This year’s “Attorneys at the Top” issue of TNJ profiles five Black lawyers who are partners at Black-owned law firms and at major corporate law firms. They are part of an elite group of lawyers whose small number is growing at a snail’s pace, particularly among Black men. Floyd Weatherspoon, professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, explains. “The struggles and barriers faced by African-American males to enter and advance into the legal field are almost insurmountable,” he concludes in his article “The Status of African-American Males in the Legal Profession: A Pipeline of Institutional Roadblocks and Barriers.” “Even with a history of legal victories to eliminate racial exclusion and segregation of African-American males from law school, the number of African-American males entering the legal profession appears to have peaked.”
Of the thousands of lawyers in the United States, only about 3 percent are Black, most of them are women, and most do not own their own firm, says National Law Group, a nationwide legal services company made up entirely of Black lawyers. Among that 3 percent, partners in corporate law firms are hard to come by. The National Association of Legal Career Professionals reports in its 2011-2012 Directory of Legal Employers that among all of the employers listed in the directory, just 6.56 percent of partners were minorities, 2.04 percent were minority women, and many offices had no minority partners at all. “The fact that 6.56 percent of partners as a whole are minorities does not mean that minorities make up 6 percent of partners at each of the more than 1,300 offices and firms represented in the directory. In fact, about 29 percent of the offices/firms reported no minority partners, and 57 percent reported no minority women partners … Minority women continue to be the most dramatically underrepresented group at the partnership level, a pattern that holds across all firm sizes and most jurisdictions.”
Asian-American law partners are somewhat more prevalent than their Black and Hispanic counterparts, NALP says. The presence of Black and Hispanic partners generally increases with firm size. At the city level, the presence of Black partners is highest in Atlanta, followed by Richmond, Va., and Detroit. The presence of Black female partners exceeds 1 percent in just nine cities: Atlanta, Detroit, Ft. Lauderdale/West Palm Beach, Miami, Nashville, Raleigh, Tampa, Washington, D.C., and Wilmington, Del. Except for Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Miami, total partner counts in these cities are a few hundred or less. Black partners account for less than 0.5 percent of partners in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Minneapolis; Orlando; Orange County, Calif.; and San Diego. “Law firms speak loudly regarding their desire to have diversity [but they] continue with the hire-someone-like-me syndrome,” Weatherspoon says.
Ralph C. Dawson, Esq.
Partner, Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P.
New York City
Super lawyer Ralph C. Dawson, a partner at Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P., has spent more than 35 years in the practice of labor and employment law. His other practice areas are business litigation and, more recently, public finance. Dawson was designated a “super lawyer” this year by the rating service of Super Lawyers Magazine, which tracks outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas that have a high degree of peer recognition and professional achievement.
Dawson knew he wanted to be a lawyer early in life. Even as a young man, he showed deep interest in political, legal and historical matters. He concedes that his choice of a career in law was influenced by the tumult of the mid-20th century. Dawson lived through the pulse of the tense racial environment of the 1950s and recalls a billboard in his old Charleston, S.C., neighborhood that read “Help Impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren”— a backlash against Warren for his court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 that ended segregated education in the United States. “[The billboard] of course, was a reference to Warren’s role in Brown …so that also increased my interest in being a lawyer and trying to protect the rights of individuals,” Dawson says.
From that and subsequent experiences, Dawson sees an urgent need for people of color to pursue the legal profession, to be constantly vigilant in protecting the rights of various groups. Attorneys have a critical role to play in assuming positions that can help to improve access to opportunities for persons of color in all fields, he contends. “The law, in many respects, is the ultimate arbiter of equal treatment of justice in our society, and as a group of people who have been traditionally disadvantaged in this society, both by legal segregation and then by informal segregation at times, it’s very important that lawyers — that Black lawyers — play a significant role in the profession,” says Dawson.
Dawson’s activities beyond the legal arena also speak to his desire to serve society as best he can. He is a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee, served as a super delegate to the party’s national convention in 2008, and appeared and commented in print and on broadcast news shows on important aspects of that year’s election campaign. Dawson also played a prominent role in resolving the disputes over the effect of primaries held in Florida and Michigan in violation of Democratic Party rules in 2008. “Although we’ve made great progress in this society, we see that today we are facing some things that we thought we were past, like, for example, voter suppression in elections,” says Dawson.
