How Law Firms Can Hire And Retain More Black Attorneys

Nobel laureate William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

When I began practicing law in Atlanta in 1976, my then firm had no Black partners, associates, paralegals or staff supervisors. The leading firms were embarking on an experiment. Each hired one Black attorney. Sadly, change has been glacial.

Ten years ago, 1.77% of firm partners were Black.[1] Today, Black lawyers make up just 2% of law firm partners.[2] Black female attorneys account for less than 1% of partners in major law firms.[3] When one accounts for equity partners, the number of Black partners, men and women, is even smaller.

In recent weeks, we have experienced a renewed interest in diversity and equity, sparked by the killing of George Floyd. However, the legal profession's challenge in the hiring, retention and advancement of Black lawyers is long-standing.

The pipeline of young Black law school applicants is limited, particularly among men. Nearly half of the Black men entering high school do not graduate.[4] The shutout rate for Black students applying to law school is almost 50%.[5] The pipeline is simply insufficient.

What can BigLaw do?

First, law firms must make the case for entering the legal profession. Many young people simply do not wish to spend eight to 10 years at a law firm hoping to become a partner. They are instead choosing careers in finance, entrepreneurship and public interest. This is particularly true of talented Black lawyers.

Second, BigLaw must invest time and effort with students in our urban high schools. Firms must find and nurture Black men who leave high school before receiving their high school diplomas.

Third, law firms must retain and sponsor talented Black attorneys by engaging in the following activities:

  • Assign meaningful projects to Black lawyers.
  • Reward Black lawyers for work well done.
  • Offer bonuses to partners who sponsor and advance the careers of Black and other minority attorneys.

Fourth, allies of diversity must speak up. White associates and partners should insist that their Black and other minority colleagues are receiving meaningful work opportunities.

Finally, law firms must go beyond the Mansfield Rule, which sets benchmarks intended to advance the careers of minority candidates.[6] It is not enough to simply have Black and female attorneys participate on a client pitch, or have the opportunity to work on a matter arising out of a pitch. Rather, Black and female attorneys should be given an opportunity to share in origination credit when they are part of a team that brings new clients or matters to the firm. Receiving credit matters.

BigLaw has a rendezvous with destiny. Now is the time for bold, transformational change. In order for this to be a movement and not a moment, BigLaw must not retreat to the familiar, relying on a few bromides and retreating to the status quo.

We must prove Faulkner wrong. We cannot change the past. We must change the future.

Felicia Isaac, a Beveridge & Diamond associate, contributed to this article.

©2020. Published in Law360, Online, September 1, 2020, by LexisNexis Group. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Black Attys Largely Left Behind In Law Firm Diversity Push, Law360, (last visited Aug. 10, 2020).

[2] Id.

[3] Why Black Women Are Leaving Big Law (And What Firms Can Do About It), African American Attorney Network, (last visited Aug 10, 2020).

[4] Increase Graduation Rates Among African American Males Southern Regional Education Board, (last visited Aug 10, 2020).

[5] Aaron N. Taylor, The Marginalization of Black Aspiring Lawyers, 13 FIU Law Review, 489, 496 (2019).

[6] An NFL Rule Comes to Level the Legal Playing Field American Bar Association, (last visited Aug 10, 2020). The Mansfield Rule, which is named after the first woman to practice law, seeks to diversify the legal profession by providing diversity benchmarks. The Mansfield Rule was inspired by the NFL's Rooney Rule, which requires NFL franchises to interview at least one racially diverse candidate for all head coaching jobs, general manager jobs and other equivalent front-office positions.