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In the mid-1990s Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton had a lot to offer law school graduates looking for their first job in the profession. The firm boasted a relaxed institutional culture, meaningful pro bono opportunities, a wide variety of international and domestic work, and six-figure starting salaries. But for African-American graduates like Denise Morgan and Roslyn Powell, the New York-based Cleary offered something even more valuable: critical mass. After a 50-year history as a virtually all-white institution, Cleary was becoming something of a mecca for young black lawyers. The firm went from only one black associate in early 1989 to 23 in 1992. By 1996 it had 30, giving it one of the highest numbers of black attorneys in the country. Over the same period, it increased its number of Latino attorneys from six to 14 and its number of Asian and Asian-American attorneys from seven to 24. To black lawyers such as Morgan and Powell, Cleary seemed a port in the storm — a place where diversity was becoming a reality, rather than just a goal. “The things that drew me to Cleary were its reputation for pro bono work and the critical mass of black attorneys who were there,” says Morgan, now a professor at New York Law School. “There were enough black associates at Cleary that … we didn’t even get together that much,” she remembers. “That’s a sign, when you’ve reached a level where you don’t have to do that.” Powell, now a staff attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, also says that the growing number of black lawyers at the firm was a strong draw. “People said, ‘Go to Cleary, go to Cleary, there are a lot of folks there,’ ” she recalls. Cleary’s changing complexion did not come about by accident. “We were not happy with the low number of minorities in our firm,” William Gorin, then head of Cleary’s legal personnel committee, told the New York Law Journalin 1992. (A 1989 article on the subject in The American Lawyer, headlined “Boycott Cleary, Gottlieb!” may have sparked that dissatisfaction.) The firm undertook an aggressive hiring strategy that included attending minority job fairs and recruiting at predominantly black Howard University School of Law. In 1996 it created a Committee on Diversity Issues — currently composed of 11 partners and 10 associates — that has focused on recruitment, professional development, and promotion of an “open and ongoing dialogue” on diversity issues. The firm also took part in and met a 1992 citywide challenge by The Association of the Bar of the City of New York to make 10 percent of its hires minorities. Recruiting African-American attorneys was a particular emphasis, according to Ned Stiles, Cleary’s managing partner from 1988 through 1999. “I think we were able to attract possibly more than other firms because we made a very serious effort to attract more minorities, and African-Americans in particular,” says Stiles, now of counsel to Cleary. Stiles served as chair of the Diversity Committee of the New York City bar association from 1997 to 1999, and sees the participation of blacks in law firms as a unique challenge. “I have always felt, and so expressed in my work with the bar association, that the lumping of minorities together doesn’t do adequate service to the profession’s principal problem of integration, because it obscures the fact that blacks have a different and more difficult track in terms of achieving the same levels [of participation] as the major society,” he says. The firm’s efforts paid off quickly with a spike in Cleary’s diversity numbers and a noteworthy assemblage of black associates by the mid-1990s. But even as Roslyn Powell was arriving at the firm as a first-year associate in 1994, the initial critical mass was starting to erode. “People were already leaving,” remembers Powell, who had worked as a summer associate with the firm in 1992. Although Cleary continued to attract a healthy proportion of new black associates, the cadre that had joined the firm in the early ’90s was starting to exit. Over the next decade, there was a steady exodus of black lawyers out of the firm. Although exact figures are not available, more than 30 African-American associates passed through the firm between 1989 and 1996 (See Related Charts). Today, those early pioneers are gone. And out of 153 partners worldwide, the number of African-American partners at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton is either zero or one, depending on whom you ask. (More about that later.) The firm currently has 15 black associates, none of whom were part of the ’89-’96 cohort. David Johnson, a black lawyer hired in 1989, left his of counsel position at Cleary’s Hong Kong office this year to become a partner at Allen & Overy. Cleary is hardly alone in finding it difficult to keep black associates and name black partners. A 2000 report by the American Bar Association found that “minority advancement in law firms … is stalled” across the country, with more than half of all associates of color leaving their firms within the first three years of practice. None of the 33 partners named by Sullivan & Cromwell since 1997, for example, were lawyers