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The letter from the Rev. Jesse Jackson was surprising — and unequivocal. In mid-April, Jackson wrote to Weldon Latham, then a senior partner at D.C.’s Shaw Pittman, and voiced strong concerns about his law firm and some of the work it had taken on. Within three months, Latham and four other lawyers in his diversity practice left for the D.C. office of Holland & Knight. What makes Latham’s departure extraordinary is that it was motivated not so much by money or prestige, but by a political conflict sparked by affirmative action. His story offers a cautionary lesson for an age in which lawyers move freely from one firm to another — and in which social conflicts may lurk beneath the surface of a seemingly flawless and thoroughly researched business decision. One of the most prominent African-American lawyers in the country, Latham first gained national attention in 1996, when Texaco Inc. hired him to settle a racial bias suit, set up a diversity program, and improve the company’s badly tarnished image on minority issues. Texaco Chairman Peter Bijur personally flew to Washington to recruit Latham for his team during the crisis. After his success in turning Texaco around, Latham, 53, found himself in heavy demand by some of the largest companies in the nation — the General Motors Corp., the Boeing Co., and the Coca-Cola Co. — when they faced challenges by the government or by minority employees on diversity issues. Latham is “a negotiating, reconciling, make-all-parts-fit kind of guy,” Jackson told The Washington Post in 1998, one who has “the capacity to reconcile all estranged elements and make each feel like a winner.” In turn, Latham describes Jackson as his “very close personal friend,” with whom he has had a long and fruitful business relationship. Two years ago, Latham hosted at his Bethesda, Md., home a glitzy fundraiser that featured Bill Cosby and raised $350,000 for Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Jackson suggested that GM hire Latham to evaluate the automaker’s minority dealership programs and respond to many dealers’ complaints. “Weldon is someone that the Reverend knows well,” says Janice Mathis, Jackson’s Chicago-based chief of staff. “His legal practice is such that we have frequent contact with him.” So it’s not surprising that Latham took note when the civil rights leader wrote to him in April. Jackson told Latham in the letter that he was deeply concerned about what he saw as a troubling development at Shaw Pittman. Jackson pointed out that Shaw Pittman had just merged with the 35-lawyer D.C. telecommunications boutique of Fisher Wayland Cooper Leader & Zaragoza. Therein lay the problem. “The Rev. Jackson brought to my attention the fact that the positions that these [Fisher Wayland] lawyers were taking [in client matters involving affirmative action programs] were not consistent with his views,” Latham says. Latham, troubled about Jackson’s disapproval and about a likely conflict with his own views on racial issues, immediately looked into the matter. The source of the political conflict was not hard to find. In two high-profile matters, the newly arrived Fisher Wayland lawyers are representing broadcast clients in the courts and at the Federal Communications Commission in direct opposition to lawyers representing Rainbow/PUSH. One of Rainbow/PUSH’s major initiatives involves promoting the interests of minorities in broadcasting. Jackson and his staff were the people best positioned to spot the problem — which had not been flagged by Shaw Pittman leaders, by the Fisher Wayland lawyers, or by Latham’s group. In a controversial case, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod v. Federal Communications Commission, the former Fisher Wayland lawyers represent the Lutheran Church and 50 state broadcasters’ organizations, all of which have challenged rules proposed by the FCC that require radio stations to take affirmative action to hire minorities. Rainbow/PUSH is part of a broad pro-affirmative action coalition on the other side. In 1998, a panel of three conservative D.C. Circuit judges struck the rules down, finding that they “oblige stations to grant some degree of preference to minorities in hiring” and thus violate the Constitution. The court sent the matter back to the commission. The FCC then tried again, this time writing a less sweeping proposal that calls on radio stations to make outreach efforts to increase their number of minority employees. The broadcasters, with Shaw Pittman now on their side, have challenged this more limited effort as well, and it is back at the D.C. Circuit. The second matter involves a battle at the FCC over television stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., one of the nation’s largest media conglomerates. Some of Sinclair’s stations are owned through an affiliated company, Glencairn Ltd., which Sinclair says is controlled by African-American entrepreneur Edward Edwards Sr. Rainbow/PUSH contends, however, that this is a sham arrangement and that Sinclair, which is not minority-owned, is the actual owner. Rainbow/PUSH has asked the FCC to revoke all Sinclair’s licenses on the grounds of misconduct. The former Fisher Wayland lawyers represent Sinclair. After Latham completed this unusual legal research project, he made his decision. In May, Latham told Shaw Pittman partner and management committee member Stephen Huttler that he planned to leave the firm. Latham describes the events without any bitterness toward his former firm. “Shaw Pittman has gotten to the point of being widely known as a high-tech law firm. That was why they acquired a telecom firm. But they didn’t realize what else they had acquired,” Latham explains. “They had merged with a firm that had a less than politically correct attitude on diversity and affirmative action issues. “Once the merger had taken place and we learned about that issue, it was a catalyst for my group to begin to seek other opportunities that were