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Alice Young has often confounded expectations throughout her career. Though born of Chinese parents in America, she’s frequently assumed to be Japanese because of her fluency in the language. And then there’s her name: she’s the first to admit that it doesn’t clue people in to her ethnicity. She tells of once having communicated with a new client solely by phone for a month, until they finally met in person. “He walked into my office and his jaw dropped. He said, ‘Alice Young?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m Alice.’ And he said, ‘I have to say, you’re not what I expected.’ And I asked, ‘Well, what did you expect?’ He said, ‘I was expecting this gray-haired, white, Caucasian lady in sturdy shoes.’ ” Young, who’s turned her passion for Asia into a thriving international practice spanning 26 years and four firms, laughs: “ He wasn’t expecting an Asian American — or someone in high heels.” Race in America isn’t what it once was. But as we found in a series of conversations with minority partners at firms across the country, it’s still a long way from being a complete neutral. While overt discrimination based on deep prejudices has receded, these lawyers reported that they’ve often had to deal with expectations, based on lingering stereotypes, of what they can and can’t do. These expectations may go a long way in explaining why law remains one of the whitest professions. As previously reported (” Scoring the Best“), attorneys of color composed only 3.8 percent of all partners last year at the 214 firms that provided ethnic data to The National Law Journalin its annual survey of the 250 largest firms in the country. The numbers are heading in the right direction. When our colleagues at the NLJ first began collecting ethnic data from firms in 1981, only 0.7 percent of partners were black or Hispanic, rising to 1.4 percent in 1985, when the NLJ started asking about Asians too. Still, the small number of minorities at the top stands in sharp contrast to their greater presence in the trenches: most studies report that minorities average 12�13 percent of associates at large firms. What’s causing this gap? For one thing, it takes time to transform a partnership’s ranks. Law schools have seen much larger increases in minority enrollment because their student bodies turn over every three years. In contrast, a big firm’s partnership is composed of people who have joined the firm not just during the nineties, when minority associates started to be hired in significant numbers, but also during the eighties and seventies, when they weren’t. Still, the larger problem may be that minority associates seem to make partner at a lower rate than whites — sometimes much lower. In an August survey of the 12 highest-grossing firms in the country, The New York Timesreported that attorneys of color accounted for about 5 percent of new partners in recent years at the seven firms that responded. But that was only the average. Shearman & Sterling; Weil, Gotshal & Manges; and Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue all showed lower growth in minority partners. At Sullivan & Cromwell, all of the new partners since 1997 have been white. New statistics from the National Association for Law Placement aren’t much more encouraging. In its latest report on associate retention, released last November, NALP details the attrition rate among a selected group of new associates hired from the classes of 1991 through 1998. The numbers show that associates of color steadily leave firms at a higher rate. Seven percent of white men and 9 percent of white women left their firms of first employment within one year, as compared to 13 percent of minority men and 11 percent of minority women. As a result, minority retention is a hot topic in the profession these days, the subject of countless seminars and articles. Most of the discussion, however, has focused on those who’ve left. We thought it would be interesting to talk to those who stayed. To that end, we interviewed almost two dozen equity partners of color from across the country, and asked them why — and how — they bucked the trend. Not surprisingly, since we were talking to attorneys who’ve made and remained partner, we heard a lot of success stories. We also learned that what’s required to become a successful minority partner isn’t all that different from what’s required to become a successful partner, period. But — and it’s a crucial point — while the elements of success may be the same, they can be harder for lawyers of color to accomplish. “It is the same thing — we just start out from a step behind,” says Fred Alvarez, at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto. Across the bay, at San Francisco’s Morrison & Foerster, Cedric Chao maintains that for minority lawyers, “there isn’t any room for error — there never has been and there isn’t today. They have to do everything right.” Stephen Graham — who opened Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s Seattle office last year after having been at Perkins Coie since 1976 — notes that in general, “It’s so easy to get lost as an associate.” But while that may be a universal truth, Graham, an African American, maintains that it’s even more true for black associates: “They’re trying to swim the same rapids, but they have weights on.” Things are tough even for the so-called model minority, says Alice Young, currently at Kaye Scholer. “There’s often an assumption that Asian Americans aren’t really a minority — that things go easily for them,” she says. “And that just isn’t the case.” It’s in developing client relationships — the lifeblood of a successful partner — that minority attorneys are most likely to run into obstacles. As Gerard (Jerry) Morales succinctly puts it, “I believe that people have always been more comfortable in dealing with someone from their own cultural and ethnic background.” Morales left his native Cuba when he was 13, eventually making his way to Phoenix, where he joined Snell & Wilmer in 1980. “I’ve been told by clients, ‘You’re very nice, but we feel more comfortable with another lawyer. They didn’t say why — ‘It’s because you have an accent’ — but I could see why. That happened many times.” Most of the time, Graham notes, “you’re left to wonder” whether certain incidents carry any racial significance. But, he says, “one time I knew why something happened.” In the early nineties Perkins Coie was representing a regular client, an investment bank, in a deal. “We had an all-hands meeting,” Graham says. “At the end of it, I went up to this guy [from another party in the deal]. He was very cold to me. I’d never seen this guy in my life. He said something about basketball — ‘Where’d you play basketball?’ I said I’d never played basketball — I didn’t have the skill. He said, ‘Good thing you became a lawyer, because you don’t have to have skill for that.’” After the meeting, another lawyer at Perkins Coie got a call from the firm’s client, asking that Graham be taken off the case. The bank didn’t say why, but Graham found out later that the man he’d talked with at the all-hands meeting had made the request. “The bank wanted to be accommodating to its own client, and asked that I be replaced.” Graham’s colleagues, however, stood by him: “Perkins said, ‘Get yourself another firm.’ “ Discomfort over Charles Johnson III’s ethnicity arose a little closer to home. Johnson, who in 1979 became the first black partner at Alston, Miller & Gaines (now Alston & Bird), stresses that overall his stay at the Atlanta firm was extremely positive. But, he notes, “I had one experience of having a partner suggest that I might be best-suited to working with the national clients, rather than local clients. I took that to be a reflection of how Southern clients would perceive me.” Even an outstanding record of accomplishment won’t provide complete immunity from stereotypes, Morgan Chu has found. In his 24 years at Irell & Manella, he’s built a reputation as one of the foremost intellectual property litigators in the country, becoming comanaging partner of his firm along the way. Still, over the course of his career, “more than one client has said, ‘You’re different than what I expected you to be,’” Chu says. “And more than once I’ve been told, ‘You speak English so well.’” It should be emphasized that all of these partners mentioned their negative experiences only after talking extensively about their positive ones. None tried to claim any special status based on what they’d gone through. They simply noted that these incidents happened. But the remarks still sting. “I don’t think you ever develop a thicker skin,” says Young. “It still bothers me as much as it did 26 years ago. But I take it much less personally.” Not every minority attorney has had a negative experience, of course. Gery Chico, who started at Sidley & Austin in 1987 and moved in 1996 to Altheimer & Gray, where he’s currently chairman of the firm, says point blank, “I haven’t ever had a client that checked out my skin color or ethnicity first.” Chico’s relative youth — he’s 45 — may be part of the reason why. In our conversations with these partners, the defining characteristic wasn’t ethnicity or location, but generation. Those who joined their firms in the mid-seventies to mid-eighties tended to have more complicated experiences than did those who’ve come on board since. Those in the first generation of minority partners were, after all, the first — and for a while, the only — black, Asian, or Hispanic attorneys at their firm. When Foley, Hoag & Eliot’s Charles Beard became the first African American to make equity partner at a major Boston firm, in 1979, it was a “watershed” event. A year before, in a case that reverberated through the city’s legal community, a black associate had been passed over for partnership at Goodwin Proctor. Afterwards, says Beard, “the word on the street [among black attorneys] was that you couldn’t break through.” At the time, he explains, “There were no minority partners in law firms, no vice presidents at the banks — no obvious areas of success for black professionals.” But once Beard and other firsts at other firms broke through, they permanently changed the landscape for those who followed. When Sharon Bowen graduated from law school in 1982, “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be a partner at a law firm, or a director at an investment bank.” Bowen, an African American who started at Davis Polk & Wardwell before moving on to the New York office of Los Angeles’s Latham & Watkins, adds, “We didn’t know we couldn’t do it. Our generation, it just never occurred to us.” How did these attorneys make it? Why did they stay when so many of their colleagues left? In our conversations with these partners, we heard several common themes. They found firms that were good fits, ones that provided comfortable and supportive environments. They were guided by mentors who got them off to a strong start, especially in client contact. And they aggressively developed relationships — at the firm, with lawyers elsewhere, and in bar and community organizations. Finding the right firm, of course, is highly subjective. But one feature that minority attorneys often look for is the presence of other minority attorneys. The more lawyers of color that a firm has on board, the less likely that any single one will stand out. “You can be uncomfortable when you’re in an all-white environment,” says Morrison & Foerster’s Chao, who in 1983 became the first Chinese American partner at a large San Francisco firm. More importantly, other minorities at a firm can offer especially useful advice, since they’ve often been through many of the same experiences already. When Charles Johnson first arrived at Alston, the firm had one other black associate. Though the associate left within a year, he still proved to be a valuable guide for Johnson. “It was good to have someone to interpret events for me. . . . A lot of times, minority lawyers encounter events that they don’t know how to interpret. They don’t know if it’s because