For companies of all shapes and sizes, across the business world, achieving a higher level of diversity has been a key focus in the 21st century. It’s now generally accepted that being inclusive of all races, genders and walks of life is a laudable goal, and the companies that do so tend to build stronger staffs and better reputations. There’s one sector, however, where many organizations are still struggling to achieve this goal, and that’s Big Law.
As The New York Times reported, this issue came to a head recently when the prominent law firm Paul, Weiss made a post on LinkedIn featuring its incoming class of partners. Of the 12 fresh faces, 11 were male, and all 12 were white. The backlash to this lack of diversity was swift and forceful: critics abounded on social media and a number of high-profile clients threatened to take their business elsewhere.
Paul, Weiss responded by saying they have a strong track record of diversity, including six African-American partners with an ownership stake, which is more than most major law firms in America. Likewise, women are 23 percent of the partners at Paul, Weiss, compared with 18 percent at other top law firms, per ALM Intelligence data. This logic wasn’t convincing to everyone, though.
“If you’re arguing that you’re better than most firms, it’s not a good argument,” City University of New York sociologist Tsedale Melaku told the Times. “Most firms have a very difficult time actually bringing real diversity and inclusion into those spaces.”
Not just at Paul, Weiss, but across the law field, it’s been difficult for minorities to find any kind of upward mobility in their firms. There’s a discernable pattern: even when they do good work, lawyers of color tend to get less face time with higher-up executives than their white counterparts, which can be problematic in a business that’s highly relationship-driven. More than 20 women and people of color told the Times about difficulties they’ve had breaking into the good graces of the top lawyers at their firms.
That’s not to say that no lawyers of color have thrived at the big firms; some have. They’re few and far between, though. Two of the most respected partners at Paul, Weiss are Jeh Johnson, who served as Secretary of Homeland Security, and Theodore Wells, who has taken on high-profile clients like former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and the National Football League. For minority associates at places like Paul, Weiss, though, it’s often hard to fight the feeling of isolation that comes from a lack of diversity around you.
“Every day going into a conference room where you are the only one—maybe the only woman, maybe the only black person—that can weigh on you,” said Amran Hussein, the only female African-American partner at Paul, Weiss. “But is it something that’s specific to Paul, Weiss? No, I think that’s just corporate America.”