Elite Law Firm’s All-White Partner Class Stirs Debate on Diversity

The post appeared on LinkedIn in early December: Paul, Weiss, one of the country’s most prominent and profitable law firms, said it was “pleased to announce” its new partner class.

In the image, 12 lawyers looked out at the world, grinning.

What followed, however, was nothing to smile about. In short order, people across the industry began to comment that all of the faces were white, and only one was a woman’s.

“I was literally looking on LinkedIn when I saw the picture and my mouth dropped open,” said Michelle Fang, chief legal officer of the peer-to-peer car-sharing company Turo.

Above the Law, a widely read industry website, archly mocked the firm’s “commitment to putting the white in white shoe.” A group of general counsels, the people who hire elite law firms, began discussing how to respond. They later published an open letter, signed by officials at companies like Lyft, Heineken USA and Booz Allen Hamilton, calling on firms like Paul, Weiss “to reflect the diversity of the legal community” or they would send their business elsewhere.

A little over a week after it was posted, the image was taken down. Paul, Weiss has said that it regretted the “gender and racial imbalance” of its 2019 class, and that the class was an outlier.

“We have a very good track record in terms of diversity,” Brad Karp, the firm’s chairman, said in an interview. “We’ve always been ranked at the very, very top of every survey.”

Paul, Weiss, with its 144 partners and about 1,000 lawyers, is, in fact, more diverse at the partner level than most of its peers. It has more African-American partners with an ownership stake, six, than a large majority of the country’s 200 biggest firms, and far more than elite competitors like Cravath, Debevoise & Plimpton and Davis Polk.

Women make up 23 percent of partners at Paul, Weiss, compared with 18 percent across the top 200 firms, according to data collected by ALM Intelligence.

Still, Paul, Weiss is no exception to the broader pattern across big law: the share of partners who are women and people of color is much smaller than the number reflected in the ranks of associates, or those starting law school, not to mention the general population.

“I fear that African-American partners in big law are becoming an endangered species,” said Theodore V. Wells Jr., a black partner at Paul, Weiss and one of the country’s most prominent litigators.

The LinkedIn image was a stark illustration of what can happen when promotion decisions are relationship-driven and concentrated in the hands of white-male rainmakers, even in workplaces with a commitment to diversity.

“If you’re arguing that you’re better than most firms, it’s not a good argument,” said Tsedale Melaku, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who studies law firms. “Because most firms have a very difficult time actually bringing real diversity and inclusion into those spaces.”

Diversity remains an unfulfilled promised in a variety of elite industries, including tech and finance as well as at big media companies like The New York Times.

More than 20 women and people of color interviewed for this article described obstacles to achieving diversity at Paul, Weiss. Many said that opportunities to be groomed for partner are harder to come by for women and minorities. Even as their work shined, some said, they failed to break into the good graces and social circles of the firm’s top lawyers, who must champion those hoping to earn a lucrative spot as a partner.

“There are white males at the firm that are visibly being given more time in business development opportunities and client contact,” said a female minority lawyer at Paul, Weiss who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “They’re clearly being cultivated.”

‘You become the mother’

Few law firms project power and prestige like Paul, Weiss. In 2017, it was the fourth richest firm in the country measured by profits per partner, and it represents some of the biggest financial institutions in the world, like Citigroup and JPMorgan.

Among the firm’s most respected partners are Jeh Johnson, a former Homeland Security secretary who became Paul, Weiss’s first black partner in 1994, and Mr. Wells, who has represented embattled political figures like former Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York and investigated the New England Patriots on behalf of the N.F.L. during “Deflategate.”

In 2013, a Paul, Weiss partner successfully argued U.S. v. Windsor, in which the Supreme Court struck down the federal law denying government benefits to same-sex married couples.

A handful of women have been made partners at the firm while working reduced or flexible hours, according to Valerie Radwaner, the firm’s deputy chairwoman, and some credit the firm’s “infant transition” child care program with helping women return to work after childbirth. But the firm’s internal culture is not always inviting for women.

