Molly and Me: Black Vs White Law Firms

This week the HBO show Insecure explored the differences between predominantly black and white law firms in the episode "Familiar Like".

Although I have written about workplace cultures, from the value of criticism to the myth of culture fit, the life in law firms is a unique beast and watching this weeks episode reminded me of this.


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Molly

The episode showed the character Molly, is a lawyer, who is proficient in  her work but kept getting overlooked for promotion in her previous law firm- which was predominantly white. She tries to get into the white boys club by attending sport games, going to drinks, but hears she has "potential" and was not quite ready for the next level. Molly then decides to make a move to a black law firm, and this episode shows how it isn't quite what she expected.


So whats the difference?

I started my legal career in  an international law firm, that became a national law firm and international again. Its a long story. In any event it was a predominantly white law firm with over 300 lawyers- so it could be considered a mid to large size law firm. I worked in departments that had a white lead, but within that were smaller teams led by a few black lawyers.

My first time working in a black firm, was when I started one and from that experience I would like to highlight 3 main differences that Molly alluded in the episode.

1) Access To Resources:

Over drinks, Molly complains to her friends that the black law firm doesn't have an electronic courier service, keeps files in her office and that she has to manually bill her hours- all of which are an inconvenience to her. I had all of these complaints when I started Lawgistics Legal Consultants, so I had to find a solution.

One of the questions we ask during interviews with our Werk Crush Wednesdays for The Legal Werk  is "What apps do you use to increase productivity?", because we understand the role of technology in practice. The use of legal tech is on the rise- helping lawyers to find accurate and relevant research, manage billing and invoicing, sign documents electronically (eg Docu-sign) and overall helps to increase efficiency in the provision of legal services.

The challenge is that technological resources or even additional offsite storage cost money. Money that black law firms won't have to spend for simple convenience. In our firm, Lawgistics Legal Consultants, we share Lexis Nexis credentials with another colleague- the way you share a Netflix account with friends.



I have a suggestion that may seem counter cultural to law firms, where we are taught to view the next lawyer as your competitor rather than your collaborator. Would it be totally insane for bigger law firms to subsidize the costs of the various licences for smaller law firms? It is generosity, ploughing back into the fraternity to increase the overall level of performance of all lawyers!

Is that such a radical idea?


2) Culture 

On Mollys first day, the senior partner of the firm welcomes her heartily at the door and during lunch, one of the senior partners invites her for a walk and then offers to help her on a matter. She enjoys the friendliness and "family" feel of it all, but takes it too far when she makes a snide comment about the senior partner running late for a meeting.

In my time in a big  law firm, my discussions with white partners or even some colleagues were a little strained and solely confined to work. The usual topic was around my hair, which was often inspired by Rihanna and as a lawyer- she may not have been the most appropriate muse.

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I had this exact hairstyle 


The black professionals were often chastising me for being so audacious with my style, and white people found it amusing, yet while they complimented it, they were not giving me work. I felt safe within the nucleus of the black teams, but there was a familial feel that wasn't professional at times. Where the white partners would let us call them by their first names, at times the black partners would prefer to be addressed by their title, or even "Ma".

On the other hand, because there were limited opportunities to create familiarity with the white partners- it was difficult to progress and get promoted. We would see the white partners and associates that spent weekends and shared family dinners together getting the promotions- even if they weren't the highest billing associates.

This is one of the causes of high staff turnover among younger legal professionals (44% of associates leave their firms after 3 years*), and it is usually interesting to see those people who were frustrated in large law firms, going on to to thrive and succeed elsewhere. This confirms the problems was not with the person, but with the environment.


3) Perceptions
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Would you appoint Nelson Mandela was your lawyer in 2018?

We cannot deny the perceptions that exist about a life in big law- there is even an entire site dedicated to meme-fying the distress suffered by junior lawyers. And why do people put themselves through this? We all know what happens in the big law firms, but the allure of money and prestige are more attractive than the inevitable pain.

A lawyer that comes from a big, white law firm has the benefit of being perceived as competent and it is up to them to mess up. Whereas a lawyer from a black firm isn't so easily trusted and rather has to build up their credibility. I have seen this first hand after leaving the large law firm and trying to talk to the same clients I was servicing while in the firm. The questions are usually "do you have the capacity to do X?"/ "how many years experience do you have in X?" / "Who are your clients?", which I did not hear when I would go to meetings with a senior partner as an associate in the large law firms. Some people are not interested in being sized up and would rather focus on the end results of doing work and getting paid so they prefer to stay in the big law firm to enjoy the positive perceptions.

Kelli, a friend of Mollys makes a comment that the problem is black people perpetuate negative perceptions about each other, because we do not trust each other. As black people we should be patrons of each others' businesses, but lets not patronise each other. I think it is essential to have a feedback loop so that genuine issues can be highlighted and resolved without bad mouthing each other. I recently worked with a correspondent attorney in another city and was sorely disappointed by the service he provided and defensive stance when I approached the issue. I made the decision that I will not bad mouth him, but I will no longer use his services or refer anyone to him.

In closing, this episode of Insecure, although lighthearted and clothed in humour was addressing very important topics in the legal fraternity. And its all up to us, as the custodians of the profession, do we want to do the legal werk to make resources more equitable and accessible for all? to the change the culture in firms? and decry negative perceptions around the profession in general?




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