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Minorities in law must build relationships


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Minorities in law must build relationships
« on: September 22, 2006, 07:24:07 AM »
Five questions with T. Deon Warner
Minorities in law must build relationships

Every fall, the nation's largest corporate law firms launch recruiting strategies to hire energetic and super-smart legal students as summer interns and first-year associates.

A decade after corporate law firms declared themselves serious about attracting and keeping more minority lawyers, their success rate is still paltry.

Ten years ago, racial minorities represented 10 percent of the associates and 3 percent of the partners in the 250 largest U.S. firms, according to an annual survey by the National Law Journal.

In 2005, only 5 percent of partners were minorities and about 16 percent of nonpartners were minorities, according to the journal's sister publication Minority Law Journal.

A study published this summer in the North Carolina Law Review cites racial preferences as an undermining factor in the career trajectory of minority law school graduates. Critics of the study say "discrimi-
natory dual tracking" is a key reason for minorities not advancing to the partner ranks.

Chronicle reporter Shannon Buggs spoke with T. Deon Warner, a former hiring partner at Andrews & Kurth and managing partner of the Warner Law Firm, about the hunt for diverse talent and the exodus of many of those lawyers a few years later.

Q: What drives corporate law firms to recruit and hire a diverse pool of first-year associates?

A: When I came out in 1984, what was driving them was their clients. Their clients wanted to have a diversity in their attorneys.

Now they understand that diversity is a benefit. They still look for whom they consider the best and the brightest, but from all backgrounds.

When I sat on a hiring committee, you had to justify on paper that this person would have the ability to succeed and could contribute to the firm. They wanted to see the person's grades. Did he get involved in law journal or moot court and other things that demonstrated a passion for the law? Did she have energy in the interview?

Q: Why has that push to get minority lawyers in the door not translated into significant numbers of minorities becoming partners in the biggest firms?

A: Once you get in, you have a chance just like everybody else to make it. These firms don't go after people to weed them out of the firm.

They just have a conscious indifference. You are left on your own, and many minorities arrive at these large firms and don't have any connection with anyone in the firm.

On the other hand, a major firm in town gets about 85 percent of their lawyers from the University of Texas. By the time they get there, those lawyers know the folks from their class and the classes ahead of them. They are a fraternity when they walk into the door.

If the people on the partnership committee don't know you, it is very difficult to make partner. They have to know you. So you have to show you can do the work and you have to build relationships.

But when they decide to take an interest in you, then you're fine. It doesn't matter if you are black, white, Asian, Latino or a woman or a man.

Q: What effect does this exodus have on corporate law firms and their clients?

A: I don't know that the corporate clients get angry with the firms because they have high attrition. They are not firing anybody. The firms can just say they quit.

That's why you see them recruiting such large numbers, because they expect certain attrition.

Q: What is the typical next career step for former corporate law firm attorneys?

A: Most people go to smaller law firms or become corporate in-house counsel.

When you go to a smaller firm, you get a lot of deference because you were in a bigger firm. You get direct mentorship in a smaller firm and a lot more work experience a lot faster than you would at a big firm.

And you also could move into the partnership a lot faster. They are looking at your contributions more so than how long you have been there.

The downside is a loss of prestige and you don't make as much money. And the transactions you work on may not be as sophisticated as what you worked on at the big firms.

When you go in-house, you get a more objective measuring stick and you get away from hourly billing, which makes you feel better about yourself. But again, you can't reach the levels of compensation that you can if you reach partner at a major law firm.

Q: What can small minority-owned firms do to compete for clients against the large corporate law firms?

A: In my case, I had a client base that I had built up while I was inside the firm. When I left, they came with me. And I'm not competing with my old firm. In fact, we do work together. It's good to do joint ventures to go after work. But you don't get invited to that table very often because in order to do a very sophisticated piece of work, you have to get many different disciplines to work together. It's very hard to do that in a joint venture or a small firm.