Viewpoint: Law Firms Have Long Way to Go in Diversifying Partnership Ranks

By: Kevin L. Nichols – The Recorder, March 25, 2011

Increasing diversity in the legal profession has been an initiative of the American Bar Association for decades, including when it surveyed managers of large law firms nationwide in 1986 and concluded that “[it] remains largely segregated.” The Bar Association of San Francisco took this initiative several steps further, one by establishing a Committee for Minority Employment to establish specific hiring goals and timetables of 25 percent for associates and 10 percent for partners locally by Dec. 31, 2000, where nearly 100 legal employers agreed. Although progress was made in the associate ranks, few minority lawyers advanced to partnership. Recently, BASF took another step to get to the “bottom line” causes behind this phenomenon by publishing the Bottom Line Partnership Task Force Report. This article focuses on findings pertaining to African-Americans.

Methodology of the Report

While many diversity studies involve only numbers and tracking statistics, the BLPTFR relies heavily on one-on-one interviews with partners, of counsel, managing partners and in-house counsel of color from local small, midsize, large law firms and companies. BASF’s goals were:

1) To determine how these partners of color “made it” to partnership in order to advise others how to succeed in law firms.

2) To explore what in-house counsel could do to advance diversity in law firms.

3) To provide best practices for law firm leadership to increase diversity.

BASF interviewed 31 African-American partners, which represents nearly all in San Francisco. Their questions were poignant, yet straight to the point. The results were intriguing.


African-American lawyers have experienced subtle forms of racism throughout their legal careers, such as being asked to make new business sales pitches for clients but not allowed to work on the matter once the case was awarded to the firm; opposing counsel assuming they were either a staff member or court reporter when entering a room for a deposition; or having the undue pressure of working twice as hard as their counterparts to prove that they belonged. Ironically, most of the African-American partners interviewed attributed their achieving partnership because of Caucasian men mentoring them, cross-selling their services to clients, and going to “bat” for them in partnership compensation negotiations. Therefore, diverse partners thrive when majority partners cross-sell their services like they do for their other Caucasian partners.

Clients are also starting to demand that their law firms offer diverse representation on their legal teams. The more African-American in-house counsel there are, the greater the ability to subtly persuade their companies to seek more diverse representation. The problem is that there are few diverse general counsel, thus the ability to determine outside counsel may or may not fall in the hands of those individuals.

Many of the African-American partners were lateral hires who had to “prove” themselves at either other law firms or when transferring from the public sector, such as the SEC, to partnership. “Lifers,” those who started at a firm as an associate and worked their way up to partner, are extremely rare. If law firms do not treat their African-American partners well, they leave until they find a workplace that treats them appropriately.

Best Practices

If you are an associate thinking about becoming partner, here are a few tips to aid you on your path:

1) Work hard and produce stellar work product.

2) Take credit for your work and make sure that partners know of your success.

3) Get involved with bar associations, nonprofit boards and pro bono projects.

4) Be social, get to know people in your firm, dress appropriately and pick a mentor organically instead of relying on a formal mentorship program.

If you are a partner at a firm, here are some tips to flourish:

1) Develop relationships with other partners at your firm, including senior partners and rainmakers — they are a significant source of additional work assignments and business development.

2) Cross-sell other diverse partners’ services throughout your firm.

3) Create a business development plan.

4) Mentor diverse associates, provide them with substantive work assignments, and give them credit for what they do.

In-house counsel can do the following to help diversify law firms:

1) Tell law firms that diversity is important.

2) Ask law firms to give you the numbers of diverse lawyers working on your matters and the hours that they billed.

3) When contacted by lawyer-ranking publications, mention lawyers of color who have done good work for you.

4) Acknowledge law firms who meet your diversity expectations.

Managing partners and firm leaders can emphasize the importance of recruiting diverse partners to their recruiters, they can include diverse lawyers in the hiring process, and they can participate in pipelining activities to attract diverse talent. To retain this talent, leaders should include diverse lawyers in pitches and allow them to work on the matters (should they be awarded), ensure that your firm’s resources such as marketing departments be made available to diverse partners, make the partnership track more transparent, make sure that associates who experience racism have a point of contact who they can go to in order to discuss it, and hire an outside consultant to conduct exit interviews for lawyers of color who leave the firm.

In conclusion, one of the managing partners interviewed for this report sums it up best:

“[M]ajority lawyers do not always appreciate the complexity of being an attorney of color. Being the person who looks different from everyone else in the room at a client meeting, deposition, court hearing or other professional event raises issues that majority lawyers do not confront or experience. The solution to this challenge is not clear, but raising it as an issue for open discussion is a start.”

Diversity in law firms is a recapitulation of society. Given some of our country’s recent accomplishments, such as an African-American California attorney general, federal attorney general and president of the United States, it is difficult to accept the fact that there is still segregation in the legal profession. There are fewer diverse applicants to law schools, with the economy there are fewer associates entering law firms, and ultimately even fewer partners that will exist within the next 5 to 10 years unless the objectives of this report are taken seriously and implemented. The battle against racism and segregation was won in court more than half a century ago and it appears that the struggle continues on the same battlefield. It is time for the rhetoric to quiet down and action to resound.

Kevin L. Nichols is the vice president of the California Diversity Council and principal of KLN Consulting Group located in San Francisco. For more information, please visit

The Recorder welcomes submissions to Viewpoint. Contact Sheela Kamath at

Reprinted with permission from the March 25, 2011 issue of The Recorder © 2011 ALM Media Properties, LLC

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