"If you can't join 'em, beat 'em!": the rise and fall of the black corporate law firm.

Author:Wilkins, David B.

INTRODUCTION I. FROM SHARING SPACE TO SHARING DREAMS A. A Starvation Profession B. A Typology of Black Corporate Law Firms 1. First movers: Neotraditionalists and Start-Ups 2. Act Two: The Dropouts drop in II. BUILDING A BETTER MOUSETRAP: 1965-1990 A. Translating Public Power into Private Gain B. Cracking the Corporate Code 1. Demonstrating corporate commitment 2. Marketing change in a changing market C. Our Kind of Clients D. Making an Opportunity out of Blocked Opportunity E. Dreaming the Impossible Dream III. THE OLD RULES OF THE NEW BUSINESS CYCLE: 1990-2000 A. The Perils of the Public Sector 1. Live by the sword, die by the sword 2. With friends like these 3. Just gettin' paid 4. Paying for playing 5. Affirmative reaction--and inaction B. When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted 1. The danger of democracy 2. The return of the big boys 3. Old habits die hard C. The Grass Is Always Greener--Especially When There Is Plenty of Green 1. On-the-job training 2. Loyalty versus lifestyle D. The Death of the Black Corporate Law Firm? IV. PARADISE OR PARADISE LOST? A. Lessons from a Survivor B. Debunking Myths and Saving Souls C. The New Social Engineers D. The Vanishing Black Institution V. CONCLUSION: TO REACH THE UNREACHABLE STAR "The premise was that we could grow a national firm from the bottom up. That was the unspoken dream of all of the participants." (1)

"It was the first time I had been in any office of any size, certainly the first time in a law office of any size, where you could go from office to office to office, floor to floor, and see black people practicing in commercial practice at the highest levels. It was a wee bit short of a spiritual experience for me. At the end of the day, the hiring partner said, 'Clearly you have the talent to do the work. We only ask that you have the will to live our mission to build an institution of talented but purposeful black lawyers.'" (2)

"The number of African-American owned firms is rapidly decreasing. It is becoming very evident to those of us who are still in the practice or who continue a strong interest in the practice that there is a real sea change that we are living through now." (3)


There was a moment around 1990 when it all seemed possible. Finally, there was a way for black lawyers with ambition, skill, and determination to escape the frustrating limitations that seemed destined to block their progress at large law firms which, although finally willing to hire them, seemed unwilling or unable to treat them as full fledged participants. That way was to build "large" corporate law firms of their own that would compete directly with established firms for clients and talent. (4)

Those who embarked on this path had big dreams. The most ambitious, as the first epigraph quoted above underscores, dreamed of creating national firms that would rival in size, scope, and profitability the "law factories" that had been built during the last century to service the needs of public and private institutional clients. (5) But even those who dreamed on a more local level still thought that they could build stable and successful institutions in the image of Cravath and other similar firms.

And why not? The conditions for creating viable black corporate firms seemed ripe. A quarter century after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act--and a decade after the threat of school busing caused many whites to flee for the suburbs--black voters had finally begun to flex their muscles in major cities across the country. The result was a growing generation of black politicians with the ability to control (or, at a minimum, to influence) how public entities awarded the substantial amount of legal business under government control. At the same time, corporate America was beginning to awaken to its own obligation to promote diversity among its suppliers, including the suppliers of legal services. Finally a new generation of black entrepreneurs, entertainers, and athletes seemed poised to fulfill the promise of black capitalism. Surely, these forces were sufficient to create a client base with both the interest in and ability to sustain a new black legal elite.

