By Olivia Clarke
Langdon Neal 's grandfather, Earl, aspiredto be an attorney despite the fact that there were very few black lawyers in the 1930s.
"He went to law school at night and during the day he worked as a redcap in the train station in downtown Chicago," Neal said.
But when he started his legal practice in 1938, almost no commercial buildings in the Loop would rent to black people. And since minority-owned law firms did not really exist, and most firms did not hire minority lawyers, he went out on his own as a solo practitioner. He started his practice above a storefront, and handled general legal services for those living on the South Side.
In the mid-1950s, Langdon Neal's father and grandfather practiced law together. A client hired them to litigate a case in Lincoln, Ill. They traveled there to try the case, but they couldn't find a hotel within 100 miles that would rent rooms to black people. They were forced to drive hours every day back and forth to the courtroom until the trial was over.
Fast-forward to 2009.
Discrimination may not generally be as overt today for minority lawyers as it was for Neal's grandfather and father, but many minority lawyers still face ongoing struggles because of their race or ethnicity.
Minority-owned law firms give non-white lawyers a chance to practice law in a place that welcomes diversity and encourages the advancement of lawyers irrespective of their race or ethnicity.
These firms often act as training grounds for newer, diverse lawyers; while other, more senior minority lawyers start these firms so that they can own a business, and call the shots in their legal practice.
But these firms face challenges as they attempt to build their businesses in a world where it is still more common to work with a white lawyer.
Leaders from some of the local minority- owned law firms describe some of the challenges they've faced in building their careers and how they see diversity today.
"Minority lawyers always have to prove themselves, that they have the talents and abilities that the larger legal community possesses," said Neal, managing partner and owner of Neal & Leroy, the law firm his grandfather started 71 years ago. "In many circumstances, minority lawyers are held to higher standards of excellence when they work for majority corporate clients. All those things present challenges in the everyday practice of law for minority lawyers.
"Each year that passes, I think the larger business community becomes more and more receptive to giving opportunities to lawyers irrespective of their race," he said. "And so, each year that passes, there are more opportunities to represent a diverse client mix, and to establish yourself in the mainstream legal community."
The first lawyer Manuel "Manny" Sanchez encountered was Perry Mason on Channel 9.
Despite being raised in a blue-collar family as the son of Mexican immigrants, when he saw Mason wearing a nice suit, acting in front of an audience called a jury, and winning every case, he knew he wanted to be a lawyer.
Sanchez's dreams didn't stop at practicing law. Twenty-two years ago he decided that he wanted to be one of the most "well-credentialed, well-thought-of Latino leaders."
He said the post-Baby Boomer corporate leaders were beginning to understand the value of having strong relationships with Latino business leaders, and he saw the potential for a successful minority-owned business enterprise.
He founded in 1987 what is today Sanchez Daniels & Hoffman, a certified minority- owned law firm with 38 lawyers.
"I asked myself in 1987 who the 10 most prominent Hispanic leaders were," Sanchez said. "I considered myself well-read in terms of ethnic magazines, and I started out naming quickly three people, but I couldn't name five. ... There was a dearth of Latino business leaders that were embraced by the general community. I saw this as an opportunity. I wanted to help fill that void."
To reach this goal, he created a mission statement and business plan for the firm, and got into what he considered the most prestigious Chicago business organizations - The Executives' Club of Chicago, The Economic Club of Chicago, and The Commercial Club of Chicago. Through those clubs he met more members of the business community.
"I'm thrilled to tell you that I made the right decision, and I look back on it with no regrets," said 61-year-old Sanchez about becoming a lawyer. "Instead of looking to Perry Mason, there are Latino business leaders and lawyers like myself who [young people] can look up to today and view as role models."
Diversity in the legal profession, he said, "is very, very, very slowly improving. There has been no remarkable enhancement in the last decade, but there is enhancement, albeit it's at a very slow pace. That is particularly true among the top 100 law firms."
A historical perspective
About 50 years ago, black lawyers' access to the legal business was limited to representing poor and middle-class black people, said James D. Montgomery, Sr., head of the Chicago office of Cochran, Cherry, Givens, Smith & Montgomery.
Whenever a fairly wealthy black person needed a lawyer he went with a majority law firm, he said. Minority lawyers created "bread-and- butter practices," handling areas like domestic violence and criminal defense. But that type of practice does not always financially sustain itself, he said.
"The first discrimination I described to you was the inability to get the kind of business you needed because people perceived you as inferior because of your race or ethnicity," said 77-year-old Montgomery. "The perception among African-American people was that it was best to get a white lawyer because a white lawyer knows the judge."
Majority law firms began to hire black lawyers in the '80s when the city elected a black mayor. Many black-owned law firms started popping up, but they still had trouble maintaining a steady business, he said.
"Like everything else, it's growing much too slow for my liking," Montgomery said about diversity in the legal community. "Firms like mine have done well and survived. We've left the bread-and-butter law business and gone into handling major plaintiffs cases that involve death or serious injury.
"I've known for many years that it's been a tougher road to hoe for me as an African- American lawyer," he said. "I've had to do the kind of work to generate both a good reputation and some public attention, usually working for free. I would venture to say that over time in my career, I felt as an African- American lawyer I had to prove myself."