The female minority lawyer who spoke of the greater opportunities given to men also complained that women lawyers are often expected to take on administrative tasks, such as drafting schedules.

“You become the mother of the team,” she said.

Another woman who worked at the firm said she was paired with a male associate to create a document to prepare for a client meeting two years ago. She ended up doing most of the work, she said, but when it came time to meet with the client, the partners left her behind and took the male, whose father was a friend of the partners.

Last February, Anna Christie, an associate in the London office, sent an email to her supervisor alleging discrimination and an office environment that was hostile toward women.

Shortly after she sent her grievance, Ms. Christie was dismissed by Paul, Weiss. She had been warned months earlier that she was not allowed to work at the firm while also completing the full-time Ph.D. program in which she had enrolled.

No longer with the firm, Ms. Christie has since filed a separate claim with a government employment tribunal, in which she singled out a powerful partner who, she alleges, verbally abused women. The firm says all of her allegations are without merit. The case is pending.

‘Less margin for error’

Paul, Weiss makes a point of recruiting law students of color, who are often attracted by the chance to work alongside black partners like Mr. Johnson and Mr. Wells.

But many of these young lawyers described a complicated reality, in which young minorities are welcomed at the firm and then frequently sidelined.

Some complained that people in power held them to different standards than their white male peers, or punished them more severely for mistakes.

“I think associates of color are absolutely justified in feeling like they have less margin for error,” said Jason Williamson, who was an associate at Paul, Weiss from 2008 to 2011 and now works at the American Civil Liberties Union. While this may be true at many workplaces, said Mr. Williamson, who is black, it is particularly so at big law firms.

One former associate described sitting on a hiring committee that was considering a Latino law student from Howard University.

According to the former associate, some lawyers on the committee found the candidate promising and wanted to extend an offer, but two partners said they couldn’t because the candidate was not one of the top-ranking students at Howard, a historically black university.

In the end, the firm did not hire the Latino student, although it did extend offers to four other Howard students. The former associate said the partners bristled at his efforts to advocate for the candidate. “It wasn’t something that was looked on as a positive,” the former associate said, and the episode contributed to the associate’s decision to leave Paul, Weiss.

Craig Benson, a partner on the hiring committee, said the committee did view the candidate’s race as a factor in his favor.

Amran Hussein, the lone African-American woman who is a partner at Paul, Weiss, said black associates at the firm faced the same challenges as black people in other elite institutions: a feeling of isolation.

“Every day going into a conference room where you are the only one — maybe the only woman, maybe the only black person, that can weigh on you,” Ms. Hussein said. “But is it something that’s specific to Paul, Weiss? No, I think that’s just corporate America.”

‘I don’t see color’

According to employees, the challenges facing minority lawyers at Paul, Weiss become most evident when promotions and opportunities for advancement are at stake.

“What I think that partnership announcement laid bare is that even a firm with Paul, Weiss’s history — that commitment to civil rights — isn’t immune to the dynamics that make life at a big law firm particularly difficult for women and minorities,” said Michal Rosenn, an associate there from 2010 to 2012.

Minority and female associates ascend to partner at Paul, Weiss at lower rates than white males. Data from the firm and ALM Intelligence indicate that white males have accounted for only about 40 percent of incoming associates, but nearly 70 percent of new partners over the past decade.

In a 1996 law review paper about corporate law firms, David B. Wilkins of Harvard and Mitu Gulati of Duke identified a reason for this pattern: To make partner, an associate must be trained, which typically involves working on important cases and deals and spending time with clients.

But there are far fewer opportunities to be trained than there are junior lawyers at most firms, and they are doled out largely at the discretion of existing partners, who, in the authors’ words, are drawn to “protégés who remind them of themselves.”

Paul, Weiss holds sessions to teach its lawyers how to rein in their unconscious biases, and has formal programs to help female and minority associates form relationships with partners.

But current and former lawyers said these measures depended heavily on the appetite of the individual partners who take part in them, which often isn’t large.

