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Finding the largest minority-owned firm in Washington, D.C., is a bit like spotting the invisible man. It’s not in our annual list of D.C.’s 20 most lucrative firms, or even among the larger LT 150, which ends with shops that have around 30 lawyers. No, as it turns out, the largest minority-owned firm here has only a dozen lawyers. According to the D.C. Bar, there are about 65,000 active lawyers nationwide, and Washington features not only a population that is 55 percent African-American and nearly 10 percent Hispanic but also the highest per capita number of lawyers in the country. Add to that the eight law schools in the District, one of which is historically black, and it would seem as though D.C. has the perfect conditions for at least one minority-owned firm to land among the top 150. “It was shocking to us that in the District of Columbia, with the high concentration of African-Americans, that there weren’t more minority-owned firms,” says Emery Harlan, a partner at Milwaukee-based Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan. His firm, which is minority-owned and has about 70 attorneys, is in the preliminary stages of setting up an office here. In other cities such as Detroit, Miami, and Chicago, minority-owned firms, in which a majority of the partnership is made up of members of a racial minority group, have larger numbers, ranging from 20 to more than 200 attorneys. But D.C.’s best-known and largest minority-owned firm, Leftwich & Ludaway, isn’t anything like that in size. Though it gets regular work from major clients like Verizon and handles innovative matters for the city, it has only four partners and eight associates. “We are comfortable in the space that we’re in, which is a small firm,” says Natalie Ludaway, the firm’s managing partner. A SHRINKING POOL Kurt Schmoke, dean of Howard University’s law school, was practicing at now-Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr about five years ago, when he attended a conference in D.C., put on by DuPont Co. and several other large companies, where they discussed hiring minority-owned firms. But there was a problem: They couldn’t find very many. They found “that the actual pool to do business with was shrinking, and second, that many of those firms had resource challenges,” Schmoke says. In the past few years, a few companies, including Dupont, Sara Lee Corp., and Wal-Mart, have been demanding diversity from their outside counsel, so much so that the top firms have felt increased pressure to do something about minority hiring. And some minority-owned firms have banded together to grab a piece of this work. Groups like the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms hold trade conferences where minority-owned companies introduce themselves to other companies. The association is holding its annual conference this week in New York, and companies such as Bank of America and Pfizer Inc. will interview the 50 minority- and women-owned firms that are part of the association to see if they would like to use the firms as outside legal counsel. But as of yet, no such conglomeration has emerged in D.C. Even if it did, some doubt the number of companies pushing to hire minority-owned firms would support such a venture. “I don’t think that’s happening on a scale that you would need to get a minority-owned law firm off the ground in Washington,” says Thomas Williamson Jr., chairman of Covington & Burling’s employment practice and a member of the firm’s management committee. Part of the reason for the absence of a large minority-owned firm in the District lies in the client base of the city. The main source of business in Washington is government, though there are 20 Fortune 1000 companies in the area, including Marriott International and Fannie Mae. And few of the big businesses in town are owned by minorities. “The question cannot be looked at by itself because if you look around you, there aren’t that many minority-owned Fortune 500 companies. There aren’t that many large minority-owned banks,” says Patrick Campbell, an African-American partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison who is also on the board of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “The legal industry hasn’t been able to address this shortage either.” Plus, the work that does exist has already been gobbled up by large firms, leaving few crumbs for startups. “Washington, D.C., is a very sophisticated, well-populated legal market in terms of large firms that already have experience and expertise that they’ve been providing for decades,” Williamson says. �ANOTHER GLASS OF ICED TEA’? When Natalie Ludaway took over the leadership of Leftwich & Ludaway in 1996, she attended a training session for newly minted managing partners about partner compensation and law firm finances. The two-day conference in San Francisco included around 50 people and a handful of women, but, as far as she can recall, not a single African-American other than herself. “I was definitely a minority in all respects,” Ludaway says. “I was a minority in gender, race, and age. Probably height, too.” And in 1970, when Willie Leftwich started his first firm, Hudson, Leftwich & Davenport, firms in the city rarely hired black attorneys. “There were no niceties about it. It just didn’t happen,” says Leftwich, who has retired from the firm and is now making pottery, which he says is far more difficult than the practice of law. “You sat politely while they interviewed the other guys and found out what their interests were, and you had another glass of iced tea and left.” Today in Washington things have changed a bit. There are African-American managing partners (Karl Racine of Venable and Benjamin Wilson, who is managing partner-elect of Beveridge & Diamond), and women and minorities rank in partnerships and executive committees. It’s certainly far from perfect and still doesn’t come close to reflecting the actual population. (According to the LT 150, only 6 percent of partners are minorities and 19 percent of partners are women.) But everyone agrees that minority and women lawyers have far more options than in previous years, which could contribute to why no large minority-owned firm has sprung up. Instead of having to start their own firms as Leftwich did in the 1970s, minority attorneys and women have been absorbed into big law firms, government agencies, and in-house positions. “We’re here at Leftwich & Ludaway not because we don’t have opportunities but because we choose to practice in this environment and to work in this environment,” Ludaway says. PROBLEM WITH ORGANIC GROWTH And, of course, there are the risks inherent in opening up a new law firm. The economics of a midsize firm are daunting these days, no matter if you’re black, white, or a pale shade of lavender. The cost of rent, administrative support, insurance, billing, and collections can scare attorneys who are comfortably ensconced within the support structure of a large law firm. Adding to the difficulties is the issue of business development. Often, minority attorneys don’t have the corporate connections or networks necessary to fuel large practices. And despite initiatives by DuPont and Wal-Mart, without those connections and a consistent flow of business from institutional clients, a minority firm can’t get out of the blocks. “The people who have the money to pay large legal fees have got to get past their own prejudices,” says Michele Roberts, a prominent African-American attorney in D.C. who ran her own firm before joining Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld as a partner. “To the extent that we are still competing with those prejudices — and we are — it’s difficult.” Despite these considerations, some bigger out-of-town minority-owned firms are looking to get into Washington. Adorno & Yoss, the largest minority-owned firm in the United States, with 269 attorneys and offices across the country, already has a small office here. The firm, which has clients such as Sprint Nextel, AT&T, and Shell, has chosen to grow through mergers with other minority-owned firms. “It’s almost impossible to grow at the pace that our clients require by growing organically, because it takes too long to develop the talent,” says Francisco Gonzalez, a partner at Adorno & Yoss’ Miami office and chairman of the international services group. He points out that creating a diverse firm is not an easy task. “It takes a commitment on the part of clients, and it takes a lot of money, believe me,” Gonzalez says. Over at Leftwich & Ludaway, things are pretty comfortable. The attorneys have a solid book of business, focusing on commercial and employment litigation, regulatory work, and public-sector development projects, and they aren’t worried about becoming the biggest kids on the block. They represent large companies, nonprofits, and individuals, and they recently advised the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission on the construction of the new stadium for the Washington Nationals. “We’re fortunate to have great clients,” Ludaway says. “They trust us with complicated matters, and we do a lot of creative and interesting things.” But a little later she adds, “You know, maybe we will grow.”
Attila Berry can be contacted at [email protected].

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