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It's Lonely at the Top for BigLaw's Few Black Leaders

Vivia Chen

November 13, 2017



What's rarer than black partners in Big Law? How about black managing partners or chairs of major firms?

That would appear to be a tall order, considering the bleak statistics. African Americans make up 4.1 percent of  big firm associates in 2013 (down from 4.8 percent in 2008), and a puny 1.7 percent of partners.

Since 1991, when David Andrews (now deceased) became the managing partner of McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen, there have been very few members of this exclusive club, including: Dennis Archer, chair emeritus of Dickinson Wright; Leonard Givens, CEO of Miller Canfield; John Daniels, chair emeritus of Quarles & Brady; Benjamin Wilson, chair of Beveridge & Diamond; Maurice Watson, chairman of Husch Blackwell; Frederick Nance, global managing partner of Squire Patton & Boggs; Karl Racine, managing partner of Venable; and, most recently, Ellisen Turner, the new managing partner of Irell & Manella, and Jonathan Harmon, who’s slated to be the chair of McGuireWoods.

How did these men (no women, of course) beat the odds? And what advice do they have for young lawyers of color?

In my conversations with these leaders, what’s clear is that this is a very pragmatic, focused bunch. Though they all voice frustration with the pace of racial progress in the legal profession, they cast a cold eye about what it takes to succeed.

"It's incumbent on firms and lawyers to demystify the practice of law," says Wilson of Beveridge & Diamond, one the nation's biggest environmental firms. "It's important for young lawyers to understand the business of law." 

And that means hitting the ground early on client development. "When I came out of law school in the mid-70s, I had no expectations. But I thought if I had an aptitude for business and law, I'd always find a demand," says Daniels of Quarles & Brady. "I was focused on business development early on."

What helps in developing business is being a big fish in a small pond. Though most went to top law schools, many in this group opted to go back to their home towns. After Harvard College and University of Michigan Law School, Nance headed straight for Cleveland's Squire Sanders & Dempsey. "I was born in Cleveland and had a lot of community ties," explains Nance. After becoming friends with Cleveland mayor Michael White, Nance was tasked with keeping the Cleveland Browns from moving to Baltimore—a matter that put him on the national map and catapulted him into the front ranks of sports lawyers (he now represents LeBron James).

"The data shows that opportunities are better for people of color in smaller cities," says Maurice Watson of Hursch Blackwell, a 600-lawyer firm based in Missouri. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Watson didn't think twice about going back home. "When you come back to a market like Kansas City and you have a cadre of people who support your advancement, you can reach the highest leadership level."  

Which brings us back to a nagging question: Why aren't more black lawyers seeing this level of success in BigLaw, particularly Wall Street type firms? Why is the pace of change so painfully slow? Is it bias that's still keeping black lawyers from getting the opportunity to succeed? 

"There are individual successes but even reaching 2 percent of African American partners seems high at this point," laments Wilson. That said, he says he's encouraged by the actions of clients: "It's not just the general counsel but all in-house counsel. Their willingness to speak up about diversity, to exercise their clout is making a difference." And that emphasis on diversity is no longer lip service, adds Turner of Irell & Manella. "There's no turning back."

As for bias, every leader I talked to in this group say that it's real and insidious—but that there's only so much to be gained by harping on it. "I tell people I was born in Birmingham and started out going to segregated schools, and ended up at Harvard Law School," says Daniels. "I focus on what I can control."

Nance agrees: "If you're going to be obsessed about perceived slights, you're heading to the wrong profession. When I was an associate, lots of times some partner called me by the name of some other black associate. You've got to let that stuff go. The prize is too big to let those minor things upset you."

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Photo: Top row left to right: David Andrews, Dennis Archer, John Daniels, Maurice Watson Bottom row left to right: Frederick Nance, Benjamin Wilson, Ellisen Turner, Jonathan Harmon


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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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