Black-owned Law Firms Weather the Storm

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BoldenWhile many reports have documented that the African-American and Latino unemployment rate is approximately double that of the country, African-American attorneys and Black-owned law firms have not been an exception.

Diversity, Inc. the leading publication on diversity and business, the caliber of client stream is vitally important. When asked in one of the organization’s recent surveys how much work minority-owned firms obtain from Fortune 1000 companies, twelve percent noted that they receive more than 75 percent of their revenue from such sources, twenty-five percent received 50-75% of their revenue from Fortune 1000 companies while forty-six received no such work at all from such companies. The respondents cited their size and lack of connections as the chief obstacles to the lack of work received from the largest corporations. Thus, it would seem that while race may not be a direct barrier, it may somehow play into the number and type of social circle one may build over time which would then lead to any number of benefits and support. 

According to E. Steve Bolden II, a partner at Mahomes Bolden & Warren PC, a law firm based in Dallas, Texas, “The economic challenges of the past couple of years presented great opportunities for growth and advancement, in my opinion, for Black owned and small/mid sized law firms, a category which many Black owned law firms fall into. If many recall, the inspiring times of 2008 as well as the economic downturn, led many talented lawyers to transition to government jobs, in-house legal positions and start law firms. Many Black owned law firms benefited from this large pool of talented lawyers.” He continues, “With the slow recovery taking place in 2011, many large law firms are regaining their footing and beginning to slowly hire again. This means that the large pool of talented lawyers will likely slowly decrease and Black owned firms will have to ensure they do not lose ground with respect to talent. The silver lining for Black owned firms, or small to mid sized firms for that matter, is that if such firms took advantage of the opportunities over the past couple of years, a foundation has been laid to build future large firm powerhouses.”

Yet, Ronda Kirk Vice President, PR/Marketing of Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association (BESLA) offers some powerful insight, “The negative effects of the recession have manifest in many ways among African American practitioners. Firms are now extremely prudent in how their resources are placed, and no longer willing to outlay their services too far in advance of retainers. In addition, many can no longer afford to provide a free initial consultation, long a common practice. Typically, you find that during those consults clients produce documents for review. Before you know it, you’re providing legal advice without collecting fees. Because we really strive to service our community, it becomes difficult for both the lawyer and the client to navigate through resolution of the matter at hand.” 

She adds, “In efforts to address the problem, firms have reduced their hourly rate, and in some cases charged for one hour and provided the second one complimentary. Barter arrangements are also under consideration more, influencing which clients are selected by firms. If a potential client has a service or talent of value to the firm or attorney, they may be in a better position of leverage for representation. In addition to down-scaling on associate offers, law firms are now hiring attorneys on contract to do document review work for unheard of hourly payments ranging from $15 to $50 per hour.”

In short, while there may be challenging times for law firms during an economic downturn; it seems that there are, as always, opportunities for those who take a savvy and unique approach to ensure America’s Black attorney pool remains as robust as possible for the moment when business begins to turn right side up again.

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