One former female associate who is not white said that diversity mentors were encouraged to keep in mind that no one is colorblind. But when she met with her white male mentor for the first time, she said he told her: “I don’t see color. I don’t see this as diversity mentorship, I see this as mentorship.” He promised to involve her in work on deals, she said, but never did.

“I think the informal mentorship relationships that develop organically are overall, on average, the more successful relationships,” said David W. Brown, one of the firm’s African-American partners.

Mr. Brown said that as an associate, he invested considerable energy in cultivating Mr. Johnson, the former Homeland Security secretary, as a mentor, even sending him articles from The New Yorker. “I would actually print them out and send them to Jeh in a manila envelope,” he said. “A lot of what we bonded over was politics.”

Several African-Americans at Paul, Weiss said the firm’s white partners had also championed them. Patrick Campbell said he bonded with a white partner after he saw a portrait of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, on his wall. That partner had clerked for Marshall, and he eventually helped shepherd Mr. Campbell into a partnership.

But their most effective mentors, others said, are often the limited number of black partners, and too many young black associates must compete for their attention.

‘Are we still here?’

Only a tiny fraction of associates who join Paul, Weiss and other large firms make partner, and associates of all stripes who believe they have no shot typically leave long before they would become eligible.

The female and minority associates who do stick around face a final daunting obstacle: the actual partner-selection process, in which current partners must decide, among other things, whether a young lawyer will bring in tens of millions of dollars in revenue.

Mr. Wells said many black lawyers had wondered whether all but the most formidable minority candidates — so-called unicorns — could make partner at big law firms.

Theodore V. Wells Jr., one of the country’s most prominent litigators, joined Paul, Weiss in 2000. The chance to work alongside Mr. Wells has attracted African-American recruits to the firm.

“The question is, what happens to the young black lawyer who’s not a unicorn but a superb lawyer?” Mr. Wells said in an interview. “Does he get through the same way the superb white lawyer does?” He added, however, that Paul, Weiss strived to ensure that highly qualified black associates, and not just superstars, were promoted.

Some Paul, Weiss partners said they had raised concerns internally about the lack of diversity in the pipeline in the years before the announcement in December. (One of the new partners is a white male from Spain but identifies as Hispanic, the firm said.)

Many of the new partners had been lateral hires: lawyers hired away from other employers.

In an interview, Mr. Karp, the chairman, said the firm needed highly specific expertise when filling these jobs. “We always want diverse attorneys at the firm — always — but if there were none available with that expertise, the choice was to do nothing” or hire the best individuals available, even if they were white men, he said.

Mr. Karp acknowledged that the firm had lost too many women and minority associates over the years who might have been strong candidates for partner.

“I wish I could be Superman and fly backward and make time go back and make sure that we had special individualized mentoring for every single female associate and associate of color,” Mr. Karp said. “But we didn’t do that. And we’ve learned very valuable lessons.”

Mr. Karp said that he expected some prominent female and minority partners to join Paul, Weiss from other firms in the next several months, and that partners’ efforts to increase diversity and inclusion would be given greater attention in setting compensation.

At a firmwide meeting on Jan. 14, he discussed a new task force in which partners will work alongside female and minority associates to develop ideas for improving their career prospects at the firm.

That some of Paul, Weiss’s rivals have recently made their partnerships more diverse appears to have amplified the dissonance of the December announcement.

“My reaction was utter disappointment — ‘are we still here?’” said Yoko Miyashita, the general counsel of Getty Images, which spends millions of dollars each year on outside legal services and periodically uses Paul, Weiss. “We find vendors who align with our values to service our needs.”

Ms. Fang, one of the general counsels who helped compose the open letter to law firms in response to the Paul, Weiss partnership announcement, expressed optimism that pressure from clients would prompt firms to take action on diversity.

But when pressed on whether she would fire a rival firm, which employs a white male partner she has long relied on, if it were not diverse enough, Ms. Fang demurred.

“I trust him so much,” she said. “I can’t see walking away.”

Follow John Eligon and Noam Scheiber on Twitter: @jeligon, @noamscheiber.

Jack Begg, Doris Burke and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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