Why Are All The Expensive Lawyers White? ​

Today's depressing internet news for black people is that they're not going to make partner at a large law firm in a major city. Well, black people probably already know that, but a new study making the rounds today emphasizes that point for those who haven't been paying attention.

African-Americans make up only 1.9% of the partners at the nation's top 100 law firms, according to American Lawyer. That number has barely changed in five years. If you are an African-American woman, you should probably not even bother. Only one of every 170 top law firm partners is a black female.

In general, the legal profession is a bad place for black people. Only 4.2% of American attorneys are black, compared with 7.1% of doctors and 8.5% of financial managers. So if you are a rich person, you are basically more likely to have a black person fix your heart so you can live long enough to spend all the money he's made for you then you are to have him write your will.

Why is this? We can't know for sure, but in law, advancing in your career has more to do with what white people think of you than anything else.

If you want to be viewed as a "great doctor" you have to, generally speaking, keep people alive. To be viewed as a "great businessman," you have to make money. He or she who has the most toys wins. But lawyers have few "bottom line" factors they can point to "prove" their worth. "Winning" cases only matters on TV.

The best Wall Street lawyers are there to minimize risk and make sure all the papers are in order for whatever barely legal transaction their clients think of next. "I helped Goldman avoid a toothless SEC inquiry by structuring this deal through a Guatemalan holding company, thereby saving them a minor inconvenience!"

Success in a large law firm has a lot to do with how your colleagues perceive you. And once you get into the realm of professional "perception" as opposed to "results," your career becomes subject to all the implicit racial biases and prejudices that hurt African-Americans generally. Those biases don't even have to metastasize into full blown "racism." A simple "that [white male] seems really smart," while "that [black female] seems to try really hard" is enough to elevate one person while holding back the other.

And that's when black people even try to play the game. Many of them do not. From the American Lawyer:

Black lawyers come into firms thinking that "the best thing is to keep their nose down and grind out good work product, which is important," says [Joseph West, president and CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association]. "But they never develop relationships beyond their cubicle, which is a critical mistake. White males immediately go about developing relationships inside and outside of the firm."

Now, other professions value relationship building. If you go to business school for instance, most of the curriculum involves teaching students how to build relationships. If you go to law school, most of your time is spent sitting quietly in your solitary library carrell and studying.

Of course, that puts minorities in a "perception" catch-22. Be the guy always at your desk: then you are the guy who isn't doing enough "facetime" to build relationships with your peers. Be the guy always willing to go out for a drink or meet up at the golf course: then you are the guy who might not have the "focus" and the drive to achieve excellence. And that is assuming that the black person is going to even be invited out for the drink or to the country club. There probably isn't a black person working in any big time corporate environment who hasn't had to deal with the insult of having a senior person walk right past them, like they are invisible, to invite some other junior white person out for a social opportunity.

As usual, all that is worse for black women. If they don't do the facetime, they are "surly" and "unapproachable." If they do, and happen to not be at their desk the moment somebody happens to walk by, their absence is visible and noted. If their bosses treat them as secretaries, and they don't complain, they are pushovers. If they do complain, they have an "attitude" problem. A pet pig being fattened for slaughter receives fewer mixed messages than an African-American female at a large law firm, though their fates are going to be sadly similar.

Equity partnerships at top law firms are not predominately white and male by accident. The prejudice holding back African-Americans in this field doesn't have to come from people who go home and play dress-up with their linen. Even "I don't have a racist bone in my body" white managers can inflict this kind of subtle prejudice against their African-American charges.

Manhattan's team, the New York Rangers, have a pretty big game tonight. I bet getting invited to Warren 77 would be better for your New York law firm partnership chances then anything you did at work today.