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Georgetown Law Grad Says Big Law Segregation Reminiscent of Jim Crow

Georgetown Law-educated attorney Yolanda Young doesn't mince words.  In a provocative essay posted earlier today at Huffington Post, Young argues that the Jim Crow policies of separate but unequal are alive and well at the nation's top law firms. 

If anyone has the credibility to make this kind of argument, it's Young.  Her dazzling credentials include a degree from Georgetown Law School, a stint as a commentator at NPR and lecturer at Vassar.  Now, she hosts the video blog, Spade  But early in her career, Young took a position as a staff attorney at Covington and Burling to smooth out the ebbs and flows of a writer's income.   There, Young discovered that staff attorney positions helped firms like Covington meet corporate diversity requirements without ever integrating minority attorneys into the mainstream of the firm or providing them real opportunities to advance:

Blacks at Covington comprise less than 5% of the Washington office's partners and associates, but make up 30% of its staff attorneys. ... Covington began stockpiling its staff attorney ghetto with blacks and other minorities in 2005, shortly after the General Council of some of the country's largest companies joined Roderick A. Palmore, Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary of Sara Lee in taking a tougher stance on law firm diversity. Signed by hundreds of General Counsel, this new "Call to Action" states they will retain firms that demonstrate a level of diversity reflective of their employees and customers and end their relationship with firms "whose performance consistently evidences a lack of meaningful interest in being diverse."  Covington has certainly diversified its firm; however, its attorneys are far from equals. The vast majority of Covington's black attorneys do no substantive work, have no control over their case assignments and no opportunity for advancement. This seems to be just the sort of structure the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission warned against in its 2003 "Diversity In Law Firms" report which stated, "In large, national law firms, the most pressing issues have probably shifted from hiring and initial access to problems concerning the terms and conditions of employment, especially promotion to partnership."

Unfortunately, lawyers risk career suicide by protesting.  Writes Young:

Since [my contract position ended], I have been resisting the impulse to question whether Covington's staff attorney policy is unfair to blacks and other minorities. It's a question no black professional wants to confront. We know the eye-rolling and impatient sighs the issue provokes. To protest, one faces reproach and career suicide. Firms know this and bank on everyone's silence.

As readers know, we've previously discussed the caste-like nature of the role of the contract attorney in the legal profession.  But Young's essay is the first I've seen to inject a racial dimension.  And at least at first glance, her argument persuades me.  What do you think, readers? Do contract lawyer positions keep minority lawyers in dead end positions?  And is the separation intentional?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on March 17, 2008 at 05:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)


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