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James Cole Jr. barely registered a blip on the radar screen until he made partner earlier this year at New York’s Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, erasing the firm’s distinction as the last of the most profitable firms that hadn’t elected its first African-American partner. Since then, Cole’s become the talk of the town — particularly within the elite circle of black partners and general counsel. Sharon Bowen, an African-American partner at Latham & Watkins’ New York office, says that when Cole’s name surfaced, the question on people’s lips was, “Where’s this guy been all this time?” Cole has been invisible because he’s been working hard — very hard. “I’ve been billing 3,400 hours a year for the last seven years,” he says. Now that he’s made it, the 36-year-old M&A lawyer and Harlem resident says he intends to become much more active in the black community — particularly the Urban League and NAACP, among others. Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison’s Theodore Wells Jr., part of the black bar’s old guard, says Cole came to see him about “what his appointment means to the black community.” Wells was impressed: “I think he will make a broader contribution. He’s not somebody who will say, ‘I’m a partner at a major firm — and that’s my contribution.’” Wachtell, meanwhile, is downplaying the significance of finally having a black member in its select club. Managing partner Daniel Neff says Cole’s election was just an “extremely logical outcome” because he had been a “spectacular” associate. But Neff is coy about whether Cole’s position will help black recruitment: “I can’t assess how people will respond.” Making partner at Wachtell, says Cole, is “not a race issue — it’s a personality issue.” With two potential black partners now in the pipeline, Wachtell has always been a meritocracy, says Cole: “It’s no more difficult before or after [my partnership]. I don’t feel we couldn’t have made it before.”

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