and my grandfather sent my mom to Hunter College. My mother retired decades ago from a successful career as a scientist and school administrator. And when I went to Paul Weiss, I was making more money than anyone in my immediate and extended family had ever made.

There were about 400 lawyers at the firm’s New York office during the years I was there. Only six of those lawyers (associates) were Black/African American. None of the approximately 80 partners were Black.  My time at Paul Weiss was brief because my plan was to become a law professor. But while I was at the firm, I was supported and mentored. That is why I was surprised to see a 2018 LinkedIn photo of the firm’s new partners in which almost all were white and male. None were Black.

Happily, much has changed in the years since I was associated with the firm, and even in the almost three years after the LinkedIn photo. I attended the firm’s webinar (The Biden Administration:  What’s Next for Businesses) on March 3rd, 2021. Two of the firm’s (Black) litigation partners were on the panel– Loretta Lynch, former U.S. Attorney, and Jeh Johnson, Former Secretary of Homeland Security. After the webinar I went to the firm’s website that reported the following: “27% of our attorneys self-identify as racially diverse compared to the 20% Big Law average” and “Racially diverse partners are 13% of the equity partnership, compared to the 8% national average”. 

After seeing this website report, I was left wondering how many of these “racially diverse” individuals are Black. Paul Weiss played such a significant role in the upward trajectory of my African American family. And Paul Weiss issued a statement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. But its racial diversity disclosure had only a fraction of the precision that has made the firm a giant in the legal profession. Law firms can address antiblack racism, if they choose to do so, only if they confront the problem and its impact on the success of Black lawyers. Firms can’t do this if they fail to consider that Black lawyers face issues that are saliently different from those endured by white women, and indigenous, Asian and Latinx individuals. Firms can make their disclosure on these issues more meaningful by counting the Black lawyers. If the numbers are not good (on retention, percentages of partners), it’s time for the firm to engage in some meaningful introspection.

Oh, and one more small, but important point. People of color bring racial diversity to an organization. White people bring racial diversity to an organization. But to say that an individual (a partner, for example) is “racially diverse” is the kind of inaccurate, imprecise language that clouds discussions about difficult issues like antiblack racism. 


  1. terrific post cheryl. i love the imagery of your own personal upward black mobility. why are law firms still so "behind" in promoting black associates and black partners? firms like paul weiss and others are happy to trumpet their "diversity." what keeps them from understanding the challenges and obstacles that face black associates? such challenges making it difficult to ascend to partnership?

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