News & Publications
{ Banner Image }

Law Firms are Short on Diversity

Joshua Martin broke barrier, now he carries its burden

April 1, 2005, The News Journal

Since the early 1960s, when Joshua W. Martin III was hired as a summer student at the DuPont Co., he's been knocking down color barriers. 

But Martin's most recent accomplishment is a breakthrough that seems long overdue in a state where the legal community commands an international stature in corporate, bankruptcy and patent work.

When Martin joined the 179-year-old firm of Potter, Anderson & Corroon in Wilmington last month, he became the first black male to be made a partner at a major, old-line Delaware-based law firm.

"We should be much further down the road, but we're not," said Martin, 60, who accepted the position after stepping down as head of Verizon Delaware in March.

The statistics paint a dismal picture.  The percentage of law partners who are people of color at Wilmington's big firms in 2004 was 0.69 percent - the lowest representation of all the cities surveyed by the National Association for Law Placement.  By comparison, lawyers of color nationwide account for 4.32 percent of partners at big firms.  Miami has the highest number of partners of color at 21 percent.

Now, Martin wants to help change the landscape in Wilmington.  He intends to use the political and social capital he's accumulated in his career as a patent attorney, Superior Court judge and corporate chief executive to help boost the ranks of people of color in the Delaware bar.

His goal is to spearhead the diversity effort at Potter Anderson and, from there, create a model to be used by other big firms in the state.

More diversity

In this new role, Martin is blazing another trail in Delaware.

John Crump, executive director of the National Bar Association, an 80-year-old organization of black lawyers, said he's noticed in the last year that more firms are trying to bring in a high-profile partner of color to lead their diversity efforts.

"People of Josh Martin's stature give young people someone to look to and aspire to," said Thomas L. Sager, vice president and assistant general counsel with DuPont.

Elizabeth Chambliss, a professor of law at New York Law School who has studied the progress of minorities in the legal profession, said a visible commitment by top management is crucial for diversity efforts to work.

But Chambliss wonders if the trend among firms to hire diversity consultants and recruiters is primarily to impress corporate clients who are looking harder at the makeup of outside lawyers assigned to their matters.

Major corporate clients have stepped up their demands that firms they use as outside counsel be diverse.  Not only that, some clients, such as DuPont, want proof through billable hours that people of color are working on their matters, experts said.

In October, chief corporate legal officers at major American corporations said gains in diversity at law firms have reached a "disappointing plateau" since 1999 when the group first called for greater diversity.

In a renewed "call to action," the corporations pledged to make decisions regarding which firm to hire based on their diversity performance.  They also pledged to end or limit their relationships with firms that don't appear to have a meaningful interest in being diverse.  Stacey J. Mobley Sr., general counsel with DuPont, is among the corporate counsels who signed the statement.

Few minority partners

For a state that has such a dynamic legal environment, it's remarkable - and odd - that Wilmington has so few minority partners at its large firms, experts said.

There are people of color who are or have been partners in Wilmington firms.  Richards, Layton & Finger has a female director of color, as does Potter Anderson.  Also, lawyers of color have headed their own smaller legal practices.  At least one satellite office of an out-of-state firm has a partner of color.

But at the large firms in 2004, Wilmington was below the nation in all categories when it came to representation by people of color.

For the past 10 years, people of color have made up 20 percent of all law school graduating classes, said James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement.

Yet, only 12 percent of summer associates - the traditional feeder system - at big Wilmington firms in 2004 were people of color.  Nationally, 20 percent - equal to the number of law graduates of color - made up summer associates at large firms.

The number of associates of color at big Wilmington firms was even lower.  Just 7.52 percent of associates last year were people of color, compared with 15 percent nationally.

Critics maintain that while firms talk a lot about diversity, in reality, they haven't been committed to it.

Crump said he gets letters from firms looking for lawyers of color, but only those who are graduating from first-tier law schools.  Minority candidates are also expected to rank at the top of their class and have racked up other measures of legal achievement, such as participation on the law review.

But Martin said it's too easy to attribute the low numbers in Wilmington to systemic racism.  A number of factors contribute to the poor showing, Martin and other experts said.

"When you look at any kind of problem you have to look at it holistically," said James H. Gilliam Sr., chairman of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League.  Gilliam's late son James H. Gilliam Jr. was one of the first black lawyers in Delaware.

"It's how you're treated in the office, where you live, how you live.  You get into those kind of factors.  It's a lot broader than saying we want to give you a job at our firm," Gilliam said.

One deterrent for recruiting people of color is Wilmington's small size and location between big cities, some experts said.  Firms in New York City and Washington not only offer young lawyers higher salaries, but they are generally more diverse, said career development officers.  This provides a certain comfort level and network for people of color, experts said.

What's more, young lawyers who attended urban law schools are attracted to big cities, career development specialists said.  Soon-to-be-law grads have commented at job fairs that Wilmington seems like a family town, and they don't want to have to drive to Philadelphia for a social life after working 10 or 12 hours a day.

LeaNora Ruffin, assistant dean for career development at Widener University School of Law, said law students frequently say:  "I've heard it's a great place to raise a family."

Ruffin, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1993 and now lives in Bear, said her focus was on Philadelphia after she graduated.  She worked at two law firms before becoming assistant dean for career development at Widener.