One of the most memorable moments of Dawson’s career stems from a case in which his client, an employer, was being accused of age discrimination along with another company. “In a hotly contested seven-day trial where the plaintiff contended that both companies were liable, we convinced the jury to render a verdict that our client was not liable, even as it found that the other company was liable for millions of dollars in damages. It was a great reminder of the impact that effective presentation can have on the outcome of a trial,” says Dawson.
Dawson’s advice to young lawyers: develop relationships with potential clients as well as your craft.
Joseph M. Drayton, Esq.
Partner, Intellectual Property Litigation, Cooley L.L.P.
New York City
Joseph M. Drayton is a partner in Cooley L.L.P.’s litigation department and a member of the firm’s Intellectual Property practice group. Drayton, who joined Cooley as a first-time partner in 2012, has a broad range of experience litigating patent, intellectual property and complex commercial matters. He also counsels clients in all aspects of intellectual property and has represented leading companies in the media, telecommunications, banking, pharmaceutical, electronics and retail industries.
“Cooley has great leadership, vision and people, as well as a leading platform for my practice,” explains Drayton about his decision to join Cooley, a leading Silicon Valley firm with an international portfolio of clients in technology, life sciences, clean tech, real estate, financial services, retail and energy. Prior to joining Cooley, Drayton practiced with Kaye Scholer L.L.P., which provides counsel and legal services on a range of matters to clients in the United States, Britain, the European Union and China. He was also an engineer with Baltimore Gas & Electric before earning his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. For Drayton, a law school education gave him an opportunity to “be a better asset to his family and community.”
“Joe is a first-rate trial attorney who is making a name for himself in IP litigation circles,” Michael Rhodes, chair of Cooley’s litigation department, said soon after Drayton joined the firm. Drayton has been recognized as one of the nation’s top patent lawyers. He was recently named to the IAM Patent1000 list, a recognition that honors the top patent practitioners in the world. In 2010, he was named among the National Bar Association’s Nation’s Best Advocates: 40 Lawyers Under 40. Practicing in intellectual property offers him “a fusion of law and engineering,” explains the former engineer. “I love that it allows me to explore cutting-edge technology and still be an advocate for my clients, while exercising my problem-solving skills.”
Drayton is a strong supporter of professional organizations, both locally and nationally. “Being a bar leader has been one of the most rewarding professional experiences,” he says. Currently, he serves as chair of the Intellectual Property Litigation Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section of Litigation. As chair, he is instrumental in providing members with resources and programs that help them to become better legal professionals. Drayton is also the immediate past president and a board member of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association and serves on the board of the National Bar Association, New York County Lawyers Association and the Practicing Attorneys for Law Students, Inc.
Drayton reached a pinnacle in his career in 2011 when he successfully served as trial counsel for Pier 1 Imports in the Eastern District of Texas. He gave the closing summation and obtained a patent defense jury verdict that saved his client at least $38 million in royalties. During his 15-year career, Drayton practiced in both state and federal courts and at the International Trade Commission. He learned a valuable lesson during that time: “Emotional intelligence is just as important as drafting the best briefs. Law is a service and a people-oriented business; and to succeed, lawyers should merge legal skills and emotional intelligence to become well-rounded practitioners.” For those new to law, Drayton advises, “Opportunity will come your way, so use each day to become your best in order to be prepared for it.”
Angie M. Hankins, Esq.
Partner, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan L.L.P
New York City
Angie M. Hankins made history when, in 2008, she became the first African-American partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan L.L.P., a 136-year-old, New York City-based law firm with a roster of blue-chip clients that include investment and commercial banks, insurance and reinsurance companies, mutual funds, multinational corporations, foreign governments and entrepreneurial ventures. The timing of her historic elevation to partnership at this venerable firm was particularly significant, Hankins says, noting that at the time, President Barack Obama had embarked upon the presidential campaign trail and was on his way to making history of his
own as the country’s first Black president.
Hankins practices intellectual property law, with a special focus on patent litigation and prosecution. Advances in technology and the inventiveness of companies such as her client Fujifilm have made intellectual property and patent law a cutting-edge field and an area of law that continues to grow, she says. Unfortunately, she adds, it’s an area of law in which African-American attorneys are markedly underrepresented. That’s partly why she values so highly the impact of her work, not only for her clients, but for society as a whole. “I help my clients protect their inventions and ideas. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. These inventions give back to society and promote business and ingenuity,” she says.
Hankins is a member of Stroock’s diversity committee. She also works with the firm’s Attorneys of Color affinity group. Hailing from a working-class family, she was the first to attend college and recalls, with emotion, scores of relatives arriving to witness her graduation from the University of Virginia School of Law. It is largely to her education at UVA, Stevens Institute of Technology and the dedication of key mentors that she attributes the success she has been able to achieve so far in her career. “For every critical step that I’ve taken in my career there was someone along the way who helped me and gave me guidance and advice, encouraged me to study electrical engineering, to go on to law school, and to seek partnership in my firm,” says Hankins.