things are tough and associates always catch hell, or if it’s because of race. . . . It’s easy to get spooked.” The presence of other lawyers of color meant so much to Mark Floyd that he chose not just a firm, but a hometown, based on numbers. In 1981, as he prepared for recruiting interviews during his second year at Columbia Law School, he reviewed the minority stats listed on each firm’s NALP form. Though he’d been leaning towards the large firms in New York and Los Angeles, Floyd says, “I was shocked and dismayed to see that there were few minority attorneys at the firms I was interested in — and no minority partners.” Only one firm, Cleveland’s Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, had minority partners: two African Americans, plus three black associates. Floyd hadn’t been planning on a move to Cleveland, and family and friends tried to talk him out of the idea. But older minority students at Columbia told him that he would get better mentoring from minority partners. Floyd, who stayed with Squire, Sanders until moving to Thompson Hine last year, maintains that a firm truly committed to diversity will have the numbers to demonstrate that commitment: “The proof is in the pudding.” Not everyone shares Floyd’s opinion: other attorneys of color say that numbers don’t matter. “People see low numbers of minorities in a firm, and they think that this says something about the firm,” says Michael Jones, who in 1991 became the first African American to make partner at Kirkland & Ellis. “If you’d just looked at the number of minority faces at Kirkland & Ellis when I joined, you might have drawn an inaccurate conclusion,” says Jones, explaining that his status as a minority was never an issue at the firm. Latham & Watkins’s Bowen says, “If I had looked at the number of black partners or women partners at a firm, I probably wouldn’t have come to a firm.” Instead, she advises, “Go after the work first — the quality of the firm, the quality of the clients.” Still, whether a firm has a significant number of minority attorneys or not, all of our partners agreed that a firm has to show it supports its lawyers of color just as much as its white attorneys. As Stephen Graham says, “I deal not with numbers, but with attitudes.” Even small things can mean a lot. Arturo Gonz�lez, the first Latino partner at Morrison & Foerster, remembers a day around 1990 when chairman Carl Leonard took all of the firm’s Hispanic associates to lunch. “That made an impression on me, that he would take time out of his busy schedule to take us to lunch,” says Gonz�lez. Minority attorneys also notice when a firm welcomes other minorities. Joan Haratani remembers that one reason she felt comfortable at Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May — aside from the fact that it already had other ethnic minority attorneys — was that one of her mentors, a lesbian, was openly gay at the office. If a firm wants to turn its minority associates into minority partners, it has to support them. And the key way this support is provided is through mentors. Mentoring has been a buzzword in minority retention — and in associate retention overall — for a long time. But that doesn’t lessen its importance for Haratani, who stresses, “I can’t turn up the volume high enough on the importance of one-on-one mentoring.” All of the partners we talked to not only agreed that it was important, but also detailed how their own mentors guided their careers — in fact, most named several. “Right now I probably have 20 mentors,” Haratani says. Morgan Chu agrees with the need for multiple mentors. “People should build relationships with a number of people, rather than saying, ‘I’ve got to have one mentor.’ ” Mentoring, he explains, is usually presented as an either/or proposition: either you have a mentor, or you don’t. In reality, an associate will have a spectrum of mentors, from the very senior to the less senior, on down to peers and junior colleagues. The best environment, he adds, is one in which everyone is looking out for an associate, instead of just one mentor. That’s an idea that Hugo Chaviano supports. Currently a Chicago-based partner with Philadelphia’s Cozen O’Connor, and a former president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, he explains that mentoring “can be a step-by-step process.” He says, “You may not start out with the best mentor, or the most powerful person in the firm.” But he emphasizes that advice from less senior or less powerful people should never be underestimated. The partners we spoke to were divided on the value of formal mentoring programs. Everyone agreed that relationships have to develop naturally. “Mentoring only works if there’s chemistry,” as Kirkland’s Jones says. Kathleen Wu, who runs the Dallas office of Houston’s Andrews & Kurth, goes further: an institutional mentoring program won’t work if it only creates forced relationships. “I don’t think a firm should say, ‘Okay, we’ve put this program in place, we’re done,’ ” she says. But Haratani argues that the lack of a formal program may suggest that the firm doesn’t consider mentoring a priority. “ Having a mentoring program is better than having none, because it at least sends the message that we value mentoring,” she says. One of the most beneficial things that a mentor can do is introduce a young associate to clients. Many discussions of minority attrition have identified the lack of client contact as a key reason that associates of color leave. That wasn’t a problem for our partners. Michael Jones, for example, notes that he was sent to California to meet with a client by himself after having been at Kirkland & Ellis for less than eight months. Only by meeting clients in person can a young associate build relationships and eventually make them his or her own. “If the partner is always a go-between, it’s very difficult to develop trust with the client,” Joan Haratani says. As the associate builds that trust, Gery Chico says, he or she will eventually be called on directly by the client. But, Chico stresses, “The first thing is the client has to know who you are.” Minority associates may often be kept hidden at the office because a firm wants to play it safe, sending out a white male attorney to meet a white male client. Several of the partners we talked to acknowledged that clients in general will feel more comfortable with someone like themselves. But they also said that a white client will give equal trust to a minority attorney — if he or she is backed with the full faith and credit of the firm. “The body language you give to a client is important,” says Floyd. “Clients like to hear [their outside counsel say], ‘This is one of our hot shots, this is one of our rising stars.’ “ And you don’t have to be a white man to get along well with a white man, Wu points out. While most of her clients are white men at corporations, she’s never had problems talking with them. It’s all about the art of conversation, a skill that Wu feels women are especially gifted at. “It doesn’t have to be about golf, or sports,” she says. “You have plenty to talk about — an article in that day’s Wall Street Journal, the weather, your kids. There’s plenty of common ground.” Not all of these partners inherited their clients. Indeed, most developed their own books of business. And it’s here, being lawyers of color, that they had to work especially hard: the old-boy network isn’t just male, it’s white, too. “When I started, one couldn’t look to a minority network for client referrals,” Alice Young says. “So it was really important to create a network as broad as possible.” On this, all of our partners agreed: If in real estate it’s location, location, location, then in law it’s relationships, relationships, relationships. Start within your firm, they advised: word of mouth begins at home. Further, an attorney’s own colleagues will be his or her first source of referrals. But these partners didn’t stop at the office — they aggressively developed contacts outside the firm. Many suggested working with bar associations. These activities, Chaviano notes, “get reported at least in the legal press, and sometimes in the mainstream press.” Our partners also noted that minority attorneys have a unique resource in the many ethnic bar associations across the country. The profile that Cedric Chao established in the local Asian bar, for example, led to larger roles in the California and American bar associations. And now, he says, “after all those years, all those people I know are now my clients and referrals.” In addition to bar associations, several of our partners recommended community organizations, political campaigns, and local government as other places to build valuable relationships. Because of Charles Beard’s connections in the Boston political scene — combined with his knowledge of the then-new technology of cable television — he was one of the first appointees to the Massachusetts cable regulatory commission in 1972. And that, he says, eventually led to a significant number of cable clients. Much like the ethnic bar associations, a city’s political scene can also provide a unique resource for the minority lawyer, since it may often be structured along racial lines. Charles Johnson plugged into the black community when he first arrived in Atlanta in 1973 — a propitious step, since Maynard Jackson had recently been elected the city’s first African American mayor and the black political establishment was on the rise. The connections Johnson formed were uniquely valuable at a white firm when whites were no longer the only faces at City Hall. “It’s helpful to have relationships that others don’t,” he explains. Finally, several of the partners we interviewed said that being a minority could sometimes be an outright advantage. The number of minority lawyers in corporate legal departments is increasing, and that — combined with the diversity initiatives adopted by more and more companies — is creating new opportunities for outside counsel. Michael Jones points out that the increase in the minority population has meant more minorities sitting on juries, which benefits him as a litigator. “Firms that didn’t have minority attorneys now know that it’s in their interest to do so, because African Americans are sitting in judgment on corporations, and they have the opportunity to transfer millions and billions of dollars away from corporations and into plaintiffs’ pockets,” Jones says. Some partners have found a more subtle advantage in being a minority: Often when you stand out, you do so in a good way. “People tend to remember you because you’re such an oddity,” says Sharon Bowen. As a new associate, she says, “it wasn’t unusual for me to be the youngest person in the room, sometimes the only woman, and the only minority. And that turned out to be a positive — people remembered my name.” Alice Young agrees, noting that her clients could easily put a face with the name, and reputation. When they remembered “the Asian woman,” she says, they thought, “She’s good.” So are things improving for lawyers of color? As always, it depends on whom you ask. Those who’ve been practicing the longest — who fought the early battles, and who’ve seen decades of minor progress — tended to be the least optimistic. “If you look at total statistics, I don’t think minorities are doing well at all,” Young says. Haratani, who started practice a decade later, is more upbeat. When she hears young minority attorneys complain about their situation today, she tells them, “I wish I could put you in a time machine and show you the legal community 17 years ago, or the stories I heard about what it was like 25 years ago — we’re making progress.” Still, she admits, “It’s slow.” The current emphasis on minority hiring, Bowen believes, bodes well for the future. “I’m very excited that this issue has become a focus,” she says. “Everyone’s on the same page and really thinking about it… . All these smart minds thinking it’s such a high priority, we have to get it right… . We’re too smart not to get it right.”

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