Screen Capture: discusses recent racial discrimination complaint against Davis Polk

I invite you to check out an article at entitled “Davis Polk: Racist? Or just A Cold Law Firm?”, in which Vivia Chen reminds readers that it can be pointless to institute equity measures at a law firm if the fabric of the firm itself – specifically, its attitudes toward women, visible minorities, and other marginalized groups – is not also changed.

Chen says she found it “unnerving” to read the complaint by Kaloma Cardwell against the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP: Cardwell accuses the firm, his former employer, of discriminatory treatment – and of retaliation when he complained about this treatment. Chen’s surprise at reading the complaint – which has not yet been addressed in Court – was rooted in the fact that the law firm is one that even the Plaintiff describes as taking pride in its efforts to address gender and racial inequities.

Chen surmises that the problem at the root of Cardwell’s complaint was that despite its efforts at equity, “the firm comes across as a club in which some people are admitted and others quietly frozen out—for whatever reason.” She says that Cardwell’s words rang personal bells for her.

“Like many firms, David Polk seems to operate on a vague set of unspoken rules,” Chen says. “For me, the complaint brought back unpleasant memories of how confusing and demoralizing it is to be an associate—particularly if you’re a young minority member or a woman. And at a place like Davis Polk, with its veneer of understated civility, the rules are arguably even more opaque.”

Among the indignities that Cardwell cites – which, as Chen points out, should not be endured by anyone, minority or not – are the following:

  • “Early in his career, Cardwell is left out of email chains and calls on deals that he was working on.
  • “Cardwell gets dumped from substantive assignments but never told why.
  • “Cardwell drafts research memos but never hears back from the assigning partner, despite repeated entreaties.
  • “Cardwell’s billables reach alarming lows: 2.2 hours in January 2017, 1.9 in February 2017 and 1.8 in March 2017, but no one addresses the issue.
  • “Cardwell gets assigned two partners as his ‘career advisors’ but they never contact him.”

Obviously it is not possible to answer the question posed in the title of Chen’s article (i.e., Is the firm racist or “just cold”?) without hearing the law firm’s side of this story, but Chen does raise an important issue for law firms: It is not enough to have guidelines in place that are intended to address inequities among employees; it is also necessary that all members of the firm internalize attitudes toward equity that inform their actions towards all employees at all times.

Is this an example of bias – which can often be unconscious or at least partially unconscious? Indeed, this article seems to be generous to those who are not behaving themselves in accordance with their firm values.

I would be interested to know your thoughts on this – or on any matter relating to human relations and the management of law firms. You can contact me in the comments section below, or directly via email.