more diversity-sensitive,” Latham says. Huttler confirms Latham’s account. He emphasizes that no one at Shaw Pittman was aware of the conflict until Latham brought it up with him — after the merger was consummated. “At the time we negotiated the [Fisher Wayland] merger, we had no idea that Rainbow/PUSH had a position on these issues that was contrary to that of Fisher Wayland’s clients,” says Huttler. Huttler also recalls that Latham used the word “catalyst” to describe the impact of Jackson’s revelations about Fisher Wayland. “He talked about his opportunities to make more money, to have more influence, and to have even a better platform on which to build his diversity practice,” says Huttler. “But the conflict with the Rainbow Coalition brought it all to a focus.” Latham agrees that once he decided to leave because of the conflict, he brought up such other issues as salary. Latham’s decision presents an unusual issue. It’s one that breaks neatly along America’s fault lines — between advocates of a variety of types of affirmative action to bring more minorities into the nation’s legal and business mainstream and others who oppose such steps as unconstitutional and unwise quotas. Not everyone in the communications bar is comfortable with the circumstances of Latham’s move. “It’s unfortunate that successfully challenging racial preferences on constitutional grounds is employed by some as the basis for political, business, and social pressure,” says Daniel Troy, a partner at D.C.’s Wiley, Rein & Fielding, who filed an amicus brief in Lutheran Church against the FCC’s rules for hiring broadcast station employees. Adding to the complexity of the matter is the fact that the Fisher Wayland “problem” would never have been found by a law firm’s conflict-checking mechanism. After all, Latham is an employment lawyer, a lobbyist, a government contracts specialist, and a corporate adviser. He’s not a communications lawyer and has never participated in a case or rulemaking in which the Fisher Wayland lawyers were present. Despite his close ties to Jackson, Latham has never represented Rainbow/PUSH in court or at the FCC. Notably, no one is asserting that the former Fisher Wayland lawyers have any personal views on affirmative action. Says Huttler, “We vetted the process carefully, and we satisfied ourselves that these are good people, as well as strong lawyers. We never would have brought in a group of people we believed had anti-minority views or inappropriate biases.” The former Fisher Wayland lawyers decline comment, referring calls to Huttler. And Fisher Wayland’s broadcast industry clients are on record as saying that they support diversity — just not the sweeping changes that the FCC, under Chairman William Kennard, is trying to bring about. Kennard has termed increased racial diversity one of his major goals as the agency’s first African-American chairman. After the meeting with Huttler, it was clear that Latham would not be dissuaded from leaving Shaw Pittman. The next step was for him to find a place to move his practice group — himself, partner Paul Thomas, counsel Thomas Duckenfield, and associates John Bryson II and Michael Hatcher. It was not a difficult task. In addition to his high-visibility diversity practice, Latham is very well-connected in business and Democratic Party circles. He has hosted Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, actress Cicely Tyson, and hundreds of other African-American notables at his fundraisers for Jackson, Al Gore, and others. And the group is highly profitable. In 1998, Tom McCormick, a member of Shaw Pittman’s management committee, said Latham was “a very strong contributor to the economics of the law firm.” Just as Jackson and his operatives played the crucial role in Latham’s departure from Shaw Pittman, they also helped broker his decision to join Holland & Knight. On Aug. 1, all five of the departing Shaw Pittman lawyers joined their new firm as partners. “We had gone far down the road with [three] other firms, when both the Rev. Jackson and Janice Mathis said there was a firm that was on the right side of a lot of key issues of importance,” says Latham, who declined to identify the other suitors. “I flew down to Miami to meet [firm chairman] Bill McBride. He said that we practiced what Holland & Knight preached. It was an ideal match.” Holland & Knight, which originated in Florida and has experienced rapid growth to the 1,000-lawyer level, was not even on Latham’s radar screen until Mathis, the Jackson chief of staff, called W. Reeder Glass, a Holland & Knight Atlanta partner whom she knew, and broached the idea. Holland & Knight had done some legal work for Rainbow/PUSH in Atlanta. Glass immediately brought in Raymond Carpenter, an Atlanta-based co-chair of Holland & Knight’s diversity committee. Carpenter and Glass flew to Washington and started talking to Latham. “Shaw Pittman is a fine law firm,” Latham adds. “But sometimes you have to decide whether your platform remains an appropriate place as circumstances change.” Latham says Holland & Knight “is quite unique in fostering women and minorities as leaders. It has 18 to 20 black partners. Hispanic partners are numerous. It’s a firm that believes that you succeed not despite your diversity, but because of it.” Holland & Knight leaders see the acquisition of Latham’s group both as a strategic coup and as a move consistent with a firm culture that cherishes racial diversity. “They are coming into a culture that is already very different from that of most national law firms,” says Nelson Migdal, executive partner of Holland & Knight’s D.C. office. Says Carpenter, “We think of ourselves as the pre-eminent firm in recognizing diversity as a central aspect of our culture. We want to look like, be like, and feel like the communities in which we work.” Bringing on Latham seemed almost inevitable. As Glass puts it: “In a sense, Holland & Knight had been preparing 25 years for him.”

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