of color, according to a recent New York Timessurvey. Shearman & Sterling included only one minority among the 39 partners that it named over the same period. And, according to recent survey data, African-American progress within law firms is particularly slow, given black law school participation. According to an analysis in Minority Law Journalof data collected by The National Law Journalfor the year 2000, African-Americans represented just 3.9 percent of associates and 1.4 percent of partners in the nation’s 250 largest law firms, despite the fact that black law school enrollment has not dropped much below 5 percent in 25 years and is currently above 7 percent. In surveys of lawyers of color conducted by the ABA, The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and the Bar Association of San Francisco in the 1990s, African-Americans reported experiencing greater race-related barriers to obtaining challenging work, direct client contact, and adequate mentors than did any other racial group. Nonetheless, Cleary’s experience is striking because the firm actually managed to assemble the meaningful numbers of black attorneys that observers of the legal profession say are necessary for the retention of black associates and the ascension of black partners. And, even compared with national trends, the virtual 100 percent turnover of African-American associates at Cleary over the last decade is startling. Although they express pride about the changes in the firm’s profile over the last decade, members of Cleary’s leadership also voice disappointment with where they are today. “Nobody can deny that, in terms of objectives, the rate that minorities — especially blacks — are becoming partners has got to be considered a failure; not just for us, but for all firms,” says Stiles. Because the firm clearly did some things right, then stumbled along the way, understanding what happened at Cleary may shed new light on the dearth of African-American partners at firms across the country. Although he declined to discuss the reasons why black lawyers disproportionately left his firm, Evan Davis, a Cleary partner and the president of The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, describes a phenomenon in the legal profession that he calls “the prejudice of low expectations.” Davis, who uses a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio, describes his own frequent experience of arriving at an event in which he is to speak and having the host approach the people accompanying him instead of Davis himself. ” ‘Does he need a ramp? Does he need assistance?’ — when I’m right there in front of them,” Davis recalls. “ The presumption is that I can’t attend to my own affairs.” According to Davis, this type of subconscious prejudice affects people of color and women in the legal profession, as well as people with disabilities. “Expectations can be self-fulfilling,” he says, “giving people good work and so forth.” Many black attorneys who passed through Cleary in the 1990s say that a very similar pattern existed within Davis’ firm. When asked whether the Cleary experience was different for black associates than for others, very few Cleary alums point to incidents of blatant racism — although there are a few such stories. Instead, they talk mostly about subtly different expectations, opportunities, and treatment. As one former Cleary attorney puts it, “It’s not any one big thing. It’s a million little things that add up.” “There’s nothing overt,” says Roslyn Powell. “Senior associates felt that their views were ignored. You get lousy work assignments, then they say that everything you do is wrong.” Powell recalls that “you can’t write” was a remark frequently directed toward black attorneys by white partners and senior associates. Almost all of the black Cleary alums interviewed for this article echoed Powell’s remarks in one form or another. A few would speak only with a promise of anonymity (and all declined to be photographed), expressing concern about the effect that frank comments might have on their future in the legal profession. “The bottom line is that there is this negative presumption,” said one. “They assume blacks are interested in pro bono, but not corporate transactions. There’s this view that we’re not really interested in corporate work.” As an example, this attorney describes sitting in a white associate’s office when the phone rang. The caller was a white partner, who the associate put on speakerphone without saying that he had a visitor. “He was practically begging him to work on one of his cases,” the black lawyer recalls, noting that he never received such a solicitous call from a partner during the years he spent at Cleary. The same lawyer recalls being mistaken for a messenger by a different partner during his first year at the firm. Another lawyer, who also requested anonymity, remembers a series of due diligence projects in which the division of tasks had a strong racial cast. “White associates were drafting documents and getting meaningful skills,” the lawyer recalls, “and associates of color were doing organizing stuff, way past the time [in their careers] that they should have been.” Few of the lawyers interviewed for this article