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Ask Conrad Harper how he spends his time since retiring from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in 2003, and he outlines a schedule more suited to an ambitious graduate student than a retiree-reading weighty tomes, playing medieval music on the recorder, attending performances at the New York Philharmonic and the Joyce modern dance theater. “Conrad’s always been a learned, scholarly guy; he’s incredibly into books, and he shames me with his level of fundamental learning and knowledge,” says Simpson Thacher partner Roy Reardon. “He’s also hardworking and as straight an arrow as you’ll ever find.” Even when he was one of Simpson Thacher’s busiest litigators, Harper found time for such academic pursuits. That alone might be enough to set him apart. But his career accomplishments also include being the first African American partner at Simpson Thacher, one of the first at any large firm in New York City, and the first black president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Born in Detroit, Harper attended Howard University and then Harvard Law School, where he was the only black student in his class. He spent the first five years of his career at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., before joining Simpson Thacher in 1971. There, one of the first matters he worked on was a pro bono case involving discrimination against illiterate black voters in Mississippi, and he credits the big-firm resources available at Simpson Thacher for helping him win it. Harper made partner in 1974 and built a varied civil litigation practice, representing such clients as Paramount Pictures Corporation, General Motors Corporation, Christies International plc, and Universal Pictures. Beginning in 1989, Harper served two years as the president of the city bar association. “That proved to be one of the most challenging, interesting, and valuable things I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. He resolved a dispute with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the association’s ability to express its views on nominees for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, spearheaded a drive to archive and preserve legal documents on microfilm, and led the association’s efforts to address racial inequality in the legal profession. Harper took a three-year leave from Simpson Thacher beginning in 1993 to serve as legal adviser to the U.S. Department of State, which he calls the best job he ever had. “Everything was fascinating,” he says. “There were 100 lawyers there, and the only matters that reached my desk were the most intractable, interesting, and difficult ones. It was like a three-year seminar in the leading-edge issues of international law and its relation to diplomacy.” While minorities have made significant inroads since Harper, now 65, first entered the legal profession, he believes that those advances have not been enough. “It’s been a gradual incline, but much too gradual,” he says. “It’s easy to view this as yesterday’s problem. It’s today’s problem. We must have continued commitment from the top of institutions to keep making progress.” Back to Main Story

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