Affirmative Action, Biglaw, Labor / Employment, Minority Issues, Racism, Staff Attorneys / Discovery Attorneys, Yolanda Young

Covington and Its ‘Staff Attorney Ghetto’?

Covington Burling LLP logo Abovethelaw Above the Law blog.JPGSorry we’re late to the party on this HuffPo post, bearing the provocative title “Law Firm Segregation Reminiscent of Jim Crow.” It’s by Yolanda Young, a former staff attorney at Covington & Burling. Her claim, in a nutshell, is that Covington fills the ranks of its “staff attorney ghetto” with African-Americans, while the ranks of its partnership and partnership-track associate pool are overwhelmingly white.

Young’s post has already been discussed at Legal Blog Watch and the WSJ Law Blog. But considering how we love to fan flames of racial tension follow the issue of diversity in the legal profession so closely here at ATL, of course we’re going to cover it.

Here’s an excerpt (emphases added)….

Blacks at Covington comprise less than 5% of the Washington office’s partners and associates, but make up 30% of its staff attorneys. A peek at the firm’s website doesn’t reveal this since, unlike all other lawyers there, staff attorneys aren’t pictured. Were they, a peculiar pattern would emerge…..

Covington’s black staff attorneys (like its black partners and associates) hail from top law schools like Harvard, Duke and Georgetown while several white associates and partners attended schools like Catholic, Kentucky and Villanova (all ranked well below 50). Taken as a whole, the black staff attorneys’ average law school rank is higher than that of white staff attorneys at the firm.

Blacks bought into the notion, stressed by legal literature, ranking systems and law firm recruiting departments, that investing in a top legal education is paramount for those wishing to work at top law firms. It’s disheartening to then discover that the black student who borrows $120,000 to attend Georgetown will only earn half that of the white associate who’s paid $60,000 to attend the University of Maryland.

Covington began stockpiling its staff attorney ghetto with blacks and other minorities in 2005, shortly after the General Council [sic] 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.”

You can read the rest of the post — it’s quite lengthy — over here.

What explains our delay? We were doing the MSM thing of waiting to hear back from Covington before posting (instead of just going ahead and writing about it, which would have been the more bloggy thing to do). They just got back to us, a few minutes ago; here is the first part of their statement:

We have long been committed to equal opportunity at all levels of hiring. Our ongoing efforts show positive results. In the case of our staff attorneys, we’ve been very successful in recruiting African-American lawyers. We attribute our success to a number of factors. We offer competitive compensation and benefits, which we will likely further enhance in the near future. This includes the innovative benefit of pay for pro bono work, and our staff attorneys average about 70 hours of pro bono work a year. Our staff attorneys are a stable, productive and respected part of our workforce. Part of this stability can be attributed to our recruitment process, which has benefited from the great number of referrals from our current staff attorneys.

The rest of the Covington statement appears on the next page.

In addition to reading Young’s post and the coverage of it, check out the material on the rest of her blog for background. Props to her for coming up with such headline gems as “Think of my mouth as your next sexual partner.”

P.S. Disclaimer: Please note that Kashmir Hill, former Covington & Burling paralegal, had no role in the writing of this post.

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