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In the history of legal journalism, few headlines were more stunning than the banner that ran above The National Law Journal’s first survey of blacks at large law firms: “3,700 Partners. 12 Are Black.”

Much has happened since that headline ran in July 1979 (next to a story on the emergence of a “quaint” specialty called international trade law). The nation emerged from the “malaise” that President Jimmy Carter lamented that month. The Iranian hostages were captured and released. Lapels narrowed. But one thing that changed disappointingly little was the scarcity of black partners in elite legal practice. Over 35 years, the representation of African-Americans at the top 50 law partnerships crawled up from 0.3 percent to 1.9 percent. An updated headline would read: “14,000 Partners. 265 Are Black.”

No one can speak with greater moral authority on race in the law than the members of that 1979 fraternity. Despite their own spectacular careers, several spoke with deep dismay about the pace of progress in diversifying elite law firms. Eight of the “12 Blacks” who integrated the NLJ 50 are alive, and The American Lawyer spoke with five, rounding out our reporting with obituaries, profiles and memoirs for those who were unable or unwilling to cooperate. Collectively they have served as chairs of the New York City bar, the Richmond federal reserve bank, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; U.S. Secretary of Transportation and legal adviser to the U.S. Department of State; trustees of Harvard, Stanford and Tuskegee Universities; and bishop’s subdean in the Episcopalian Diocese of the Virgin Islands. Two are CEOs in the financial sector and two are civilian general equivalents in the U.S. Army, with seven stars between them.

“The personal stories are tremendously inspiring,” says Ronald James, who spent 25 years as a Squire Sanders partner and chaired NALP’s diversity committee in the 1980s. “But to see these numbers after all that effort and energy and work is depressing.” The first thought James had on seeing the updated NLJ statistic was, “Oh my God, all these bright minds, and we’re still doing the onesies!”

“It really is a disgrace,” says retired partner Conrad Harper of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. “Less than 0.5 percent was a disgrace, and 2 percent is hardly much better.” Harper knows about disgraces, having resigned as the Harvard Corporation’s first black member in 2005 because in his view, then-president Lawrence Summers “demeaned those who are underrepresented” in higher education. But then the members of the 12 Blacks fraternity were never afraid to tell the painful truth about their encounters with racism.

The fraternity’s founding member was William Coleman Jr., still at O’Melveny & Myers at age 93, who clerked for Felix Frankfurter after graduating first in his class at Harvard Law School in 1943. “I thought I was reasonably well prepared,” Coleman remarked with acid understatement in his book “Counsel for the Situation.” Applying to law firms in his hometown of Philadelphia in 1949, Coleman also boasted a Third Circuit clerkship and a summa cum laude degree from the University of Pennsylvania. “Was it too much,” he asked, “to expect that the City of Brotherly Love would embrace my return?”

When the receptionist at one law firm saw the color of Coleman’s skin, the hiring partner with whom he had an appointment sent an ashen-faced secretary to say that the partner had a sudden conflict. Another hiring partner related more openly: “Our clients simply would not understand.” For three years, Coleman had to commute three hours a day to New York, where Louis Weiss of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison played the historic role of Branch Rickey for The Am Law 100 and hired Coleman as the first black associate at a major law firm. Coleman made partner in 1957 at Philadephia’s Dilworth Paxson, but he long remained isolated. It would be 15 years before the next man on the list, the late Vincent Cohen, made partner at Hogan & Hartson. When Cohen graduated law school in 1960, a hiring partner elsewhere told him flatly: “We don’t hire Negroes.” Cohen found refuge in the Kennedy Justice Department.

But discrimination could even blot Camelot, and mar a milestone for legal integration. In 1962 the Kennedy White House ordered the 101st Airborne to march South when mobs blocked James Meredith from entering the University of Mississippi Law School. In a move some historians regard as craven, it also ordered black officers to be relieved of their command. Ronald James was one of those officers. He took revenge by quitting the Army and going to law school himself. James confesses to feeling vindicated when a lieutenant deemed unfit to command one white platoon rose to dictate policy for more than 1.7 million soldiers, as assistant secretary of the Army under George W. Bush.

