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Practically Invisible: Kirkland & Ellis' New Black Partners

Vivia Chen

October 10, 2019


Friendly advice to law firms announcing new partners: Don’t put up photos of your latest elevations unless there’s a modicum of diversity among those happy faces.

Paul, Weiss, Rifkind Wharton & Garrison learned that lesson the hard way earlier this year. After publishing photos of its fresh batch of partners—11 men and one woman (all white)—the firm got slammed for its super-Caucasian, male class.

Kirkland & Ellis is falling into the same trap. As you probably know, Kirkland made a jaw-dropping number of partners this year—141 to be exact. But here’s the flip side: Only three black lawyers appeared among that sea of faces. (I’m basing this on appearance, as Kirkland has not responded to my request for comment.) As for women and Asians, the firm is doing better: I counted 46 women and about a dozen or so Asians, though that included those in its Asia offices.

But let’s get back to the issue of black partners, because that’s where many firms have trouble. While making very few or even zero black partners in a given year might be explainable when the partnership class is quite small (arguably, the situation with Paul Weiss), it’s troubling when the class is large.

As I’ve reported, blacks seem to be lagging behind in the partnership race this year. And that’s particularly notable at firms with relatively big partnership classes, such as White & Case (41 new partners) and Jones Day (46 new partners), where there were no new black partners.

That said, no firm compares with Kirkland for the scale of its partnership class. So, yes, I find it shocking that only three blacks made the cut out of a pool of 141 new partners in a firm with 2,300 lawyers.

What that means is that black lawyers aren’t even making it to starting gate, even though the gate is wide. Under Kirkland’s system, junior partners only get the privilege of auditioning for equity status. As my colleague Patrick Smith notes in his recent article about Kirkland’s new partners, historically, only about 20% of its income partners eventually became equity partners after a four-year period.

Which raises these questions: How daunting are the odds for black lawyers to attain equity? And how many black partners at Kirkland have equity at all?

We don’t know the answer and Kirkland isn’t saying. (Law.com’s Dylan Jackson reports that other Am Law 100 firms—King & Spalding; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner; and Sidley Austin—also refuse to break down equity versus nonequity partners in their survey responses.)

But keep this in mind: Minorities struggle mightily to get out of the income partner ranks. According to Jackson, “minority lawyers disproportionately occupy the nonequity partnership tier of the nation’s largest-grossing law firms compared to their white colleagues.”

Is Kirkland at the bottom of the diversity ranking? Actually, not. It ranked 45th on ALM’s diversity scorecard this year, up from 57 in 2018. Black lawyers comprised 1.6% of all partners and 2.8% of all lawyers, while Asian Americans made up 7.4% partners and 10.6% of all lawyers. For Hispanics, the breakdown was 3.2% partners and 4.4% lawyers.

Though Kirkland is certainly not alone (there are plenty of Am Law 100 firms with 1% or fewer black partners), that 1.6% figure for black partners is worrisome, considering that it’s a mega firm with 2,300 lawyers that generated revenue of over $3.7 billion last year. This is no litigation boutique; rather, it’s a big business with a high profile. And as such, we expect it to do better.

It’s difficult to say why it’s so tough for blacks to become partners—contract or equity—at Kirkland. I have to assume that its up-or-out system complicates diversifying the partnership ranks. If a firm is so focused on the bottom line, which is true for many firms these days, how does something as complicated and nebulous as diversity compete for priority?

It’s brutal all around. For anyone aspiring to equity status, it’s bound to be a long, long climb. For blacks, it must seem damn impossible.

Related posts: But Where Are the Black Partners?; The Unicorn WatchUnicorn Watch-Part 2.


Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com

On Twitter: @lawcareerist


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3 out of 141 is 2.1%, so a higher percentage than Kirkland has of current partners (cited at 1.6%). So, in that way, it is an improvement. To really assess how well a firm is doing at making black partners, you need to look at the percentage of blacks graduating from law schools of the sort that Kirkland would likely hire from.

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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: VChen@alm.com

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