The Nation's Leading Black Law Firms

Article excerpt

TO BE "BLUE CHIP AND BLACK." THAT'S how William Hastie, founding partner of the San Francisco law firm Arnelle & Hastie, sums up the mission of his 31-lawyer shop. It's an apt calling card for the nation's 12 leading black law firms. Once limited to handling wills, domestic spats and other low-profile cases, practices today have earned their spurs in more sophisticated, high-stakes law.

Having shed their image as walk-in mom and pop shops, today's largest black firms are building viable, etched-in-stone institutions. Their clients' names are on the lips of every American, as their bottom lines - from $2.5 million to $9 million - climb steadily upward. Works in progress, these firms share the goal of creating legacies - the sort that may some day rival Wall Street's hallowed "white-shoe" firms. (See sidebar, "The Firms At-A-Glance.")

"What we're doing is a far-fetched dream," says Alan Brothers of Chicago-based Carney & Brothers. "I did not want a job, I wanted to give jobs. I never wanted to be middle class, I wanted to be rich. So I put myself in a position to be run over by the train of opportunity and I rode the train instead."

In 1970, when BLACK ENTERPRISE published its first issue, this story wouldn't have been possible. There were just 3,379 black lawyers practicing in the U.S. then - and none of the firms on the following list even existed. Throughout the years, though, prominent African-American lawyers - from the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to A. Leon Higgenbotham, Chief Justice Emeritus, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit - have shaped American law as we know it today.

Yet even as the drive to diversify government and private industry gained momentum during the 1970s, opportunities in the legal arena lagged. If jobs in the nation's most prominent "blue chip" law firms were elusive to blacks, then the chances of launching one's own corporate firm were virtually nil. Of those who struck out on their own, most found success in such niche practice areas as civil rights, family and personal injury law. (See, "A Champion For The Underdog" and "Jones For The Defense.")

This month, as BE celebrates its 23rd anniversary, the number of African-American lawyers has topped the 25,000 mark. The profiles of the 12 firms that accompany this story show not only how blacks have successfully tackled the practice of law, but how they've mastered the business of law by attracting an elite clientele.

The 12 firms cited in this report have managed to be on the cutting edge of their profession. For starters, many have achieved true racial integration - a feat which majority firms have failed to accomplish. Benefiting from a unique blend of talents, they've recruited seasoned attorneys displaced from the big firms, while attracting others yearning to work on the front lines for a diverse company. And, like other smaller firms, where pay scales are about 20% less than at the majors, junior attorneys get the kind of experience that's the envy of their law school peers.

Perhaps the key to their success has to do with the areas of law in which these firms practice. Though most bill themselves as "full-service," a glimpse through their resumes shows that the majority specialize in trial law - a prudent strategy, given our increasingly litigious society. In general, these black firms are wisely moving towards specialization; such areas as environmental law and bankruptcy are particularly hot among the firms featured in this issue.

The Great Client Chase

The '90s should be good to black lawyers and law firms. in addition to the 12 firms listed in this report, several smaller practices of like caliber are increasing their ranks and clout. (Two notables: Jackson & Associates in Los Angeles and Thomas, Kennedy, Sampson & Patterson in Atlanta.) As more black elected officials enter office, minority-owned law firms are getting a better shot at lucrative government work, including municipal bond underwritings. …