It took until 1969 for law firm doors to open wide for the crème de la crème of black law students, as Stanford Law Review editor-in-chief Vaughn Williams received associate offers everywhere he applied. Even so, Williams was nearly shut out of the New York lateral market. In 1976 he was embraced by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where he has thrived over 38 years as a distinguished litigator and director of numerous institutions in the arts and education, including Stanford University.

The scion of two accomplished families, Wesley Williams Jr. was hotly recruited out of Harvard Law School in 1970, only to receive the message: “You’re the kind of man we want not in the boardroom but in the courtroom.” But Wesley Williams (no relation to Vaughn) knew his own strengths, and insisted on specializing in bankruptcy, banking and securities regulation at Covington & Burling. When he made partner in 1975, it was rare enough that Thurgood Marshall called minutes later. Williams went on to serve on the boards of countless companies, including Bear Stearns and Salomon Inc. In retirement he has built his family’s Lockhart Companies into a 35-subsidiary insurance conglomerate, and presides over six Anglican churches in the Virgin Islands.

Signing up only a year after Truman’s 1948 executive order to integrate the armed forces, Felker Ward Jr. became a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and a helicopter gunship pilot in Vietnam. Knowing how to navigate a system still struggling with the vestiges of racism came in handy at Kutak, Rock & Huie, where Ward joined as a partner in 1978. A partner from the firm’s first generation departed when he arrived, and Ward is convinced that was no coincidence. He also notes that some clients commonly steered clear of him, and that his senior partner attended an exclusionary lunch club until he objected. Despite the headwinds, Ward quickly became the Atlanta managing partner and a member of firm policy board. Then he decided he’d rather underwrite bonds himself, and founded Pinnacle Investment Advisers. On the whole, Ward and his brethren agree with the wisdom of Vincent Cohen: “Discrimination still exists in our society, so we have to assume it exists in law firms. It’s like the rain: You put up an umbrella and keep moving on.”

The other partners on the 1979 list notched their own victories over racism. Samuel Jackson was an influential housing adviser in the Nixon administration before dying prematurely in 1982. John Risher Jr. served as Washington, D.C., corporation counsel before his untimely death in 1999. Charles Lomax represented the boxing promoter Don King for 30 years, as Sidley & Austin partner or general counsel, until his 2009 death. Richard Porter still manages a thriving docket of complex litigation, now at the nation’s largest minority-owned law firm, Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan of Milwaukee. And in a triumph for continuity, Alphonso Christian II retains his association with Hogan & Hartson 35 years later.

While all of the interviewed pioneers expressed frustration with the current diversity figures, they offered a range of explanations and prescriptions.

“I think it’s a failure on the part of the bar and totally unsatisfactory,” says Vaughn Williams, who has chaired Skadden’s diversity committee. “I just think it’s more complicated than in 1979. In 1979 I felt comfortable blaming the numbers on the law firms. Today most law firms are trying very hard to diversify.” At the same time, he says, law firms need to promote a more “diversified culture,” that allows associates to develop a sense of commitment and belonging.

Wesley Williams advises young black lawyers to assume goodwill in others, and to focus on their rainmaking skills. “The goodwill was there to respect people’s accomplishments and advance if the pipeline was adequate,” he says. “There weren’t a lot of barriers except as it related to the ability to make rain.”

Both partners who became financiers stress the availability of new opportunities. “The statistics are disappointing,” says Wesley Williams. “On the other hand, black lawyers can now go onto the bench, into business, or become president of the United States. That could be thought of as a somewhat positive thing.” Felker Ward made a similar point: “It might be that more African-American lawyers are seeing fit to either have their own firm or go in-house or do other work beside practicing law. For me, law firm partnership was an essential launching pad for a career as an entrepreneur and investment banker.”

But the other Army man, Ronald James, calls for a strategic push comparable to the training of the Tuskegee airmen. “Obviously what we’re doing is not working,” he says. “The community of law firms needs to spend as much effort getting blacks in as they did keeping us out. If not, in another 35 years we’ll be at 2 to 4 percent in a country with 12 to 14 percent African-Americans, and 50 percent people of color.”

That minimal level of diversity at law firms is simply unthinkable in a nation of minorities, says Vaughn Williams. “In 35 years,” he says, “we will either see highly diversified institutions, or law firms will be dead.”