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Excerpted From: Justin J. Hill, It's Not Me; It's You: Big Law Has Been Failing its Black Associates, 21 University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class 292 (Fall, 2021) (136 Footnotes) (Full Document)

JustinJHillOn May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer as other officers passively stood by. Following the death of Mr. Floyd, protests erupted in cities throughout the United States, demanding justice for his death and demanding change from the systemic racism that has plagued the United States since its inception. As a result of this tragedy, a variety of institutions nationwide began reevaluating their diversity initiatives and considering new efforts toward improving diversity.

On June 18, 2020, Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf sent out a company-wide memo announcing new diversity initiatives amid the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests following Mr. Floyd's death. In an effort to provide an explanation for the minimal Black representation in management positions at Wells Fargo, Scharf stated, “While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of Black talent to recruit from.” Scharf immediately received backlash for his remarks and eventually issued an apology for his “insensitive comment,” blaming it on his “own unconscious bias.”

Scharf is not the only person to blame low Black representation on an absence of qualified Black talent. In fact, the idea that there is an absence of qualified Black candidates has been a longstanding myth in the professional world. In 2020, forty-one percent of board members across the United States attributed low diversity among board members to a lack of qualified candidates. This may seem like a reasonable explanation for low diversity to some, but there is a critical assumption underlying such an excuse. It assumes that simply because a company is not able to find Black candidates, they do not exist. It completely disregards the possibility that a company's diversity efforts in hiring practices may be ineffective.

The truth is that there are ample qualified Black candidates, but corporate America has often been ineffective at finding them. This is especially true in the legal profession. In fact, the legal profession is among the least diverse of all professions. In 2021, about 5% of all lawyers were Black, another 5% Hispanic, 2% Asian, another 2% multiracial, and the remaining 85% were white. These numbers have been practically stagnant for the past ten years. Despite relatively consistent proportions of Black lawyers and an increasing demand for diversity in the legal profession, there has been minimal progress in diversifying many of the nation's largest law firms.

Many of the nation's top law firms proclaim diversity and inclusion as core values. For example, Baker McKenzie says that diversity and inclusion are “foundational to our culture and strategic vision.” Jones Day boasts that they “aggressively pursue hiring, retaining, and developing lawyers from historically underrepresented groups and backgrounds.” However, over the past ten years, the number of Black associates at big law firms has virtually remained the same.

Despite advertising diversity as a core value, there has been minimal growth in Black representation at big law firms. The increased emphasis on diversity compared to the actual results produced by these efforts suggest not that there is a shortage of Black talent, but maybe that diversity initiatives implemented by big law firms are not working. This Article takes a deeper look into the impact of diversity and inclusion efforts set forth by big law firms and legal organizations throughout the United States and suggests that the low representation of Black associates in big law firms is not due to an absence of Black talent, but a cultural issue within big law firms that fails Black law students and associates.

Part I explores the history of Black people in the legal profession. It gives an overview of landmark Supreme Court cases that led to the integration of law schools and briefly describes the racial landscape of the legal profession following law school integration. Part II examines the current presence of Black attorneys in big law firms and describes some of the diversity initiatives implemented by big law firms and local bar associations. Part III suggests that the low number of Black associates in big law firms is not caused by a small pool of qualified Black candidates, but the result of a culture that disproportionately disadvantages Black law students and associates. It does so by explaining some of the criteria that big law firms value when considering new associates coming out of law school and how this disadvantages Black students. It also describes the obstacles many Black associates experience in big law firms and how these obstacles impact attrition rates among Black associates. Part IV provides three solutions big law firms can utilize to make the culture within their firms more inclusive, effectively improving the experience for Black associates and increasing diversity within big law.

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The first step towards improvement for big law firms is recognizing their shortcomings and disposing of the “limited Black talent” excuse. The truth is that there is a plethora of qualified Black talent; big law firms just have to dispose of some outdated practices and put forth the effort to seek out Black associates. By reevaluating the culture within their firms, revamping their diversity efforts, and implementing these suggestions, big law firms can effectuate change within their firms and build a more inclusive environment for all.

Justin J. Hill, Esq. is the owner of The JHill Firm, LLC in Atlanta, Georgia, where he practices criminal defense and personal injury law. Justin is a 2021 graduate of Case Western Reserve University School of Law and a 2018 graduate of Morehouse College.

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