While the judicial landscape has improved, with more non-white judges, the large law firms still do not do enough to improve diversity, Montgomery said.
Large law firms have a tendency to pick off the cream of the crop in black graduates from universities like Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago and pay them large salaries like everyone else, he said. But when it comes time for the partnership track, they fall by the wayside or become non-equity partners.
The legal community needs minority-owned law firms because they serve a segment of the population that's not always represented, Montgomery said.
"I don't think you can adequately serve the African-American community without having African-American law firms, because you are dealing with an impoverished community," he said.
"You are dealing with people who would otherwise be under-served or un-served. Large law firms simply don't deal with that level of business."
Beating the isolation
Walter Jones, Jr., vice president of the 25- lawyer firm of Pugh, Jones, Johnson & Quandt, grew up in a Chicago police family. His father was one of the first black police sergeants in Chicago.
Jones experienced discrimination early in his career when he went to apply to the U.S. Attorney's Office. He went to the office and handed the receptionist his resume, and she handed it back, saying, "We don't have any black lawyers here."
Around that time the City of Chicago was fighting lawsuits claiming it wasn't hiring enough minority police officers and fire fighters, he said. All departments and public offices were being scrutinized, so when Jones told a friend who was executive assistant in the office what happened with his resume, action was taken and his resume was taken seriously. He was hired as one of two black attorneys - Carol Moseley Braun was the other lawyer.
"It was very difficult," Jones said. "At that time there were only 4,000 African-American lawyers in the United States when I graduated in '72. ... You always knew you were in a struggle. To be quite frank, I just put it down as another one of those hurdles."
Stephen Pugh did not meet a black lawyer until he went to law school. He was the first in his family to attend college and professional school.
When Pugh started practicing at Chapman and Cutler in 1978, he knew of one minority partner in a Chicago-area firm. He was the firm's first minority professional, even though the firm has existed since 1913.
And when he made partner in 1983, he was the first minority associate to make partner at the firm, he said.
"When I became partner at Chapman and Cutler, there were only five of us in Chicago, period," Pugh said. "Most of us didn't really know each other like that. We were still struggling and trying to make our way in these law firms. .
"There were always people of good will who helped me at Chapman and Cutler. You have two or three who really want to try to see that it works. The majority of the lawyers over there were not concerned about that. But you always have a few and that always helps."
During that time, Pugh said he dealt with isolation on a regular basis.
"Even though you had a few friends here and there, the isolation was pretty tough," he said. "And that's the thing that would cause a lot of my contemporaries to not make it. Many lawyers just simply went to a big law firm, had great credentials from some of the best national schools. You see them go there and then two years or three years later they are gone. It is the catch-and-release program."
When Pugh left in 1991 to open what is today Pugh, Jones, Johnson & Quandt, many people felt the system had failed.
People questioned why he would beat the odds and become a partner and then give it up, he said.
He said he left because "of the proverbial glass ceiling that Hillary [Clinton] talked about. I don't think it was glass for the diverse, minority, and black attorneys. I think you would probably call it a granite ceiling. You couldn't even see through it. This is it. I had gotten to that first level, so that's pretty good. For me it's a matter of, I thought I had other things I could contribute business-wise, law-wise."
Elitism within the profession often creates unfair situations for those who are not white, Pugh said. In the 1970s and 1980s, diverse lawyers always ended up on the bottom of the list for being hired or reaching partnership, he said.
Minority lawyers today often face tougher experiences in developing client business because those relationships develop over time, but minorities aren't always given the time to develop them, said Pugh, president of his firm.
The layoffs in today's large firms impact non-white lawyers more, percentage-wise, he said.
"Today, I'd say we've taken steps backwards," Pugh said. "Just like in any situation you've heard about, not just the law, in a business, industry, usually the last in are the first fired. . It began to open up because of the corporations' ability and desire to have more diverse outside counsel. That was starting to catch some momentum, but the economics of the times, the way law firms are now laying off and firing and downsizing or whatever you want to call it, really affects the minority attorneys, the attorneys of color."
A change of mindset must occur in the business world, he said. If more Fortune 500 companies promote female or non-white employees to leadership positions, that will impact the type of lawyers they want to hire.
"Law has a particular problem and we've got to break that down more than anything else," Pugh said. "It's the elitist idea that only the best of the best can be the best lawyers. . I think the law doesn't necessarily require that the only person who can be a successful lawyer writing briefs, getting clients, doing the business, thinking about the legal issues, are the people from the top national schools.
"Once you begin to break down that idea, maybe you will take a chance on other people, and the system opens up and we begin to judge people by their talents, and your clients will do the same thing."
Pugh and Jones said their firm wanted to create a diversity model where lawyers of all backgrounds can work together - not just black lawyers or Latino lawyers.
"We don't sell diversity," Pugh said. "We sell our experience first."
Minority-owned firms motivate diverse young people, and show them it is possible to practice law, Jones said.
Improvement of diversity in the legal community needs to be client-generated, he said.
