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For awhile now — everybody seems to have a different idea of exactly when it all began — attorneys and administrators from a small group of powerhouse Manhattan firms have met to share their frustrations and successes in hiring, retaining and promoting young minority lawyers. There is a session today of what this informal group has formally named itself: the New York Law Firm Consortium. Membership is a relative term, as the consortium is hardly in the business of excluding people. But at this writing, the group consists of seven firms that employ full-time managers (or very nearly so) of internal diversity initiatives. Managers like Kandance Weems-Norris, a senior associate at Sullivan & Cromwell who heads up her firm’s several efforts to “make [minority associates] feel like they have a shot, good assignments, and powerful partners who can be their champions,” as she defined her job. Besides Sullivan, the consortium includes Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Shearman & Sterling; Wachtel, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; Weil, Gotshal & Manges; and the New York office of Los Angeles-based O’Melveny & Myers. Weems-Norris holds a master’s degree from Harvard Business College and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. From her perspective as a black lawyer, she speaks frankly of racism as it is manifested in the legal world. “Everything you deal with in the broader society, you deal with inside a law firm,” said Weems-Norris, 33. Speaking of her own firm, “You come to work here and it’s not going to be Utopia. Minority people who’ve come here have dealt with the same things they dealt with at Harvard.” Weems-Norris credits “leadership from the top” in the person of H. Rodgin Cohen, her firm’s chairman, for what she has managed to accomplish in what she sees as her calling: “I want people to embrace differences, to look at what they might learn from this person who’s different, and how that could help them approaching clients who are different,” she said. “I know I’m in a corporate firm, which means you serve the client and you make money and you’re not saving the world,” Weems-Norris added. “But then, there’s this: in the last two months, I have handled questions from clients who want numbers and statistics and a narrative [about minority associates and partners]. One client even asked to what extent have minorities been staffed on their matters.” Christine R. Kendall, director of associate relations at Fried Frank and an early member of the consortium, agreed that a law firm’s bottom line is better served by a diversified workplace. Which she acknowledged to be a difficult dream. “I think all of us, in our guts, are more comfortable with people who look like us,” said Kendall. “None of us are beyond this. It’s our history. But you have to look across a desk at someone who’s different and say, ‘So what?’ “That can be really hard, what with the demands people are already under,” she said. “But if that seems to be asking too much of some people, then I think that doesn’t bode well for the profession.” ANNUAL ROUNDTABLE Kendall is co-chair — along with consortium colleague Ruth Ivey, recruiting director at Wachtell — of the 13th annual Roundtable for Summer Associates of Color, to be held June 26 at Skadden Arps. Scheduled to be the principal speaker at the roundtable is attorney Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The roundtable evolved from quarterly meetings for practicing attorneys — now no longer held — that began in 1991, when the Association of the Bar of the City of New York drafted a statement of goals on enhancing opportunities for minorities. Thirty-five firms signed the City Bar statement in ’91, with even more signing on to an updated statement in December 1998. In that later statement, the City Bar declared it had “given serious consideration to the objective of increased representation of minorities at the partner and senior corporate counsel levels,” finding such to be “a difficult and complex issue.” Difficult as it may be, Vern� Myers said, “The real test of progress is ownership.” Myers, a black attorney in Newton, Mass., who regularly advises New York law firms on diversity programs, said the paucity of minority partners does not come about by “evil intent” but by the ironic duality of the profession itself. “Our legal system has two stories,” said Myers. “One is the protection of constitutional rights and the creation of equal opportunities. The other is maintaining the status quo of powerful people.” The problem for young minority lawyers, she suggested, lies in a certain na�vet� about the second story. “Minority people who get to law firms have learned to play the game and assimilate and work hard, and to overlook small incidents and insensitivities,” said Myers. “Then they realize that hard work alone is not sufficient. How much of their progress is about relationships, and how comfortable people are with them, and how interested people are in bringing them along — these become things that are somewhat out of their control.” Surely lawyers of all ages like to feel in control, suggested William F. Kuntz II, a black partner with the New York office of Toronto-based Torys. “A lot of young [minority] lawyers see the country club sessions and certain people not invited to be their partners’ social equals,” said Kuntz, 51, who earned four degrees from Harvard University, including his J.D. from Harvard Law. “And they ask themselves, ‘Isn’t part of being a successful lawyer networking in a social sense?’ “When people find themselves passed over at the big firms, they’d rather leave for a small firm or a minority-run firm and not have to put up with the nonsense.” To become a minority partner, said Kuntz, requires a young associate to engage in a “long and lonely struggle,” and to find a firm with partners “willing to say it’s in their enlightened self-interest to treat people equally.” Often, said Kuntz, client pressure is brought to bear on recalcitrant firms. For example, a black lawyer for an international financial institution in New York suggested that companies like his are mindful of the numbers questions that Weems-Norris sometimes receives. “Nobody will put it in writing,” said the 38-year-old in-house lawyer, who requested anonymity, “but it’s there.” He also suggested that professional success for today’s minority lawyers is not measured at the same rung it was a generation ago. “In my 15 years on Wall Street, doing deals in 43 countries around the world, I’m in a position that would be looked on as amazing success back in the 1960s,” he said. “But today we’re in a different phase. “The racial landscape is better than the one my father encountered. That’s clear,” he said. “But are we good? I’m not sure.” With reference to the recent murder conviction of Bobby Frank Cherry, a 73-year-old Ku Klux Klansman who took part in the notorious 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Ala., in which four girls died, he asked, “Does one take the prosecution of an old man as progress or lip service? Justice delayed is justice denied.” Kuntz engaged in a quiet bit of justice some years ago, which he holds out as a cautionary tale. Namely, he worked himself into a position to prevent the nomination of a white colleague to a federal judgeship — a colleague who had once too often been racially insensitive. “I remember a professor of mine saying, ‘Remember, I may not be able to help you — but I guarantee that I’ll be able to hurt you,” said Kunst. “You see, somewhere along the way, a puppy may grow up to be a very large Doberman.”

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