Boutique Law Firms, Minority Issues

White Guy Gets a Promotion — And Suddenly It’s News

Here’s a headline from the ABA Journal this morning:

African-American Law Firm Elects Unusual CEO

Unusual, you say? Well, when you click on that link, aren’t you expecting something really outside the box? Maybe they picked a CEO with no private sector experience? Maybe they picked a CEO who used to be in the CIA? Maybe they picked Triumph the Insult Comic Dog? You know, something “unusual.”

But no, here’s the interesting twist to this story:

Detroit-based firm Lewis & Munday, which was founded in 1972 by David Baker Lewis and two African-American partners, named partner Blair Person as its new president and CEO this month… some might find it curious to learn that Person is white.

That’s it? A law firm elected a white guy to be CEO. That’s news? That’s unusual?

Wait, let me back up a second. Aside from the fact that black people founded the place, what the hell makes this an “African-American” law firm? I don’t think you’d see a headline in 2010 calling Wachtell a “Jewish” law firm. And what in God’s name is unusual about black owners selecting a white person to run their business? In short, what the hell is going here?

Underlying the ABA Journal post is a story from the Detroit Free Press. While deciding to call Lewis & Munday a “law firm” (instead of an “African-American law firm”), the Free Press seems similarly surprised by the new promotion:

This month, in another unusual step — somehow fitting for a firm proud of pioneering diversity in the legal profession — Lewis and his partners elected Blair Person as the new president and CEO of the Lewis & Munday law firm.

Person is white.

In an interview at the main office on the 24th floor of Detroit’s First National building, Person, Lewis and longtime partner Reuben Munday said Person’s race never came up in discussions about who would replace Lewis as CEO of the firm, which is still majority-owned by African-American lawyers.

Did I wake up in bizzaro world? Why is this news?  Does white America really sit around and think that if/when black people are in power, they will reflexively favor their own race to the exclusion of others? Do white people think Obama’s real advisors are Cory Booker and Oprah, with Rahm Emanuel and Hillary Clinton just there for show?

If Davis Polk chose a black guy to be its new leader, would the story be “WASP-y Law Firm Elects Random Negro”?

No, that wouldn’t be the story. The story would be: “[Random Negro] Becomes First African-American CEO of Davis Polk.” And you’d understand that story: black managing partners are rare in the Am Law 100. (Are there any? If I’m forgetting someone, please email us.) Historically African-Americans have been excluded from leadership positions at top firms, yada yada, “racial progress,” and bam, you’d have a story.

But if you flip it back around to the instant case, you see none of these traditional story points. Are white managing partners rare? No. Have whites historically been excluded from firm leadership positions? No. Have whites historically been excluded from the particular firm of Lewis & Munday? Uh … that would be a “no” as well:

Person, 54, joined the firm in 1985 and heads its real estate practice. He said he was the fourth or fifth white attorney on what was then a firm of 13 lawyers.

Does somebody want to tell me which “white” law firm had non-whites make up 30% of their attorneys — in 1985? It doesn’t look like Lewis & Munday has any sort of history with racial exclusion.

So, again, what’s the story here?

One can only assume that there is a belief that black-owned enterprises are exclusionary towards whites. Therefore it’s a story because it’s “unusual” for a black-owned business to not be exclusionary towards whites in leadership positions.

The problem with that belief is that it’s generally unsupported by facts. From the Freedom Riders, to the NAACP, to Howard University, to — I don’t know — BET, we’ve seen opportunities for whites who want to work at these organizations. Off the top of my head, the only well-known, black-owned operations that have been overtly antithetical to whites are the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam. But the Black Panthers never represented the mainstream of the black community, and the Nation of Islam [redacted Nation of Islam joke because they scare the living hell out of me].

I’m sure that, conceptually, the good people at the Detroit Free Press thought that this was a feel-good story of racial progress in our time. But that concept only makes sense if you start from an assumption that a black-owned law firm would naturally favor African-American leadership. The brief history of black-owned operations in this country doesn’t support such an assumption.

Instead, it would seem unusual for a black-owned business to adopt anything other than an integrated approach to making money.

UPDATE: A few of you have emailed in naming some of the African-American managing partners at top firms (check out the comments). Karl Racine at Venable stands out as a guy I should have remembered off the top of my head. I knew there were a few. It kind of underscores my point here: it’s not all that unusual for a law firm leader to be a member of a different race than the majority of firm they represent. At least not in 2010.

African-American Law Firm Elects Unusual CEO [ABA Journal]
Law firm gets a different face as chief [Detroit Free Press]

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