At some point in their legal careers, lawyers committed to diversity may face a dilemma that is both enviable and essential. When contemplating a law firm move, which option does the most to further personal and professional goals: a stake as a minority partner in a majority-owned firm, or partnership at a (usually smaller) firm owned by minorities?
Recently, Diversity & the Bar® spoke to several minority law firm partners who faced and made this decision. These attorneys also considered factors such as whether to accept an equity or non-equity partnership, and what it takes to achieve partnership in different types of firms. While their stories and paths are personally unique, their decision-making processes are relevant to all attorneys from a diverse background contemplating the best ways to support their commitments.
The only reason Harvard Law School graduate Michael Fitzhugh was contemplating life as an equity partner in 1984 was because he had decided to open his own law firm.
"I had no choice at the outset," said Fitzhugh, an African-American who now leads one of the nation's largest "minority- owned" law firms, the 17-attorney Fitzhugh, Parker & Alvaro in Boston. Fitzhugh explained that after law school, he suffered two false starts. He was unexpectedly terminated from his first firm along with five other associates on the same day, and approximately one year later was obliged to leave another following a disagreement. To his good fortune, however, one very large client, Conrail, decided to follow him.
"It was never the plan. I was an accidental entrepreneur," said Fitzhugh, who found himself creating a "minority-owned firm" barely four years after graduating from law school, but at a time when others were touting the concept as a good idea. "Over the years, I've been very fortunate to find very talented and dedicated people with whom I could work. I've ‘selected' my environment by selecting the right kind of people," he said.
That's not the path chosen by Corliss Scroggins Lawson, who was the first African-American associate, and later equity partner, in the history of the Atlanta office of the Chicago-based law firm of Lord, Bissell & Brook LLP, a firm with approximately 325 lawyers and offices from Los Angeles to London. Lawson, who married at age 16 and was raising two children when she graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Law, said she struck her bargain and became a minority partner in a "majority" firm because of the opportunity to work on sophisticated cases with huge institutional clients such as Lloyds of London. What she did not anticipate, she said, is that "12 years later I would still be the only African-American partner at Lord, Bissell."
Like Fitzhugh, William Cook, Jr. also graduated from Harvard Law School in 1987. He set his sights on equity partnership at the powerhouse firm Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C. Only a handful of firms offer the opportunity to work on the high stakes, often politically charged corporate matters that Arnold & Porter handles. "I don't think it was a conscious decision on my part to go to a majority firm, but it was what I was looking for in terms of client base and opportunities for great experience," said Cook, who is African American.
Fitzhugh, Lawson, and Cook highlight the respective advantages of their contrasting paths. One went his own way and founded a firm, controlling his own destiny and taking on the challenges of building a sizeable business. The other two climbed corporate ladders in a way that did not allow them to choose their colleagues or clients at first – yet landed them at the top of the legal profession.
The Right Place
Each path has its rewards and challenges. Minority-owned firms are generally smaller, and more likely to tune their practices to the cultural and legal interests of the partners, but the compensation and the prestige do not match those at larger firms.
Meanwhile, equity partners at majority firms are generally among the highest paid in the legal profession. But minority attorneys who make their way in majority firms sometimes discover that the hiring-to-partnership ratios for minorities are wildly skewed. Moreover, some attorneys of color find themselves navigating the twisty equity partnership tracks and tiers with little guidance.
Are there significant differences in the environments of majority and minority-owned firms? "Yes," asserted Fitzhugh. "Our firm has been ‘diverse' long before it was fashionable, in that many of our staff, legal and non-legal, are not minorities. Many visitors have remarked at how comfortably everyone here interacts with each other, but for us this is normal and simply what we have come to expect — something that I'm most proud of," said Fitzhugh.
But John W. Carr, an African-American partner at the venerable Wall Street firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, which enjoys one of the highest partner compensation rates in the country, believes that the analytical dichotomy between minority-owned and majority-owned firms has its limits.
"Yes, firms like ours are predominately filled with white male partners, but they are also institutions. So as a black partner or a woman, or young Asian associate, it's important that people have an unlimited claim to belong, and be part of those places," said Carr.
For Terry S. Boone, equity partner at Texas-based Haynes and Boone, the right environment was a majority firm comprised of 450 attorneys. He chose Haynes and Boone because, "We don't have a shark-tank mentality, and you are never competing with anyone else but yourself to be successful within this firm. It's not like we hired 25 first-year lawyers and threw them in and whoever survives to year seven, the rest of them would be dead in the tank," said Boone.
Boone, an African American, said that the biggest stumbling block for minorities in a majority firm is the problem of mentoring. "I don't think anyone succeeds to an equity partner level who doesn't have a good mentor — someone who champions them as a highly skilled lawyer who should be groomed to become an equity partner. I think it is easier to happen in a minority-owned firm, because I think sometimes cultural differences get in the way [in majority firms]," he explained.
Arnold & Porter's Cook said that a minority attorney might find it more difficult in a large firm — not because the firm makes it a hostile environment, but because it might be more challenging for minority lawyers to bring in business. "Many minorities may not have had the opportunity in school or college to establish connections with the people who are now in senior positions in Fortune 500 companies, and so it may be harder for them to bring in those larger institutional clients," said Cook.
Those who are facing a choice of joining a minority-owned firm should consider the experience of Henry N. Adorno, the founding shareholder of Adorno & Yoss, which is the largest certified minority-owned law firm in the United States with more than 185 attorneys in five cities. "I'm not sure there's a difference [between minority and majority-owned firms]," said Adorno. "It's just a way of life for us," Adorno continued. From conversations with minority attorneys who are part of firms that are less diverse, Adorno has gleaned that sometimes these attorneys don't feel as strongly that they are an integral part of the firm. "In our case, that's not even an issue," he said.
