The Legal Face of Diversity

A recent study underlines unresolved challenges for African Americans in the legal profession, causing organizations to advocate for improved diversity efforts

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B. Seth Bryant left a majority firm to go out on his own.

After practicing law for nearly eight years, by 2003, B. Seth Bryant had reached a crossroad. He was feeling stagnant after serving four years in the corporate department of Morrison & Foerster L.L.P., a firm specializing in legal services in business and litigation. So he decided to branch out on his own.

Bryant’s first attempt at entrepreneurship resulted in a seven-lawyer corporate boutique called Bryant Law Group P.C., but after Adorno & Yoss, L.L.P., the largest certified minority-owned law firm in the U.S., acquired it, he returned to private law.

Yet, Bryant couldn’t escape the idea of striking out on his own. Finally, on Jan. 1, 2009, Bryant became the founder and managing partner of Bryant Burgher Jaffe & Roberts L.L.P., an 18-lawyer, minority-certified firm that provides legal services on transactions in advocacy matters and offers expertise in municipal finance, private equity, and real estate.

Bryant admits another influence on his decision to open his own firm was the challenge of acquiring a mentor, one of the many dilemmas that continue to haunt African American associates at private law firms.

During last year’s recession, few industries were safe from budget cuts and massive employee layoffs, and the law profession was no exception. But it seems that old challenges don’t die for African American lawyers who suffered most from the legal profession’s deficiencies, according to data gathered by The American Lawyer’s Midlevel Associates Survey.

The survey, which had 6,101 midlevel associates participate (169 of whom were African American) and was released last fall, reveals how stressful it has been at private law firm offices, with minority associates (African American, Asian, and Hispanic) reporting high levels of anxiety about job security. This anxiety proves to not be in vain since minority lawyers said they posted fewer billable hours on average in 2008 than their white co-workers. The average hours billed for African Americans was 1,862; 1,925 for Asians; 1,965 for Hispanics; and 1,976 for whites. The projected billable hours for 2009 were 1,818 for African Americans; 1,823 for Asians; 1,841 for Hispanics; and 1,889 for whites. Furthermore, in comparison to the other ethnic groups, African Americans were the highest percentage, at 22.5%, to report that their workload was too light. With disproportionate numbers such as these, African American lawyers are vulnerable to canceled bonuses, salary cuts, or layoffs.

Despite such dismal numbers, the results of the survey are not surprising. The reality of being an African American at law firms has been studied for years, if not decades. What the survey demonstrates is that the informal structure of associates having to be dependent on a partner in the firm to funnel them work in order to bill hours, is falling short for African Americans.

According to Laurie N. Robinson, CEO of the Corporate Counsel Women of Color, “the billable hour model makes it tough on associates of color. When it comes to the distribution of work, the partners who have the business and work to give—predominately Caucasian—tend to give work to people who look like them—Caucasian associates. This sometimes leaves associates of color out in the cold.” she says. “The state of the economy means work may have been limited at firms and there is less of a pie to eat—associates of color may only get the crust of the pie, if anything at all.”

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