Mixed Fate For Black Law Firms

What a difference a decade makes. In our August 1993 issue, BLACK ENTERPRISE spotlighted the nation’s leading African American-owned law firms that had achieved blue chip status. Once relegated to handling low-profile cases, these firms had reached into the mainstream of their profession by doing profitable legal work for Fortune 500 corporations and government agencies.

At the time, there were 12 top contenders: Arnelle & Hastie, San Francisco; Arrington & Hollowell, Atlanta; Barnes, McGhee, Neal, Poston & Segue, New York; Carney & Brothers, Chicago; Fitch, Wiley, Richlin & Tourse, Boston; Hardiman, Alexander, Buchanan & Howland, Cleveland; Jones, Ware & Grenard, Chicago; Leftwich & Douglas, Washington, D.C.; Lewis, White & Clay, Detroit; McGee, Lafayette, Willis & Greene, San Francisco; Wilson & Becks, Los Angeles; and Wood, Williams, Rafalsky & Harris, New York.

Fast forward to 2003 and half of those firms have been knocked out of the arena, shutting their doors for good. About a quarter lost key partners and top black attorneys to majority law firms that were much larger and better connected than their own, enabling them to tackle higher-profile cases and collect bigger paychecks. Otis McGee joined the San Francisco office of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton L.L.P., a Los Angeles-based majority firm. Jesse Arnelle joined Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice P.L.L.C., a Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based majority firm. A few distinguished lawyers became judges. Marvin Arrington was appointed to the Fulton County Superior Court in 2002.

While such moves helped boost their individual status, it had a damaging impact on their firms’ survival. There are some exceptions. Despite the departure of its most senior partner, Arrington & Hollowell continues its success as Hollowell, Foster & Gepp P.C. The firm maintains a solid base of clients in practice areas such as employment discrimination, litigation, workers’ compensation, commercial transactions, and public finance.

A quarter of the original 12 firms are still around, but as slightly different variations of their former selves. Maintaining its forward momentum, Lewis, White & Clay evolved into Lewis & Munday. The firm stayed intact even though in 1995 Richard White was wooed away to take the position of vice president and general counsel of the Automobile Club of Michigan and Eric Clay was appointed as a judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Helping drive the firm are corporate clients such as DaimlerChrysler. Lewis & Mundy handles all warranty litigation in the U.S. for the giant auto manufacturer. Since former African American mayor of Detroit Coleman Young first asked the firm to do municipal bond work, it has gone on to rank among the top 20 nationally recognized bond counsels.

Washington, D.C.-based Leftwich & Douglas became Leftwich & Ludaway L.L.C. as of September 2003. The firm has remained true to its roots as a full-service general practice firm. Clients range from small business startups to Fortune 10 corporations. The firm has developed strong telecommunications and regulatory practice areas.

Carney & Brothers dissolved in 1995 when Demetrius Carney merged with the Chicago majority firm of Wildman Harrold Allen