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From 2000 to 2004, Jeneba Ghatt led the typical life of a young attorney, chasing paper as an associate in the Washington, D.C., telecom practice of Willkie Farr & Gallagher. But as her fifth year loomed, she got tired of wondering how many years it would take to achieve partnership status — if ever. “The legal profession is run by white men in their 50s,” says Ghatt, 31, who speaks from experience, having worked for Willkie Farr’s white-male cast of telecom partners. This year Ghatt and two African-American friends reinvented themselves, launching the D.C.-based Ghatt Law Group. Several Willkie Farr partners declined to comment on the complexion of the telecom practice, referring calls to other employees who could not be reached at press time. Ghatt says it is “almost by necessity rather than choice” that women and minorities are striking out on their own. Her new colleagues Nicolaine Lazarre and Fatima Fofana also started at big firms — Weil, Gotshal & Manges and Davis Wright Tremaine, respectively. Like her, they had the advantage of working with big-name clients like AOL Time Warner, Motorola and Clear Channel. Now the three women have ditched traditional firm structure for a loosely structured model they call a “strategic partnership.” Ghatt is based in Chevy Chase, Md., Lazarre in New York, and Fofana in Los Angeles. “Three minds are better than one,” says Ghatt. “We share resources and motivate each other.” They also share a new client pool of minority-owned small businesses that include Hardman Broadcasting, Inc., an Oklahoma-based radio station owner; African-American film distributor Uptown Movie Networks; and Verizon Communications, Inc., affiliate Puerto Rican Telephone. Their practice includes contracts and regulatory work. During the six-month runup to the June launch, Ghatt and Lazarre schmoozed for new clients. They share offices with other attorneys and keep support staff at a minimum. More importantly, by billing $200 to $275 an hour, Ghatt aims to be accessible to companies that cannot afford a bigger firm. Naturally, she has calculated the risks. “If we don’t succeed, we’ll retreat into super-super value mode,” she says. “We’ll work from home, but not close down the shop altogether.” But for now, things are looking up. Ghatt predicts she will recover her investments and return to her previous salary within a year. While the Ghatt women aim for big-firm quality, they have consciously created an alternative culture. For them, big-firm life was marked by a dearth of mentors and social networks. “We were all unhappy, and we just got to a point where we were all commiserating with each other,” recalls Fofana. “It was almost a therapy group,” Ghatt jokes. In addition to the uncertainty about their partnership prospects, the lack of support left them feeling isolated. “It’s important at a firm to have someone who’s going to go to bat for you,” says Fofana. Their experience reflects a national predicament — law partners have been slow to promote diversity in their ranks. According to the National Association for Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, fewer than 500 firms in the country are minority- or women-run. According to The National Law Journal, nearly three quarters of minority women associates leave their firms in the first five years, a rate notably higher than that for both white women and men of color. To Fofana and Ghatt, these are signs that legal culture hasn’t kept pace. “The [U.S.] Census Bureau says that over the next 10 years, minorities are going to be majority,” says Ghatt, and that, she believes, has made minority representation increasingly urgent in law, business and media. After leaving Willkie Farr, Ghatt did telecom work for the D.C. government and worked for the Minority Media Telecommunications Council, a D.C.-based nonprofit where Lazarre and Fofana also worked. All three value the approach they learned doing pro bono work. Fofana contrasts the Ghatt approach to clients with that of “hired-gun” attorneys, saying, “We bring the perspective of personal experiences as well as [industry work], and it makes the client more comfortable.” Catalyst, a group that tracks women’s advancement in business, reports that nearly half of all women of color at firms believe clients prefer to work with white lawyers. But Ghatt lawyers have found that minority clients are comfortable asking them for help and speaking candidly about perceived discrimination. The personal touch resonates with newcomers. “You have to hold their hands more,” says Fofana, “and I enjoy that.” “Midsize businesses are the foundation of the American economy,” adds Lazarre, who likens minority media to genres such as hip-hop and slam poetry. “We look at these companies trying to compete with the big boys,” says Fofana, “and they want to work with women and people of color who understand the struggles of what they go through trying to compete.”

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