Diversity lacking at Boston law firms

'Honestly, we're not where we want to be'

Nutter McClennen & Fish, one of the largest law firms in Boston, is proud to point to the fact it was founded way back in 1879 by renowned Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis. In an interview, managing partner Deborah Manus is quick to quote Brandeis: “In differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress.”

But the Nutter rhetoric clearly doesn’t reflect what’s happening on the ground at its Boston office. Of the firm’s 74 partners and 46 associates, there is not a single black or Hispanic to be found, according to data provided by the firm. Only one partner is a minority—an attorney who reports being in the “two or more races” category. There are two Asians, both of whom are associates.

“Honestly, we’re not where we want to be,” Manus says. “But it’s not for a lack of trying. We have been focused on these issues a long time.” That indeed is a common sentiment expressed by other law firms in Boston.

Diane Patrick, a partner at the largest law firm in Boston, Ropes & Gray, sums up the general state of diversity at the big law firms in Boston. “Among the major law firms in the city, it is not incredibly diverse in terms of attorneys of color,” says Patrick, wife of the governor.

This is particularly true, Patrick adds, for black and Hispanic lawyers. Patrick points to her own law firm, where she is one of two black partners and there are also two Hispanic partners out of a total of 135, according to data she provided. “I think we’re getting better, but we have a long way to go here in Boston,” she says.

Meanwhile, Patrick’s firm proudly an¬nounced in September that it is the recipient of the Thomas L. Sager Award, which “demonstrates…the highest sustained commitment to improving the hiring, retention, and promotion of women and diverse lawyers.”

Robert Harnais, vice president of the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys and a solo practitioner in Quincy, questions the efficacy of what the law firms are doing to achieve diversity. “There are many firms trying their best, but something is clearly not working,” he says. “They need to take a step back and look at the real numbers here—they’re not good by any means.”

Choate Hall & Stewart provided data revealing that it has only one black, one Asian, and one Hispanic among its 87 partners. Margaret Marshall, the head of the firm’s diversity committee and former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, declined a request for an interview to discuss the numbers.

But Wendell Taylor, a black partner at WilmerHale, is not reluctant to speak out. His firm declined to provide detailed data, but CommonWealth assembled as best it could a racial breakdown of the firm by examining the photo gallery on Wilmer¬Hale’s website. Taylor confirmed the general accuracy of the data.

Meet the Author
“They’re terrible,” he says of the numbers. Referring to all the major Boston firms, Taylor says: “We’re trying to play catch up and we’re trying to combat some preconceived notions about the city, about the community, and whether or not Boston is a place where a person of color can start a career and be happy living here.”

Taylor indicates there are no quick fixes. “Let’s be candid,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a long time before the legal community reflects our general community.”