Posted on May 13, 2019

The Partner Chase

Heather Mac Donald, City Journal, Spring 2019

In December 2018, the New York law firm Paul, Weiss announced its latest class of partners. A scandal erupted: all 12 of the newly promoted lawyers were white, the photo accompanying the announcement revealed. The New York Times published a front-page hit job on the firm headlined: 12 WHITE FACES REFLECT BLIND SPOT IN BIG LAW. Nearly 200 corporate general counsels signed an open letter threatening to pull their business from law firms whose partners are not “diverse in race, color, age, gender, gender orientation, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, and without regard to disabilities.” Paul, Weiss did what every other mainstream institution does today when accused of racial bias: it fell on its sword. Rather than defend his organization against specious charges of discrimination, the firm’s chairman declared his unwavering commitment to “diversity” and promised to do better the next time around.

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The reflexive charge of bias was particularly absurd leveled against Paul, Weiss. Even in the diversity-obsessed world of New York corporate law, the firm’s efforts to recruit and promote black attorneys stand out. The diversity scorecards churned out annually by The American Lawyer and numerous other legal publications consistently rank Paul, Weiss’s diversity profile in the top tier of American law firms. Its percentage of black partners with an ownership stake in the firm— 4 percent—is much higher than the New York corporate law firm average. Naturally, a Chief Inclusion Officer occupies the firm’s top management ranks, overseeing the unconscious-bias and cultural-competence training that all Paul, Weiss attorneys must undergo. The firm offers a formal mentoring program exclusively to “diverse” lawyers and sponsors the usual race-based support groups.

The firm’s chairman, Brad Karp, is the embodiment of the progressive corporate lawyer. His 2018 New York Times op-eds against President Trump’s border policies and for gun control, his abortion-rights advocacy, and the firm’s overwhelmingly left-wing pro bono practice won Karp the New York Law Journal’s attorney of the year award last October. {snip}

Yet despite the firm’s decades-long campaign for “diversity,” its latest partner class did not measure up on that criterion. Diversity proponents know why: unconscious bias. {snip}

{snip} An unnamed black female attorney complained: “There are white males at the firm that are visibly being given more time in business development opportunities and client contact…. They’re clearly being cultivated.” One of the firm’s high-profile black partners, white-collar criminal-defense lawyer Theodore Wells, seconded the narrative about preferential treatment for white males. “The question is, what happens to the young black lawyer who’s not a unicorn but a superb lawyer? Does he get through the same way the superb white lawyer does?”

The answer, according to the Times and its interviewees, is no. {snip} The reality is the opposite: corporate firms give blacks many second chances. So why are there not more black partners? The same reasons that there are not more black computer engineers or physicians: the academic skills gap and counterproductive racial preferences. Blacks are hired as summer law interns and first-year associates at rates well above their representation among law school graduates, according to research by UCLA law professor Richard Sander. But because blacks’ law school GPAs on average cluster at the bottom of their class (thanks as well to law school admissions preferences), they enter large firms (defined as having 100 or more lawyers) with academic qualifications a standard deviation below those of incoming white lawyers. Over a fifth of all new white lawyers at large firms have law school GPAs of 3.75 or higher, compared with 2 percent of new black lawyers. By contrast, 2 percent of new white lawyers in big firms have GPAs under 3.0, compared with 14 percent of black lawyers.

{snip} While most of the attorney quotes in the New York Times story represent a serious misreading of the work environment, the statement about white males getting better opportunities and client contacts is undoubtedly true. The reason for that disparity is not invidious discrimination but partners’ contact with the result of racial preferences.

The retired big-firm partner describes the dynamics created by preferential hiring. “There’s a lot of resistance to working with black attorneys on big cases. No one says: ‘I don’t want this black associate.’ Instead, it is: ‘Jerry can work with him.’” These reluctant supervisors are not racist; they simply know from experience that a significant portion of the black associates are less competitively qualified. (Meantime, those black attorneys who are competitively qualified operate under the stigma of a quota system.) The skills gap shows up most in legal drafting, whether litigation briefs or financial instruments. Preference beneficiaries’ writing is less clearly reasoned, with more analytical gaps, according to the retired partner—who happened to be one of two attorneys in his firm who affirmatively tried to help diversity hires with their writing. {snip}

The liberal partners, {snip} acknowledge the diversity sham but shrug their shoulders: “What choice do we have?”

Aware that they are not on the partnership track, black lawyers leave their big-firm employers at two to three times the rate of their white peers. By the time partner decisions roll around, few blacks remain in the pipeline to promote.

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If Paul, Weiss’s chairman had explained that preferences deplete the partnership pipeline, he would no longer be chairman. His decision to allow the racism charge to stand unrebutted demonstrates a remarkable feature of our time: the leaders of mainstream institutions would rather cop to false charges of bias than speak the truth about the academic skills gap. They are not only silent about that gap; they also put their employees through a frenzy of implicit-bias training to overcome the phantom bias that allegedly holds blacks back. This taboo on the truth has another consequence: when leaders refuse to explain the real reason for the lack of diversity, they buttress the poisonous idea that American institutions remain indelibly racist, and the cycle begins anew—more preferences, more unhappy results.

{snip} In his diversity mea culpa, chairman Karp insisted: “There is no more important issue to me (and the firm’s leadership) than diversity.” Really? More important than legal acumen and providing the best advice to clients? More important than profits?

{snip} In the short term, one thing is certain: if any elite firm dares to promote an all-white partner class in the future, we’ll see no photos of that sorry crew.