Moreover, by the last decade of the twentieth century there was a growing supply of black (and other minority) lawyers with the credentials--and often the experience--to service the legal needs of public and private institutional clients. By 1990, there were more than 25,000 black lawyers in the United States--a tenfold increase from the size of the black bar in 1960, with more than 6700 black students entering law school every year. (6) Nor was there much competition for this growing pool of talent from established corporate firms. Although most law firms were hiring a handful of black graduates by this time, the vast majority of the black lawyers who had entered these institutions during the proceeding two decades were no longer there. (7) As a result, those seeking to create black corporate law firms could draw on a substantial pool of black recruits with experience in servicing the legal needs of institutional clients and, equally important, who understood the frustrations of life inside a large law firm for black lawyers.

Finally, there was a precedent for the bold strategy these new black corporate entrepreneurs sought to implement. A generation earlier, Jewish lawyers, who in the first half of the twentieth century were even more excluded from "white shoe" corporate firms than black lawyers were in the 1990s, had built their own law firms whose size and profitability eventually rivaled their WASP counterparts. (8) Although this lineage was rarely explicitly acknowledged, the black lawyers who launched corporate law firms in the latter decades of the century had reason to hope that they could emulate this successful strategy.

And yet, notwithstanding all of this potential and precedent, by the end of the twentieth century the dream of building black corporate firms that could rival their largely white counterparts had all but died. As the last epigraph indicates, by the dawn of the twenty-first century most of the firms that had been started with such promise and enthusiasm just a few years before had either shuttered their doors or shrunk in both size and ambition. Those black lawyers who continue to dream of building something beyond boutiques--some of which have indeed proven to be quite successful--are more likely to talk about creating "networks" or "franchises" as opposed to building a national firm comprised, in the words of the second epigraph, of "talented but purposeful black lawyers." Indeed, to the extent that anyone continues to talk about building a national minority law firm, it is Hispanic lawyers who have been able to leverage their strong presence in Miami and connections to Latin America to create at least one law firm with more than 250 attorneys. (9)

What happened to the dream of building a national black law firm? Equally important, what can the fate of this dream tell us about ongoing efforts to integrate the corporate "hemisphere" of the bar and to eliminate inequality in the legal profession and in the rest of society generally? (10) Finally, what, if any, difference will it make that these firms failed to achieve their ambitious goals? As we will see, many of the lawyers who created successful black corporate firms left these institutions to become partners in traditional large law firms. Moreover, the black corporate boutiques that have survived have had to find real niches in the marketplace, as opposed to trying to create what were, at best, likely to have been midsized full-service firms of the kind that are increasingly going the way of the dinosaur in today's competitive marketplace. (11) Given this reality, should we mourn the death of the dream of building a national black law firm or should we celebrate it as a necessary and desirable step toward achieving true integration of the nation's elite corporate bar?

In this Article, I examine these questions by taking a close look at the lawyers who attempted to establish "black" or "minority" corporate law firms in the last three decades of the twentieth century. (12) I do so on the basis of over fifty in-depth interviews with lawyers who either dreamed of creating black corporate law firms or who were in a position to hand out the kind of business that would determine whether this dream could be realized. Based on these reports, I argue that five interconnected trends ultimately doomed the grand ambitions of those who sought to create "large" black corporate firms: the increasing difficulty of translating electoral power into legal business; the inherent limitations of various strategies to promote diversity and inclusion; the growing concentration and competition among traditional large law firms; the widening gap between the world views and expectations of the lawyers who founded black corporate firms and the new generation of black lawyers these founders needed to recruit to keep their organizations viable; and-paradoxically--their own success. Understanding how each of these developments undermined the dream of creating viable black corporate firms, I submit, has important implications for the likely success of a range of policies currently being advocated by those seeking to promote diversity in the legal profession.

Understanding the factors that led to both the rise and the fall of black corporate firms also highlights just what is likely to be lost as these pioneering institutions contract and perhaps die out altogether. As the second epigraph to this Article underscores, many of those who sought to build black corporate firms were interested in more than economic success. They also had a mission to create lasting black institutions that would reflect the sensibilities of the black community and help to serve its needs. In this respect, black corporate firms were very different from their Jewish predecessors...

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