Big Law has made a big commitment to racial equality in the form of the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance. With tackling such big issues, as well as cynicism from some about the firms’ own diversity efforts, will they be able to shift the tide on institutional racism?
Law firms have long undertaken, and promoted, pro bono work for various causes. Sometimes they affect change, sometimes not. But a concerted effort on the level of the new Law Firm Antiracism Alliance is something novel, both from the volume of participation as well as the ambitions of what the alliance hopes to accomplish.
As of June 23, over 125 law firms have signed on (one of the partner firms, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, is hosting a running list of the firms participating) to participate in the program, which has the lofty goal of addressing not just individual assaults on equality and social justice, but the structures in place that allow those inequalities to propagate.
The alliance’s charter states its purpose as seeking to “leverage the resources of the private bar to amplify the voices of communities and individuals oppressed by racism, to better use the law as a vehicle for change that benefits communities of color and to promote racial equity in the law and in government institutions.” Again, lofty goals.
While still in its early stages, the alliance eventually hopes to coordinate its efforts via a network of social and racial justice organizations that already have the institutional knowledge of what needs to happen to affect meaningful change.
The initial touchpoint for those efforts is running through Kimberly Jones Merchant and the Racial Justice Institute and Racial Justice Network at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, based in Chicago.
Jones Merchant said the genesis of this alliance was formed as she and other advocates from the RJI and RJN provided pro bono counsel training on how it is impossible to address poverty without talking about race.
“You have to recognize that if you want to do impactful, sustainable work,” Jones Merchant said.
Jones Merchant has been an attorney for 23 years. She is familiar with both the impact attorneys and their resources and connections can have on institutions as well as how those institutions have perpetuated an unequal system that leaves many Black Americans behind.
She said that while efforts to facilitate change on a systemic level have received temporary support in the past, the disproportionately dire effects of COVID-19 on Blacks as well as the murder of George Floyd galvanized efforts in a way that had not been present previously.
“APBCO [The Association of Pro Bono Counsel] and other organizations like the EJI [Equal Justice Initiative] bring advocates to the table,” Jones Merchant said. “But they have constrained resources and can’t operate at the ‘high’ levels. Now we have those resources behind us.”
Those resources include not only the pro bono attorneys, but also their connections in corporate America and government, which could play an important role in affecting change on an institutional level.
“They [the attorneys] have a role to play in examining the system,” Jones Merchant said. “They can examine the leverage and access points,” she said.
As of now, the alliance will hold two summits in 2020 for stakeholders to share best practices as well as take the temperature of the work the various participants are doing. Those stakeholders include the social and racial justice advocates the attorneys will work with and community leaders on top of the attorneys themselves.
The alliance will face challenges as it attempts to address complex issues of systemic racism in such institutions as government, corporate and social structures.
One of those issues is the cynicism that creeps up when Big Law makes sweeping statements about how it is going to make fundamental changes to its own behavior, let alone altering that behavior in others. The legal industry has long struggled internally with equality issues, from the number of minority and LGBTQ associates to the lack of female and minority leaders at major firms. It’s hard to argue that cynicism isn’t warranted.
But the alliance is not shying away from that history. Part of the alliance’s charter states that the member firms will “acknowledge their ongoing responsibility to increase diversity, equitable access to opportunities and inclusion of people of color within their ranks.”
With high aspirations, multiple moving parts and an entrenched status quo that might not always be amenable to change, this endeavor won’t be easy, something Jones Merchant knew going in.
“We are going to have some bumps in the road,” Jones Merchant said. “It is an experiment, and both sides are going to have to make adjustments. We are going to learn from each other. Pro bono counsel will have to learn a lot about systemic racism.”