"I think that you have to get past the lip service," Jones said. "The only way this really happens is, no lawyer gives up business that they don't have to give up. It has to be client- generated.
"It is never going to happen unless you get a client like Wal-Mart, which has been extremely serious about this whole thing, that looks at the lawyers they hire, and says, 'Look this is not going to happen unless this case is properly staffed. Find a quality team that looks like America and is diverse.'"
When Eileen Letts and Martin Greene decided to form Greene and Letts in 1990 they were already at a minority-owned law firm. But they disagreed with their firm's senior partners and wanted to start something new.
Running a minority-owned law firm comes with its challenges, they said.
For example, a corporation may select a larger firm over their firm and then cite the larger firm's diversity as one of the reasons for selecting it, they said.
But then upon investigation of that larger firm's diversity, Greene and Letts found that the larger firm was not a very diverse place, but its statistics were good enough for the client.
Other times, a client may second-guess their firm's advice and turn to the white lawyers also working the matter to get their opinions - even if they are less experienced. Before long, Letts said, that matter gets turned over to the majority firm and their minority-owned firm becomes second fiddle.
Some corporations would rather work with a larger firm, and even if that firm gets a poor result on a matter, the corporations will hire them again. But if a minority-owned law firm handles a matter and doesn't get the desired result, they will not be hired again. It's one and done, they said.
"We can do the work as well as or better than a large firm, get the same result, and do it on a much more cost-effective basis, but it's still a struggle to keep the work or to get more work," Greene said.
"You find yourself, even though you've done a fine job, struggling to get more work from the client. As you can tell from us doing this for 20 years, we don't give up. But we'd like to get to the point where we would have more advocates in-house."
These struggles occur because some clients are still more comfortable working with people who look like them, and who they perceive to have the same interests, Letts said. It just seems easier, she said. Minority lawyers and firms need people willing to step outside their comfort zone.
"We certainly don't want to appear to be unhappy with our plight in life," Letts said. "We are lawyers. We have a good practice. We do okay. But I think that in giving an honest answer, these experiences have occurred. They don't occur all the time. They don't happen all the time. There are situations where, because we are a minority-owned law firm, we have gotten work because of our status. We are very appreciative of that. It is just a continuous struggle."
Back in the '70s, Greene said, he started out in a medium-size law firm. He experienced problems with getting work assignments that matched his skill level, while white lawyers who were newer and less experienced got better assignments.
He said he'd like to say that that doesn't happen today, but it does.
"While some people would like to say, 'There is an African-American president so everything is cured,' they know it's not true and everyone else knows it's not true," Greene said. "There have been changes and advancements. There are now more [minority] partners in majority firms and [minority] associates in majority firms than there used to be. It just seems to me that the numbers should be much greater by now, and it shouldn't be such a struggle for that kind of change to take place.
"And, likewise for minority-owned firms. It should not be as much work as it takes for us to get the work we do get, given our track record, our skills, our abilities," Greene said. "We have to work hard at this every day for client development. We are not complaining about it, but it's not been made an easy path. I doubt it's been made a level path. But it's a path we will continue to trod upon."
Gery Chico, senior partner of the 20-lawyer firm of Chico & Nunes, said there needs to be more minority-owned firms, and they need to grow to a larger scale.
In the future, more female and minority lawyers will be in prominent positions in the largest law firms, he said. At the same time, businesses will have more minority representatives in key positions who have the ability to retain counsel, he said.
"We need opportunities to commence relationships with companies and larger companies so that we have opportunities to show what we can do - the superior quality of legal work we do, and the innovation to bring solutions to tough problems," Chico said.
"My hope is to give people the opportunity to practice with the best lawyers in the marketplace, and to bring younger people along so they can be everything they have the potential to be."
Clients would rather go with the "safe pick" than take a chance on a minority-owned firm, said Maurice Grant, a founder of the five-lawyer firm of Grant Schumann. The other challenge is that in-house lawyers often do not look like the black lawyers at his firm, he said. The in- house lawyers who do look like those in his firm often do not make the final decision about who they can hire.
Any in-house department in a Fortune 1000 company typically spends 3 percent or less of its legal budget on minority-owned firms, Grant said. But many of those same businesses generate much larger percentages of their revenues from the minority community every single day.
"It is like the mainstream firms have a 100- year jump on us, and we are expected to make up 100 years at once," he said. "That is blatantly and inherently unfair. ... For a typical Fortune 1000, they are not going to use a minority firm unless the pressure is applied."
Neal, from Neal & Leroy, said the profession by its nature is competitive.
It's about individual achievement so no one has a chance to look at the profession as a whole and consider what needs to be done to grapple with the national issues impacting it, he said.
"Unfortunately the legal community, probably as a profession, is somewhat behind the times in opening up their profession to diverse groups," Neal said. "If you look at the number of minority lawyers that are at non-minority law firms, it's very, very rare and scarce. The opportunities to work in law firms, both medium and large, and to attract both medium and large clients, those opportunities are still not that prevalent for minority lawyers.
"I think the legal community has tried to take steps to improve it, but, unfortunately, the institutions and culture of the practice of law make it difficult to have broad changes in the way business is conducted. It's an aircraft carrier that does not move quickly."