attribute the differential treatment that they perceived to overt racism. And many of them say that Cleary may be more welcoming to African-American lawyers than most other large firms. But a large majority of them say that during their time at Cleary they experienced a subtle, often subconscious tendency by a virtually all-white partnership to favor those who looked like them. “There are some associates who were taken under people’s wings more easily, and I think they were more often white,” says Denise Morgan. “And the fact that they were men may have been most important,” she adds. “They see themselves in these guys,” said another black lawyer who left Cleary to pursue opportunities in business. Deborah Buell, head of Cleary’s diversity committee, declined to respond to allegations of an implicit double standard, focusing instead on the firm’s continuing efforts to promote diversity throughout its ranks. “I can’t say that there’s one reason why a particular lawyer, black or white, leaves,” says Buell. “They have personal reasons, and they have professional reasons. One way the firm has responded to an unsatisfactory retention issue is to have the diversity committee and mentoring, which can benefit lawyers of color in particular.” Stiles, the former managing partner, acknowledges that preventing inconsistent or unfair treatment across the firm is a difficult challenge. “All firms try to bend over backward to ensure that that doesn’t happen and not to apply any double standard,” says Stiles. “To be fair and give everybody a chance. But that’s harder than you might think.” Stiles says that the work of the firm’s diversity committee and a long-standing diversity consultant is making a difference in this regard. “I think that that kind of thing is gradually paying off,” he says. Unlike the majority of his black former colleagues, Alfred Perry disputes the idea that Cleary employed a double standard or subtly discriminated against any minority group within the firm. Perry, an African-American attorney who worked as a Cleary associate from 1990 to 1996 and who is now an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, says, “I think Cleary created as positive an environment to give rise to black partners as any other firm I’ve encountered. But, at the end of the day, most people aren’t willing to do what it takes to become a partner.” Perry says that numerical comparisons are deceptive because “most attorneys who go to any big firm are gone 10 years later,” regardless of their race. He also contends that few, if any, of the black lawyers who came through Cleary have had the single-minded desire to be a partner that Perry says is necessary. “You have to want it more than anything else in life, and then you still might not get it,” says Perry. “It’s not a job. You can’t see it as a job. If you see it as your life’s work, then you have the chance to become a contender.” But, he adds, “I can’t think of someone [black] who said they went there with that intention.” Perry says that societal factors may instead play a role. “There are probably factors if you are a white male, factors in your background that push you to become a partner. Societal expectations are that lawyering or partnering is a good role for these individuals.” But Perry does not feel that Cleary’s practices contributed to that divide. Although they disagreed with Perry’s contention that the playing field was always truly equal at the firm, other black Cleary alums noted that few African-American associates were enthusiastic about becoming partners. “A lot of people came in and wanted to do the large law firm thing for a while, but they didn’t plan to stay,” says Raymond Lohier, now an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “I recall a gathering of black folks at Cleary where David Johnson asked, ‘Who wants to go for it?’ and nobody raised their hand.” Roslyn Powell recalls a similar sentiment among her former colleagues, but wonders whether black associates would, nonetheless, have decided to stay if they had felt more welcomed at the firm. And, although she acknowledges the demands of the partnership track, former Cleary associate Kamil Poorman Cook, who now works at the Export-Import Bank of the United States, contends that a number of black associates from her era did have partnership as their goal. Stiles notes that the turnover of black lawyers at his firm must be considered in the context of law firm attrition rates generally. But he still finds cause for concern: “If you took any group of 40 lawyers that come to a major firm, not very many of them will become partners, so you wouldn’t expect very many of these [black Cleary associates] to. But you would expect that some of them would.” Whether or not a de facto double standard actually existed at Cleary during those years, experts on the legal profession do identify racially disparate expectations and standards as common barriers for black attorneys. “It’s a cycle in which expectations reinforce behavior, which in turn confirms expectations,” says David Wilkins, a Harvard Law School professor who directs the school’s Program on the Legal Profession. Wilkins has written extensively on the subject of law firm diversity, and has