Both Fitzhugh and Adorno agree that minority firms face some challenges in the competitive legal marketplace. Fitzhugh's firm services only corporate clients, and that has worked to its advantage in the last decade, as many companies have undertaken efforts to diversify the ranks of outside counsel.
"We don't emphasize our minority-owned status in our marketing, lest we appear to be pandering to that element at the expense of showcasing our skills and expertise," said Fitzhugh. "The key to our success is not getting the first case, but the second one, and no client is going to send that second matter unless you can get the job done — nor should they. The challenge we face is, like any other law firm that is new to a corporate client, there will necessarily and understandably be a significant degree of scrutiny brought to bear and it just goes with the territory," said Fitzhugh.
"There are some preconceived notions that we need to overcome," Adorno agreed. He cautioned that potential clients may misinterpret the words "minority-owned firm" to mean that the attorneys do not have the same high-level educational background or professional experiences.
Fast Track to Leadership
At most firms, the jump from associate to partner or financial shareholder represents much more than a change in title. In almost every case, it is a validation of the attorney's worth and a true test of a lawyer's commitment to the firm.
"Equity is where the rubber hits the road in a law firm context," explained B. Seth Bryant, the founding shareholder of Bryant Law Group, a new, seven lawyer corporate boutique in New York. "If you aren't an equity holder, you aren't as committed. Once your skin is in the game, you are focused in a different way," said Bryant.
But economics dictate that only a chosen few reach full equity partnership. The National Association for Law Placement, Inc. found that minorities compose just four percent of partners, and this statistic includes both equity and non-equity partners.
The fundamental difference in the types of partnership is compensation. An equity partner receives a share of firm profits that rises and falls with the good and bad times of the firm, and a non-equity partner gets a salary that is usually closer to earnings of top associates than to the average partnership draw. But, the privileges and limitations of being a non-equity partner vary among firms. At Fitzhugh's firm, equity partners comprise the management committee and wield ultimate authority on important policy matters, but all partners are consulted in the consideration of any significant issue.
"If there is consensus or not, it's not because of any tension between the partners' status," said Fitzhugh. Harumi Hata, an equity partner in the Los Angeles office of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal who is Japanese, agreed. "In our firm, in the day-to-day living experience, there really is no difference. We are very respectful of everyone, and we don't throw our weight around just because we are one or the other," she said.
As to the qualities that it takes to make partner, Nelson G. Dong, an Asian-American partner at Dorsey & Whitney in Seattle, said, "There is probably no universal process followed everywhere, but, in general, the same criteria are probably considered in both minority and majority firms when selecting potential partners from the associate pool." Dong, who has been become a partner at three different majority law firms, adds, "These factors include the associate's overall performance, ethics and legal skills, ability to engage with clients and to generate business, ‘cultural fit' and social skills within the firm and, increasingly, as firms think more long-term, the strength and value of the associate's practice area within the firm's strategic plan."
Added Hata, "When we are thinking about promoting from within and hiring lateral partner candidates, we ask: Are these the people we would like to work with, are we able to trust these people, do they have the quality, the integrity, and the competency as a lawyer and as a person? We do entrust one another with our clients — the trust issue is extremely important," said Hata.
But, equity partners are also quick to point out that it isn't a precise science.
"No one can tell you exactly what it is because it's a lot like the definition of obscenity — people know equity partners when they see them. It's hard to know what goes into the mix," said Boone of Haynes and Boone. "If you want to become an equity partner, you have to have an exemplary work product, but with most majority firms that's almost taken as a given," Boone continued.
Carr of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett said, "I'd say on average, people who make partner work a little bit harder. These are generalizations, of course, but I don't believe they are a little bit smarter." Carr recommended that lawyers focus on the firm as a professional service organization. "To be successful, you have to have an appreciation and commitment to service of clients and of other lawyers you work for," said Carr, who is African American.
Hard work, aggressiveness, and creativity proved to be the ticket for Jackie Redin Klein of the Los Angeles office of Lord, Bissell & Brook. Klein, who is Hispanic, said she had to prove to the firm that she was capable of taking a lead role on significant cases. In addition, "By focusing my practice on an area of law that no one else in our Los Angeles office did, I became more valuable to the firm," said Klein.
Having established a book of business may or may not be pivotal, depending on the firm. "I don't know many people these days who are up for partner at large firms who actually have business — I find that to be very unusual," said Arnold & Porter partner Asim Varma, who is of Indian descent.
"I believe you also have to make an effort to integrate yourself into the firm in a social way," said Russell Wong, an Asian American who is one of the founders of Houston-based Wong, Cabello, Lutsch, Rutherford & Brucculeri. "Develop relationships throughout the firm so that you have a group of supporters, not just one," Wong continued.
Carr agreed, and urges young lawyers to find different mentors for different roles. In his case, Carr noted, "Some mentors were better at helping me become a better technical lawyer, some were better at helping me fit into the place as a social organization, as a human entity. I don't mean going to parties and playing golf, I mean socially getting to know people, and other people helped me with client relationships."
Anthony Pierce, an African-American equity partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, sums it up well, "If you want to know how to make partner, you look at people who made partner and you try to model yourself after that." It's also interesting to note that among the Capital's elite, powerhouse firms, Akin Gump boasts the highest percentage of minority equity partners at 10.5 percent.
Elisabeth Frater, Esq. is a civil litigator and freelance writer based in Napa, California.
From the July/August 2004 issue of Diversity & The Bar®