Law Firms

170 top in-house lawyers warn they will direct their dollars to law firms promoting diversity

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Photo by Hafiez Razali/

General counsels and chief legal officers at more than 170 companies have signed an open letter telling law firms they expect their lawyers to “reflect the diversity of the legal community and the companies and the customers we serve.”

“We, as a group, will direct our substantial outside counsel spend to those law firms that manifest results with respect to diversity and inclusion, in addition to providing the highest degree of quality representation,” the letter says. The American Lawyer posted the letter, while the New York Times mentions it in a longer story examining obstacles to partnership promotion for women and people of color in BigLaw.

The letter was drafted after an online photo of 12 new partners at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison drew attention because it appeared to show 11 white men and just one woman. The firm later said the partnership class also includes one Latino and one LGBTQ partner.

Paul Weiss has a more diverse partnership than many large law firms, according to the New York Times. It has six African-American partners, more than many of its BigLaw counterparts. Twenty-three percent of its partners are women, compared to the 18 percent average at the nation’s top 200 law firms.

Among the high-profile black partners at Paul Weiss are prominent litigator Theodore Wells Jr. and former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Although Paul Weiss has achieved some diversity successes, more than 20 women and people of color interviewed by the Times described obstacles there that likely play out at firms around the country.

Some lawyers complained that white men are given better opportunities for business development than minorities. Some said it can be difficult to enter social circles of the firm’s top lawyers, who are needed to champion associates for them to advance to partner. Others said minority associates can feel isolated and feel like they have less margin for error than others.

“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 African-American female partner at Paul Weiss in an interview with the Times. “But is it something that’s specific to Paul Weiss? No, I think that’s just corporate America.”

Brad Karp, chairman at Paul Weiss, told the Times his firm has a good diversity track record. “We’ve always been ranked at the very, very top of every survey,” he said.

On Sunday, the firm announced a new partner hire: Supreme Court litigator Kannon Shanmugam, an Indian-American who made the National Law Journal’s “Minority 40 Under 40” list in 2011. Shanmugam is joining the firm from Williams & Connolly to build a Supreme Court and appellate practice group, report the Wall Street Journal and the National Law Journal.

Williams & Connolly, in turn, is hiring Lisa Blatt from Arnold & Porter to lead its Supreme Court and appellate practice, the National Law Journal reports.

Paul Weiss is taking additional steps to improve diversity. The firm will be giving greater attention to partners’ efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in compensation decisions, while a new task force will develop ideas to improve career prospects at the firm for female and minority associations.

The open letter from the in-house lawyers points out that many law firms have new partner classes that fail to reflect the demographic composition of entering associate classes.

“Partnership classes remain largely male and largely white,” the letter says. “We have no doubt that these lawyers worked hard to earn partnership and deserve the success they have obtained at your firms. We also know that there are women, people of color, and members of the LGTBQIA community and others who are no doubt equally deserving but are not equally rewarded.

“We are left to wonder if you and your partners value diversity enough to put into place programs to develop, promote and retain talented and diverse attorneys. It is not enough to commit your firm to diversity during the recruiting process or to hire a diversity and inclusion officer and expect that person can effect change without the full commitment of each member of the firm.”

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