interviewed more than 250 black lawyers about their experiences for an upcoming book. He describes a common pattern in which racial stereotypes can creep into partners’ and senior associates’ decisions on work assignments and evaluations. Black associates, Wilkins says, are less likely to get good assignments early on because of subtle assumptions about their skills. As a result, those lawyers lack the experience later in their careers that partners look for. “Then you get the opportunity, and you make a mistake because of inexperience, so the perception is reinforced,” he says. Although he did not comment on conditions within his own firm, Cleary partner Evan Davis agrees that a vicious cycle of expectations and experience is a common dynamic within the profession. “Subjective judgments and fighting to be accurate about them when you tend to favor those like you,” says Davis, are a major challenge for firms concerned about diversity. Several of those interviewed also contend that seemingly neutral elements of Cleary’s structure may have hampered the success of black lawyers. The firm has no formal departments, but is organized around informal groups of partners and associates who focus on specific areas of practice such as mergers and acquisitions, tax, intellectual property, or litigation. It also lacks formal practice groups or centralized staffing of projects; the firm’s Web site explains that “associates are encouraged to express their interests to partners and senior associates with whom they wish to work and to seek out projects in particular areas of interest to them.” Many of the black lawyers who passed through Cleary feel that this structure, though initially seductive, made for an unpredictable environment in which personal relationships and subjective judgments played an inordinate role. And that was often bad news, they say, for African-American associates. “Decentralization is appealing in the sense that you don’t feel put upon,” says James Walker, now a partner at New York’s Richards, Spears, Kibbe, and Orbe. “A laissez-faire attitude is comfortable, but at some point that works against you,” he notes. “That’s what attracted me to the place,” says Raymond Lohier, about the informal structure. But over time, Lohier says he began to see that same informality as a drawback for himself and his African-American colleagues. “There are these cliques that develop when you have this kind of system — racial at times, not always.” Alfred Perry disagrees. “They don’t care who you are,” says Perry. “If you give them flawless work, you’ve got it … . If you go in there and walk the walk and talk the talk and work your ass off, you’ll have the same chance as your white counterpart.” Still, most black Cleary alums see the firm’s informal structure and reliance on interpersonal relationships as a particularly high hurdle for African-American associates. “I think Cleary has its own unique problems, and race and gender problems are exacerbated by the way Cleary works,” says Poorman Cook. “It’s chaotic.” Diversity chair Buell concedes that the perception exists within the firm. “Certainly that’s an experience that I’ve heard described here,” she says, “and why mentoring can help us build on the strength here.” According to Buell, the firm has responded to such comments by making mentoring available to associates early in their tenure. “The one issue that came out of [the committee's work] was focusing on mentoring efforts as soon as they walk in the door,” she says. Stiles is also familiar with complaints about the firm’s decentralized structure. “We’ve had diversity consultants say, ‘You have to have formal departments and department heads,’ ” Stiles acknowledges. But he says that the firm’s leadership prefers to promote diversity without abandoning its institutional culture: “ Of course, we’re reluctant to say that the problem of integration of minorities means we have to change the whole nature of the firm.” According to Stiles, Cleary is responding to diversity concerns without “abandoning an open system that we very much believe in, in terms of training lawyers. We’re trying to impose a more organized system of assignments [while] trying to provide the mix of variety and repetition that allows people to achieve some expertise and to have some choice in the direction of their practice.” Like the diversity consultants that Stiles mentions, Harvard law professor Wilkins also sees informal systems within firms as especially susceptible to unfairness. “The less structure a firm has for work assignments and evaluation,” says Wilkins, “the more opportunities flow through informal networks. Those networks, we know from tons of social science research literature, are very influenced by perceptions about race.” Virtually every black attorney who’s come through Cleary in the last decade eventually mentions one event: the firm’s decision to deny partnership to Lynn Dummett, the first African-American associate to be considered for partnership in the 1990s. Dummett moved to Cleary as a lateral associate hire in 1990 and came up for partnership in 1994. She was rejected, and many black associates viewed that decision as the writing on the wall for their own careers within the