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Kirkland Ellis Associate Speaks Out About Race/Racism in Big Law

Vivia Chen

June 16, 2020

Lauren-Skerrett-Article-202006111305How often do lawyers of color raise alarms about racial inequalities at work? Unless they’ve already got one foot out the door or are suing their own firms for discrimination, the answer is easy: almost never.

In normal times, sadly, bringing up race—except in abstract terms—can be career suicide. But these are not normal times, and Lauren Skerrett isn’t holding back.

Recently, the Kirkland & Ellis associate penned a post in Above the Law about the travails of being a black associate at a big firm. She writes upfront about “the potential repercussions for vocalizing our frustrations” and how she risks being “viewed as a complainer—judgmental and difficult.” It’s not “immediate dismissal” she fears, but being “blackballed” so that assignments gradually dry up.

And guess who shines in comparison? Some “eager, talented, hardworking” white guy, whom she calls the “Josh” of Big Law—someone who never seems to have a complaint about the firm, clients or the world. He just fits in, and both partners and clients love him because he reminds them of themselves.

“Next thing you know, it’s the end of the review period and your hours pale in comparison to Josh,” Skerrett writes. The inevitable verdict of the review: “You simply aren’t cut out for this line of work. You clearly weren’t dedicated enough to the work.” And, “you will need to find a new job.”

 

This, she writes, “happens routinely” in Big Law, contributing to the dismal retention rate of black lawyers at firms and abject morale. It also perpetuates the cycle of stagnation because there’s no honest discussion about race.

“Anyone with a basic knowledge of the social, cultural, and historical context of the United States and the nature of human psychology can quickly understand how a junior black associate verbalizing concerns and offering valid criticisms (even asking pointed questions) can lead to undesirable outcomes for said black associate,” Skerrett writes. “There’s no safe and polite way for the black junior associate to express frustrations to white leadership.”

Much of this rings true to me, particularly as a former female associate of color. I can’t tell you how many Joshes I’ve bumped against during my career in law and elsewhere. Yet I know the challenges I faced as an Asian probably pale in comparison to those faced by African American women. One thing all minorities know, however, is that raising racism at the workplace is a career killer. If you do so, you’re deemed to be playing the race card and likely lacking the requisite skills for the job.

So why is Skerrett speaking out now? “I spent all of last week speaking with my friends about what’s going on in this country and the lack of sensitivity we felt from our colleagues,” she says, alluding to the George Floyd killing. “I just started to type my thoughts on my phone. I thought I’d just send it to my friends; I didn’t want to do anything hasty. But 10 minutes later, I posted it on LinkedIn.”

Wasn’t she worried about the risks of going public? “I didn’t think the firm would react negatively, especially now,” she says. “It’s about my experience, but also the broader experience of black people in Big Law. This is reality.”

So far, Skerrett, who is based in the firm’s Palo Alto, California, office, has received positive reactions from the powers that be. She says she’s heard from at least 10 Kirkland partners, including those in management. “The reaction from partners at my firm has been, thank you for saying this. Many people know this is what’s happening but we’re not talking about it. Some asked what they can do to make it better.”

One way to make it better, says Skerrett, is to be more conscious of how assignments are doled out. “The issue is that no one is thinking about it; I don’t think clients are saying, ‘I want white males on my cases,’ or that partners are consciously doing that,” she explains. What helps, though, are assignment coordinators, she adds. “The problem is more pronounced in an open system—and that’s what’s happening [at Kirkland].”

But Skerrett says that the Joshes of Big Law have an obligation too. White male associates who are in high demand should speak up and make sure that their minority counterparts are not overlooked in assignments. “Often the Johns and Joshes won’t say anything to promote minority associates, and they have some responsibility,” says Skerrett. “It won’t kill them to speak up.”

Changing the culture of a firm is tall order. So why does she believe any of this is realistic? “I’m cautiously optimistic. We are on a trajectory, and a lot of people realize that the status quo in so many areas is unacceptable,” she says. COVID-19, she explains, “made people slow down and be more reflective, and the protests have brought things to the fore.”

What’s also different is the cohort of younger black lawyers like herself. “There is concerted effort which I haven’t seen before,” sums up Skerrett. “We are bolder. We are tired and fed up. The things we’re told to do to advance, we see it’s not working. We have to demand more, because what do I have to lose? Not much.”

So her message is this: speak up. “A lot of times, you will be surprised by the support that wells up when you’re honest and speak the hard truth. We then begin to see the humanity that exist in a lot of us.”

Hey, if Skerrett can talk honestly about race and bring out the human side of partners in the process, I say, go for it.

 

 

 

 

Comments

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“Josh” is an “interesting” choice of the name of the male associate. I believe “John” would be the generic.

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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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