America's Leading Black Law Firms

Black Enterprise, August 1993 | Go to article overview

America's Leading Black Law Firms


From New York to California, these 12 black-owned practices are at the top of their game.

Two years ago, Arnelle & Hastie vacated its low-rise, low-profile headquarters and set up shop in a new, glitzy tower on Market Street, one of San Francisco's power arteries. It was a move that paralleled the firm's professional direction: up.

Founded as a scrappy two-desk firm during the height of Republican rule, in eight years Arnelle & Hastie has managed to earn the kind of national reputation that other small firms only dream about. "We decided from the start that we would be a corporate firm," says Jesse Arnelle. "As it turns out, that was a good decision." Arnelle & Hastie's full-service offerings - from public finance to business litigation - don't hurt, neither does its A-list client roster and offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento, New York, Philadelphia and Cherry Hill, N.J.

Despite such trappings, Jesse Arnelle, 59, and William Hastie, 46, are incredibly grounded: Arnelle's office is littered with Penn State memorabilia; Hastie makes his office rounds sans jacket, carrying his own coffeepot.

Things, though, weren't always so comfy. Hastie, who like Arnelle, earned his legal spurs in the area of public interest law, recalls the days when corporate clients treated them "with politeness, and nothing else." But the firm took on cases that nobody else would touch, and stunned clients with their court-room skills.

Steady billings from companies like Ford, DuPont and, most significantly, RJR Nabisco (whom they've defended in the controversial cigarette wars) have helped fuel Arnelle & Hastie. The firm also billed nearly $500,000 with the RTC in 1992 and ranks among the top ten bond counsels in the state. Today, after a dip in staff ranks during the recession, the 36-attorney firm is hiring new lawyers in the hot areas of bankruptcy and environmental law. The goal: to expand the client base and pursue more transactional work.

Both Arnelle and Hastie, who earned law degrees from Dickinson University and U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall, respectively, are big fans of joint-ventures and co-counsel work with other firms - arrangements that sometimes lean remarkably in their favor. Last February, for instance, a majority firm invited them in on a 50-50 joint venture with the RTC. The deal sounded swell to Arnelle & Hastie - untilthe agency rejected the project terms and requested that they handle 90% of the work. Irked,the white firm walked away from the deal, leaving Arnelle & Hastie as exclusive counsel in the matter.

Aside from steamrolling the big guys, owning a firm, rather than working for one, has other benefits. After a long relationship with Wells Fargo Bank, Arnelle now sits on its board. As for the intangible rewards, Hastie sums it up: "It's nice to be in a place where you don't have to explain your own jokes."

ARRINGTON & HOLLOWELL, Atlanta

In a business where personality and connections are at least as important as degrees from the right schools and an office on the right street, few lawyers - black or white - have launched firms with as much going for them as Arrington & Hollowell.

When the practice opened in 1982, Marvin S. Arrington had already been voted one of Atlanta's top 25 lawyers by Atlanta Magazine, he was president of the Atlanta City Council and chairman of the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium Authority. A consummate politician, he had the direct-dial numbers of nearly every leader in town.

Donald Lee Hollowell, a renowned civil rights attorney who counselled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, agreed to join Arrington after a distinguished career with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Together, they cut an awesome profile.

Despite this, Arrington & Hollowell started with a work ethic they dubbed catch'em and hold'em." "Anybody who walked in, we tried to catch them, hold them, and represent them," Arrington explains, with a laugh. …

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