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Two decades ago, when Stephen Robinson was a young black student working as a summer associate at a Manhattan law firm, the adjective “all-white” was redundant. On June 24, Robinson looked out over a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred young minority group interns gathered for the 14th annual “Summer Associates of Color Roundtable,” this year hosted by Shearman & Sterling. The event was attended by interns from New York city and state government agencies and more than a dozen top-tier firms. Robinson discussed his own wide-ranging legal career in private practice, government and corporate work, offering interns a litany of hard-won advice on how to navigate in a professional world that remains largely white. Before the existence of a yearly roundtable for minority summers, said Robinson, who is currently awaiting a Senate confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship in White Plains, he and others would gather informally. “Back in ’83, there were 22 of us African Americans. That’s it. Actually, we were black back then,” said Robinson. “We had a cocktail party at Lincoln Center.” In that year, his mentor at the small firm where he summered was the son of a German Nazi officer, albeit one of a subversive group that attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. “Their hiring me was somewhat controversial,” said Robinson of the experience. He learned two great lessons that summer, which Robinson urged upon his audience: Make sure that when something leaves your hands, it’s perfect, and learn to become a strong writer. “You can be the greatest tap dancer in the world, you can have the greatest verbal skills — but you have to be able to write it,” said Robinson, who in 1998 became the first black U.S. Attorney for Connecticut. “Your career is yours — not your firm’s. Be vicious about that career. “When you work for someone, you owe them everything,” he added. “But the minute it gets to the point where it’s not right for you, you owe nothing.” Along the way, Robinson encouraged the minority summer associates to clear their heads of any racial resentment they might harbor. “Move away from that. Figure out what you can control, which is mainly yourself, and let the rest of it go,” said Robinson. “Strive for excellence, and be judged by the quality of your work — not by the frequency of your complaints. Don’t complain unless it’s about something that really defines you as a person.” If it becomes necessary to complain — as it did early in Robinson’s career, when a somewhat drunken white colleague said to him, “Hey, boy, why don’t you get us some drinks?” — he offered two-part practical advice. “Always give him an out, which is usually something like saying, ‘You probably didn’t mean it this way, but — ‘ and always have a totally unrelated neutral topic for when the confrontation is over,” said Robinson. “Something like, ‘And how about that Mets game last night?’ “ For the record: Robinson has never again been called “boy,” and remains friends to this day with the white colleague in question. In this way, he counseled, “You’re teaching your law firm how to respond to you.” Robinson’s subtle approach was challenged by some roundtable participants, one of whom suggested that a young lawyer of color should bring moral awareness to a law firm or government agency as well as technical excellence. “But it’s a question of timing. As a young lawyer, your job is to establish your legal skills, not to change the institution,” Robinson responded. “What happens to many young [minority] lawyers is that they get too involved in the latter. You need to step away, and realize that you’ve got a long career ahead of you. “As you move along, as you become an established attorney, [changing the institution] becomes very important. “I admit that’s counter-intuitive,” Robinson added. “But I don’t think you want them to know everything about you. You want to show them a business you, you want to show parts of yourself in the best light.” While Robinson presented himself as a firm believer in the virtue of patience with the white world, he declared himself a non-believer in the idea of luck. “The stuff that’s going to happen in your lives is a combination of events,” he said. “The only way you’re going to make any of it come out lucky is to do what you do well. “The fact that you’re all sitting here tonight means you’ve already created a lot of luck.”

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