In 2008, in preparation for a Philadelphia Diversity Law Group symposium about the state of African-Americans in the legal profession more than 50 years ago, I contacted Lois Schmidt, the widow of Judge Harvey Schmidt, to see if she had any memorabilia from that era. Among other things, she gave me a document that is an indelible part of our history. The document is titled, "Directory of the Colored Members of the Philadelphia Bar — Compiled by Fleming Deveaux Tucker, Esq. — revised to May 15, 1970."
The document is fascinating. It contains a list all of the Philadelphia-based African-Americans who were admitted to the bar from 1920 to 1970 — 50 years, but only 111 names.
On that list are some of the giants of our profession. The list starts with J. Austin Norris, March 1, 1920 — the first African-American admitted to the bar in the commonwealth — and ends with André L. Dennis, April 27, 1970.
The list is amazing, as it includes Judges Raymond Pace Alexander, Robert N.C. Nix, Sadie T.M. Alexander, Harvey N. Schmidt, Clifford Scott Green, A. Leon Higgenbotham, Juanita Kidd Stout, Robert N.C. Nix Jr., Hardy Williams, Eleanor K.H. Norton and Ricardo C. Jackson, as well as William T. Coleman Jr., William H. Brown III, and another person I happen to know quite well, Judge Paul A. Dandridge, just to name a few.
At the end of the list, Tucker left room for only six more additions — a reasonable expectation considering the extent of the progress from 1920 to 1970. Little did he know about what was soon to happen.
On June 23, 1970, Judge Robert M. Landis, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association that year, appointed Dandridge, Green, Jackson, W. Bourne Ruthrauff and Peter J. Liacouras as members of the Special Committee on Pennsylvania Bar Admission Procedures "to investigate the claims of possible discrimination against black law students in these procedures." Liacouras was made chairman and it became known as the Liacouras Committee.
On December 19, 1970, the Liacouras Committee filed its report and recommendations. The report found that various "practices raise the strongest presumption that blacks are indeed discriminated against under procedures used by the State Board of Law Examiners."
On January 21, 1971, the board of governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association adopted a resolution that was accepted by the Pennsylvania State Board of Law Examiners and forever changed the way the bar examination was administered. The Liacouras Committee opened the door for countless people of color, and others, to enter into the legal profession in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the state.
However, almost 50 years after the halcyon and anticipatory days of the Liacouras Committee, diversity in parts of the legal profession in Philadelphia, especially with respect to African-American attorneys, is nothing to brag about.
A recent study in the NALP Directory of Legal Employers from 2006 to 2011 tells a depressing story. The number of African-American partners in majority law firms in Philadelphia actually decreased — with African-Americans making up just 1.57 percent of the partners — and with the number of African-American female partners being a cruel joke. The average in Philadelphia is below the national average.
Also in that study, the number of African-American associates decreased to 3.79 percent of the total number of associates — again, with the Philadelphia average being below the national average.
Not only have we not moved the needle in a positive direction in recent years, we have gone in reverse.
It is notable that the vast majority of the African-American luminaries of the legal profession for the last 50 or more years in Philadelphia coalesce around the judiciary and public service. Today, we celebrate that the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the chief magistrate judge of the Eastern District, the district attorney of the city of Philadelphia, the solicitor of the city of Philadelphia, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District and the chief federal community defender for the Eastern District are all African-American. Wonderful. But the private sector bar does not reflect that composition, nor any other reasonable demographic.
Why are our public institutions more reflective of who we are than our private institutions? Why is this problem more acute in Philadelphia? As the Philadelphia native Sherman Hemsley used to say to his wife in the hit comedy The Jeffersons, with the appropriate theme song, "Moving On Up," — "Wheezy, you have some ‘splaining to do."
Organizations such as the PDLG and the director of diversity of the Philadelphia Bar Association have been in the vanguard trying to move the needle toward a more diverse composition in the private sector. Most of our firms are also trying to move the needle. But it is an uphill battle. We have done a fairly good job eliminating barriers to entry. What we have to do better is foster inclusion and success.
I am reminded of a story of more than 50 years ago, when the dean of Howard University Law School told his students not to take the Pennsylvania bar examination because they would not get a fair shot. We fixed that. Fifty years later, I do not want the message to be, "Do not go to Philadelphia to practice law in the private sector because you will not get a fair shot." Help!
Albert S. Dandridge III is chair of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis’ securities practice group and the firm’s chief diversity officer. His legal work is concentrated in municipal and corporate finance matters and he regularly counsels major public companies, broker-dealers and investment advisers on their securities reporting and financing requirements.