The ‘D’ word is a big one in law firms – Big Law especially – as diversity issues become ever-more significant and a central part of most law firms’ recruitment drives and overall cultural set. But for Skadden Arps, Meagher & Flom receiving a preachy slapping from Al Sharpten for their alleged diversity faults has been a sharp and public reminder of the need to heed the issue.
The Brooklyn-born civil rights activist accused the prestigious firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom of “bigotry and bias”, continuing his battle with a firm that itself rebelled against anti-Jewish discrimination from many of the white-shoe New York firms that it has since either rivalled or certainly equaled in terms of commercial law clout.
A statement from Sharpen in 2020 said that Skadden, which features an image of Martin Luther King Jr in a website slideshow, had “appallingly low levels of diversity.”
The firm has rejected the charge, saying it has made “far reaching” efforts towards achieving diversity within its ranks.
But Sharpton described his dismay at the persistent lack of Black lawyers in leadership at Skadden. The firm’s New York office has 106 white partners, six Latino or Latina partners, four Asian partners, and one Black partner, according to data compiled in the NALP Directory of Legal Employers.
Sharpton’s Diversity Attack
In a letter earlier this month, Sharpton urged a trio of nonprofits — the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU — to reassess their relationships with the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, a three-decade-old program.
None of the three nonprofits immediately responded to requests for comment to the New York Daily News, which reported on the sharp, Sharpton attack.
Kathleen Rubenstein, executive director of the fellowship program, and Eric Friedman, the firm’s executive partner, replied to Sharpton in a letter dated Nov. 9, saying that they were “surprised and disheartened to receive” his letter, adding that it “appears intended to undercut the Foundation’s mission.”
“The Skadden Fellowship community has been — and continues to be — diverse in every sense of the word,” the letter said.
The pair acknowledged in their letter that Skadden has “considerable work” to do to improve its diversity, but added that the firm “has made substantial progress.”
However, Sharpton’s response was clear.
“We don’t need charity,” he said. “We need parity.”
The Diversity Issue at Elite Firms
The diversity issue is a major one for many law firms as they seek to achieve greater diversity and moreso now as many major corporates are moving to trim their fees to firms that do not have sufficient diversity within their lawyers.
Many firms are making public pronouncements relating to diversity in racial, economic and gender diversity, but the public statements do not always equal action at the office and many are facing pressure from their clients to move the needle faster.
Two recent examples of corporates doing so are Novartis and Facebook. Facebook has an annual legal spend of $USD1.6 billion in terms of fees, settlements and fines. Others are joining suit as in-house legal teams increasingly monitor outside counsel to determine how diversity plans are actually being implemented.
Big Law firms are often slow to react however as the major influencers within the firms are the long-standing lawyers who make the deals and largely control the firms, thus slowing the move towards socially-driven moves towards achieving greater law firm diversity.
Maybe Al Sharpten’s rebuke of Skadden is a call that will reverberate throughout the elite law firm ranks.