firm. One black associate who left Cleary largely because of the Dummett decision was James Walker. Although Walker feels that he was getting good signals about his own future at Cleary, he says the Dummett decision made him think twice. “I just said, this is not a good sign,” he remembers. “It was sort of the last straw.” After the Dummett decision, black associates began to leave the firm in increasing numbers. “There was a departure,” says Poorman Cook. “I began to hear more complaints as I talked to more people.” The stories that filtered out of the Dummett partnership meeting were disturbing, if true. One associate heard that some partners had “questioned her intelligence.” According to Raymond Lohier, “Some partners were very upset [coming out of the meeting]. One said he had never heard more racist comments by a group than he heard at that discussion.” Another partner who had been supportive of Dummett’s candidacy reportedly locked himself in a closet after the decision. “The rumor, at least, was that it wasn’t even close,” says Poorman Cook. “It was definitely striking. There could have been any number of reasons, but I think she was treated shabbily.” Dummett, now director of Law and Government Affairs at The New Power Company in Purchase, N.Y., initially agreed to be interviewed for this article but did not return repeated telephone calls. The Dummett partnership decision was especially disturbing to several black lawyers at the firm because they believe that white associates with lesser skills made partner at Cleary both before and since. “Lynn was as good as most partners at the firm,” says one black Cleary alum who asked that his name not be used. Walker agrees: “She’s an incredibly capable attorney, and I think everyone knew that. And when you look at some of the people who make partner, you have to wonder.” Those perceived contrasts made the Dummett decision ominous for many black associates at the firm. “Maybe the standard is subconsciously higher for African-American lawyers,” speculated one attorney who requested anonymity. “Maybe the notion is that if you’re not perfect, we can’t make you the first. People were watching this one.” According to Denise Morgan, “The conversation after [Dummett] was turned down was surprise and … ‘they’re not going to let us off the plantation’ kind of thing.” Most black lawyers at Cleary also felt that Dummett was recruited into the firm as a lateral hire specifically in order to be groomed for partnership, a perception that made her rejection particularly jarring. “It was understood that she was being brought in to become a partner,” says Alfred Perry. “That may have raised people’s expectations.” A few white partners apparently were concerned about the effect that the Dummett decision might have on other black associates and made attempts at damage control. But, according to Lohier, their response just added insult to injury. “A couple of partners came to black associates afterward and said, ‘I hope this doesn’t deter you,’ ” remembers Lohier. “ That made the situation worse. It was good intentions, warped by the overriding anxiety that partners were feeling. It made it seem to me like, this really matters. And that part of the calculus must have been that she was black.” Says Stiles: “I really don’t know how it was perceived, but I can guess. It doesn’t surprise me that it was misperceived, because I think that Lynn was a very nice, attractive, and good lawyer, and very popular with everybody. And when that kind of person doesn’t become a partner, people are disappointed and look for reasons. And almost always the reasons are wrong. Obviously it wasn’t an easy decision, and the firm thought it did the right thing.” In a situation that mirrors the complexity of modern racial identity, there is some disagreement about whether Cleary currently has a black partner. Carmen Amalia Corrales joined the firm in 1990 and became a partner in 1998. Corrales’ colleagues were aware of her Latina heritage — she is Cuban-American. But soon after becoming partner, Corrales let it be known at an event for minority summer associates that she is also black. The news came as a surprise to many of Cleary’s black associates, who were completely unaware that Corrales considered herself to be black. And many viewed the timing of Corrales’ remarks with suspicion. “I was on the diversity committee,” says Lohier. “And without denigrating anybody’s views on race, she never once said, ‘I’m a black person, or a person of African descent.’ She always identified herself as a Latina.” Another former associate referred to Corrales as the partner “who is now black,” adding, “When she was coming up for partner she was ‘passing.’ None of the people who have pigment at Cleary knew that she was black.” For her own part, Corrales says she has always considered herself to be black as well as Latina — both of her parents are Cubans of mixed race — and although she did not necessarily publicize her African heritage, she never denied it. But Corrales also acknowledges that many Cleary partners probably did not realize that she was black until after they voted to make her a partner. “Inadvertently, I did ‘pass,’ because when I came up for partner there were people who knew I was black and others who assumed I identified as Latina as some vague category,” she says. Speaking about her career generally, Corrales notes that “being light-skinned and not being perceived as black by some people may have helped in some way. I can’t deny that there’s a certain privilege that attaches to the color of my skin. I try to cope with that in a way that’s well intentioned.” Corrales says that she, too, has experienced racial bias in her legal career, but has been able to persevere through “a lot of determination and, to some extent, postponing some of the anger that you might feel. Remaining true to myself and not feeling debilitated helped me.” More troubling than Corrales’ announcement, say many black Cleary alums, was the firm’s reaction to it. “Cleary was quick to take advantage of it,” says Lohier. “They put it on the NALP [National Association for Law Placement] form. Putting it out there.” Soon after Corrales’ appointment, another former associate says she heard a partner remark, “Thank God we made Carmen partner, because she fits into every category.” The black lawyers who passed through Cleary in the 1990s now work as law professors, investment bankers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and government officials. But very few of them work at large law firms. That distribution mirrors national patterns. According to ABA figures, African-Americans are the group of lawyers least likely to work in private practice and most likely to work in the nonprofit sector — including public interest, government, and academia. Others are flocking to in-house corporate jobs. “It’s easy to understand why minorities go to companies,” says Cathy Abelson, a law firm recruiter in the Philadelphia area. “Minorities can feel more equal at companies than at firms. Law firms are more elite in their structure. And companies often have minorities in other job categories.” Abelson adds, “Personal connections are necessary to be a rainmaker in a law firm, which is more of a barrier to people who are first-generation college graduates.” Mark Byers of Harvard Law School’s Office of Student Life Counseling agrees that the business world is often more attractive to attorneys of color: “The impression [is] that if you’re looking for a level playing field and greater advancement, you might try business. Whatever else you may say about business, it’s very bottom-line-oriented.” By contrast, says Byers, most law firms offer few benchmarks and little feedback, which may be especially hazardous for lawyers of color: “Some people are perceived from the beginning as partner material, and you don’t know if you’re one of those. In other professions the reward system seems more rational, based on performance.” One black former Cleary attorney explained the difference between business and law firm environments in very similar terms: “In-house work is a more hospitable environment. It’s more bottom-line-based … about doing the deal and being a team player.” Many of the black Cleary alums interviewed for this article are at a loss to suggest changes that the firm might realistically take to produce meaningful numbers of African-American partners. “I really don’t know,” says one. “I know it sounds defeatist, but … I’m stuck, because I don’t know what recommendations you can make to a law firm, that can take into account [its] economic reality and would be real in terms of the outcome of diversity.” Others say that Cleary’s informal assignment system and strong reliance on personal relationships for career advancement would have to change before African-American lawyers would be able truly to thrive there. Although agreeing that serious reform within law firms is crucial, Walker, one of the few black Cleary alums who is now a partner at another firm, also mentions the mind-set that he feels all lawyers should bring to firm work. Walker attributes his own success to “being careful to think about my career as I went along; being cognizant of the work I was getting; and getting the work that I needed to demonstrate my own skills and develop them.” According to Walker, “You need to connect not only with senior associates and partners, but with partners across different practice groups. People going in don’t know that.” Ultimately, Cleary’s experience may say more about the state of modern race relations than it does about the firm itself. Differing perceptions, allegations of unfairness, and unfulfilled diversity goals in the highest ranks are, unfortunately, common to many American industries and professions. And most of those interviewed for this article felt that Cleary’s leadership has been at least as committed to diversity as that of other large firms. The Cleary story does show, however, that good intentions, and even a critical mass of black associates, do not inevitably lead to an integrated partnership. “We all went into this naively thinking that if we bring a lot of minorities into the firm, some of them will make partner,” says Stiles. “Now we see that it’s more complicated than that.” Related Charts Alan Jenkins, a lawyer, is deputy director of the Ford Foundation’s human rights program.

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