(Ilustration by Alberto Ruggieri)

Pity more racists aren’t like Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers (and a lawyer). If all bigots were as flagrant as Sterling, it’d be so much easier to identify racism and nip it in the bud. Much more slippery are the more polite forms of bias, such as those that persist in the polished halls of Big Law.

In my 10-plus years covering women and diversity in the profession, I’ve heard many reasons why elite law firms have poor track records with black lawyers. (They make up only 2 percent of Am Law 100 partners; for Wall Street firms, it’s 1.6 percent.) Among them: the leaky pipeline, the dearth of role models and mentors, poor training, etc.

But who wants to tackle what’s at the heart of it all: race? Certainly not partners. They’d prefer to spotlight their relative success with Hispanics or Asian-Americans. In fact, some firms that get high marks for overall diversity have paltry records when it comes to black partners. (Among Am Law 100 firms, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy rank high for diversity, though each has just one black partner; Davis Polk & Wardwell, another high scorer, has none.)

Whenever I press firms about the lack of black lawyers, the explanation invariably comes down to the limited inventory and this: “We can’t compromise on our standards.”

The first time I heard the “standards” explanation, I took it at face value. After all, big firms are credential-obsessed institutions, and there are only so many top candidates to go around—and fewer diverse ones at that. But I’ve heard the “standards” line so often that I wonder if it’s code for something else.

Black lawyers have made scant progress compared with blacks in financial management, medicine and accounting, according to a study by the Microsoft Corporation. What makes the legal field so impenetrable, I think, is that lawyers, particularly those in major firms, believe that they are intellectually superior. Firms promote this cult of cerebralism, preaching that only the brightest and most tenacious will win the prize. To some members of the establishment, minorities don’t quite fit the bill.

And so this myth of meritocracy creates a closed, self-satisfied, slow-evolving club that tends to admit members who are carbon copies of those already there.

Which brings us back to the “standards” explanation. Partners often tell me that they have to lower their standards to hire black associates, yet when they do, those hires often don’t work out. (Left unanswered: How much exactly are firms “lowering” their standards? Do law school grades truly determine success in the long run. And why can’t “standards” be taught?)

I don’t doubt that some big firms are making a good-faith effort to increase the number of black attorneys in their ranks. But firms often seem ambivalent about the effort: They congratulate themselves for going the extra mile to recruit African-Americans while waiting for them to implode.

A recent study by consulting firm Nextions confirms my observations. In it, 60 partners from 22 firms were asked to rate a research memo by a third-year associate. Some were told the memo was authored by a Caucasian; others were told an African-American wrote it. The Caucasian got a 4.1 out of a high grade of 5, while the African American got a 3.2.

“This confirms empirically what we know anecdotally,” says Merle Vaughn, a managing partner and the head of diversity at recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa. “Implicit bias exists—which some would argue is explicit as well.”

Call it implicit, unconscious or unintentional bias, but it’s prejudice just the same, an uncomfortable fact that firms need to face. Firms can go through the motions of diversity—host cocktail parties for black law students, assign mentors to black associates or hire fancy diversity experts—but unless they’re convinced that African-Americans can make it, those efforts are largely a waste of time.