Isolated, disillusioned, frustrated, misunderstood, uncomfortable, discouraged — those are the most common adjectives that many minority associates sometimes use to describe their reality at large law firms. Such angst, all too often, leads to the premature departure of these associates from the very firms to which they, ironically, worked so hard to gain entrance. To be sure, there are success stories of minority attorneys in large law firms. One example is my colleague Deryck Palmer, an African-American and a significant rainmaking partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. However, Palmer, along with a few others, is the exception, not the rule.
The plight of the minority associate in large firms is not new to the legal profession. What is new, however, is the pressure such firms are now under from their corporate clients to remedy this problem. The push by in-house counsel to improve diversity within the legal profession is well-documented. From the 1999 pledge made by more than 500 in-house legal officers in the celebrated “Diversity in the Workplace: A Statement of Principle” to the reaffirmation and extension of such a pledge in “ A Call to Action — Diversity in the Legal Profession” in 2004, chief legal officers have led the way by encouraging their outside counsel to use more diverse legal teams. Today, however, the gentle nudge of encouragement has, in some cases, become an outright demand for change. Chief legal officers at many companies are now demanding that law firms use diverse legal teams or risk losing the privilege of representing such companies.
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