"Everyone I knew was in Philadelphia.  There was a comfort level," she said.

Veta T. Richardson, executive director of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association in Washington, said that as a young lawyer in Philadelphia she visited Wilmington on business and was surprised how the downtown would clear out after 5 p.m.

"It would have had to been a heck of a job to get me to move to Delaware - it wasn't as livable as Philadelphia," she said.

Financial aspect

Another factor is that students tend to be saddled with large amounts of debt when they graduate from law school.

Carole Montgomery, director of the career development office at George Washington University Law School, said it's not unheard of for students to have law debt of $90,000 to $100,000.  On top of that, they may have debt for their undergraduate education.

"I do get some students who say, 'I have to have a big salary because I have to pay back these debts.'  It's a mortgage payment without a house.  The last time I checked, our students paid about $1,000 a month in student loan payments," Montgomery said.

Higher starting salaries in New York City and Washington - where firms pay as much $140,000 for a first-year associate - are sometimes hard to refuse, Sager said.

Salaries for first-year associates in the Northeast average about $105,000, according to the law placement association.  Wilmington's big firms, including Potter Anderson, pay about $125,000 for first-year associates.

But as the years go on, partners in New York City and Washington tend to make much more money than partners in Delaware firms, experts said.

Jobs in the bigger cities like New York and Washington are seen by graduates as being at the cutting edge of law, Montgomery said.  Students also are attracted to jobs in the federal agencies in Washington, she said.

"It's such a slow evolution to get people to see that the sun doesn't rise and set in D.C. and New York," she said.

In addition, if a young lawyer is married or in a relationship it's easier for the trailing spouse or partner to find a job in a bigger city where there are more employment opportunities, Sager said.

Delaware's bar examination also is known to be extremely difficult, with a 62 percent pass rate in 2004, according to the Board of Bar Examiners of the Delaware Supreme Court.  In July 2003, the state's pass rate was 64 percent.  By comparison, 72 percent of people taking the bar examination in Pennsylvania in July 2003 passed the test.  In Utah, the pass rate for the July 2003 exam was 92 percent.

The perception that the Delaware exam is difficult might chase young lawyers to other states, Sager said.

Gilliam said it's been a joke in the black community that black lawyers were given different colored pencils during the bar exam so that the examiners would know who to fail.

What's more, Delaware doesn't have reciprocity with other states, which would allow lawyers who have passed the bar in another state to waive the Delaware examination.

Despite Delaware's reputation as a center for corporate law, the state hasn't been aggressive enough about selling itself to law graduates, Montgomery said.

Martin agrees.  "Delaware has a number of advantages, but I'm not sure we've done a good enough job of marketing," he said.

But these myriad explanations, in no way justify the low numbers of lawyers of color in the state, said Kim Keenan, president of the National Bar Association.

"OK, so they made [Martin] a partner.  But look at who he is.  He's a judge and a former chief executive.  Do all the partners at the firm have his credentials?  Firms are really looking for people of color who are extraordinary by all legal standards," Keenan said.

"I call these people unicorns," she said referring to an extremely rare, fabled creature said to have magical powers.

Staying power

In addition to issues involving recruitment of people of color, there is also the matter of retention.

Leipold said retention is the single most important issue for law firms, Leipold said.

When people of color enter private sector law they join big firms at a higher rate, he said.  But every year after a lawyer of color joins a large firm, the number of his fellow associates of color begin to decline steadily.

One reason is outstanding lawyers of color often get chosen to be judges or are recruited to be in-house counsel at corporations and nonprofit organizations, which eliminates them from the pool of potential partner candidates, Martin said.

Another factor for the poor retention rates at big firms results from the lack of support for minority lawyers, Martin said.  Many are denied access to the network for advancement - or don't know how to access it, he said.

Martin said he was lucky in that James H. Gilliam Jr. took him "under his wing."  Martin recalls consulting Gilliam, who served as executive vice president and general counsel of Beneficial Corp. in Wilmington, on career decisions.  He said he talked to Gilliam about career matters until his friend died in 2003.

"When I came here, I never intended to stay," Martin said.

Because the right people came into Martin's life and helped move his career, he said he would like to place greater emphasis on mentoring programs and networking efforts, including holding events where professionals of color could mingle and get to know each other.

"If you don't have a mentor you're not going to survive, unless you get lucky and bring in a big client," said Crump of the National Bar Association.  "Everybody's looking to make partner and there's a lot of competition.  Everybody I have known whose been successful whether they're people of color or no color had a mentor."

Martin thinks that unless lawyers of color are involved in the community it's very difficult to develop clients and bring in the business.

Another reason Martin decided to remain in Wilmington was his marriage to Cynthia Primo, daughter of the late Rt. Rev. Quintin E. Primo Jr., former suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago and interim bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware.

Primo Martin, a former teacher, corporate executive and nonprofit manager, is spearheading a new initiative to help people of color who are new to Delaware become active in nonprofit boards, committees and other initiatives as a way of becoming involved and accepted in the larger community.

"Delaware is a very difficult place to enter, single or married," Primo Martin said.  "It's tough for someone new to break into the existing establishment.  We want to get them into a system that will provide support and opportunities to be involved in this community.

"It's a chance for people to be recognized and part of this community ... so they don't feel they have to leave."