« Am Law 100 Firms That Are Failing Women | Main | "My Daughter Should NOT Have To Deal With The Same Crap": Diverse Female Lawyers Speak Out »

Big Law's Double Talk About Racism: This You?

Vivia Chen

June 30, 2020


You know the white establishment must be quaking in its boots when someone as icy as Vogue editrix Anna Wintour is voicing contrition and offering listening tours about race. (Wintour told staff members, “I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators. We have made mistakes, too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant.”)

Oh, I know you’re scratching your head wondering why I’m bringing up the dowager of high fashion in a column directed at lawyers. Well, like Wintour, a lot of partners seem to be tripping over themselves right now to show how much their firms care about racial justice. And also like Wintour, many have been in power for decades, doing squat to change the racial dynamics at their own shops but suddenly finding religion in Black Lives Matter.

I don’t mean to be overly cynical—because I do believe many people are genuinely moved by the killing of George Floyd—but one word comes to mind when I read some of the grand corporate statements about how much businesses are vested in the fight for racial equality: Hypocrisy. Not to state the obvious, but law firms and corporations really haven’t done too well in the racial equality department. (Reminder: Black lawyers make up less than 2% of all equity partners in major firms.)

So is this where we are—again—letting firms and companies create their own self-serving narrative without addressing deeper issues about race, particularly their own history of failure with minorities?

Not anymore. Aisha Harris’ mordant op-ed in The New York Times describes how black people are calling out the hypocrisy and promoting accountability. “The Ghost of Racism Past,” writes Harris, “exists in many forms, but on Black Twitter as of late, it has frequently taken on the shape of two simple words. ‘This you?’ ”

It works like this: When someone talks about caring about black lives or the cause of equality, Black Twitter checks for hypocrisy. Harris cites H&M France’s tweet, “support for black Americans,” as an example. That tweet was met with a “This you?” retweet, “with an image of the retailer’s ad from 2018 featuring a black boy in a hoodie that reads ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.’” Others caught in the “This you?” net include The Disney Co., NFL player Drew Brees, Justin Bieber and Mark Wahlberg.

The Twitter meme, writes Harris, “captures the sense among some that for all the attention given and demonstrating and donating that has occurred in the past two weeks, not much has changed—yet. It taps into a feeling that these affirmations of black life by public figures and corporations alike are merely lip service for the time being, catching on the way trends often do—if everyone ‘cool’ is doing it, it’s finally safe for them to do, too.”

Indeed, something feels shallow about how some of the most prestigious firms in the land are dealing with the issue. For example, law firms are jumping on the Juneteenth bandwagon by giving employees the day off, yet most firms won’t commit to extending the commemoration beyond this year. (Query: Do firms think that racial justice will be irrelevant by next year?)

Some firms have announced they are also committing significant amounts of money and pro bono services to promote racial justice. To name just two examples, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman pledged $1 million in cash donations and $10 million in pro bono/volunteer work for next three years, while Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison has pledged $2 million of direct financial support and $10 million per year in pro bono services “for the foreseeable future,” according to chair Brad Karp. But my hunch is that many more firms are doing far less—issuing a statement and maybe making a one-time donation. (Above the Law runs a list of firm statements and their donations. Some highly profitable firms are only committing $100,000 in donations, which is frankly paltry.)

I don’t know if “This you?” will get law firms on the stick, but it’s worth a try. When they trot out all the fabulous things they’re doing for black lawyers and other minorities, let’s see the hard numbers of their poor record on retaining and promoting minorities. In my experience, firms love to talk about their latest initiative for diverse lawyers. But ask them about how many black partners they have, and they go quiet.

So keep bugging them and ask, “this you?”

“It’s a way to keep people and organizations in check, and nudge them to work harder to receive their cookies, to make it clear that this won’t be easy for them, because it has never been easy for black people,” sums up Harris.

And that’s exactly the kick in the butt that Big Law needs.


Twitter: @lawcareerist


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Subscribe to get The Careerist via e-mail

Enter your e-mail address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

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

To search across all ALM blogs, go to www.Lexis.com.