Although she considers herself somewhat an introvert, Hankins is often called upon to speak at conferences and forums across the country on intellectual property and patent litigation, as well as on professional development for attorneys of color. Yet she offers only a modest account of her achievements to date, saying there is so much more she would like to accomplish. She explains: “My goals are to become a major contributor. I would love to be a rainmaker for the firm, develop my book of business, try patent cases for huge technology companies, continue to provide good legal services for my clients, and increase the diversity of the
Hankins has a formula for success that she willingly shares with those who hope to have a successful career in law, regardless of the area of specialization: “Be prepared for the opportunities. Study and learn your area — your niche. Be knowledgeable in your field of expertise. If you want something, you have to ask for it. You can’t just assume that someone knows you want to be chief counsel or partner,” she advises.
Away from Stroock, Hankins likes to run in marathon races, and she concedes that she approaches life in the same way that she trains for competition. “There are lots of ups and downs. Sometimes you’re at the bottom of a hill trying to make it up and you’re thinking, ‘am I going to make it.’ You have to just keep moving forward.”
Ghillaine A. Reid, Esq.
Partner, Business & Commercial Litigation Practice, Gibbons P.C.
New York City
When asked about the key to her successful career as a litigator, Ghillaine A. Reid quickly responds, “Focus, determination and hard work.” Reid is a partner in the Business and Commercial Litigation practice group at the prestigious law firm of Gibbons P.C., which is ranked among the nation’s top 200 firms by The American Lawyer. She has extensive experience in securities enforcement and litigation, commercial litigation, and corporate compliance matters, representing major corporations, officers, directors and other executives in investigations conducted by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and other government agencies and self-regulatory organizations.
Reid also defends clients in a variety of commercial litigation matters in the federal and state courts of New York. She has achieved favorable outcomes for clients, through both dispositive motions and trials, in cases involving claims of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, misrepresentation and fraud. She also handles securities arbitration proceedings, and has defended clients in FINRA arbitrations involving claims of unsuitability, churning and fraud.
Before joining Gibbons more than 10 years ago, Reid served as a branch chief and staff attorney in the New York Regional Office of the SEC, where she investigated and litigated a wide range of securities enforcement proceedings, including market manipulation, insider trading and accounting fraud. This experience not only provided her with strong legal skills, but has also given her an advantage when defending clients before the SEC. Indeed, she concedes, she has a “better understanding of what the agency is looking for” because she served as an enforcement lawyer there for many years.
Beyond her practice, Reid is involved in other activities within the legal community. For example, she is a contributor to the Practising Law Institute’s Securities Law Practice Center, an online resource for securities practitioners. As a practice center contributor, she provides ideas, analysis and content to the center. In addition, she is a co-chair of the Securities Litigation Committee of the ABA Section of Litigation and a member of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. Reid is also active in philanthropic endeavors. For many years, she has served on the board of trustees of Inwood House, New York City’s oldest charity that provides financial, social and educational support for pregnant and parenting teens in the greater New York City area.
A native New Yorker of Jamaican parentage, Reid earned her law degree and bachelor’s degree from Boston University. She is a member of The Network Journal’s 40 Under Forty Achievers class of 2010, and says she learned early in her career that the guidance and support of strong mentors and other senior lawyers is critical for career success. “Those who do it well do not do it alone,” she asserts. Indeed, Reid attributes much of her success to the guidance that she has received from strong mentors, and today she serves as a mentor to several junior lawyers in a wide range of practice areas. Driven with focus, planning and passion, she works toward becoming one of the nation’s top securities and commercial defense litigators. “Without a strategy, a person’s career development is left to chance and is more likely to flounder. Like anything else, career development should be guided by a plan that is in line with the goals that the person seeks to achieve,” she says.
Kenneth P. Thompson, Esq.
Founding Partner, Thompson Wigdor L.L.P.
New York City
Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson, founding partner of Thompson Wigdor L.L.P., is no stranger to high-profile trials. Indeed, he has successfully tried some of New York City’s most widely televised cases, including playing a key role as part of the legal team for Abner Louima in the trial of New York police officer Justin Volpe, who sodomized Louima in the bathroom of the city’s 70th precinct. Thompson Wigdor is also representing the hotel employee in her civil suit against former French presidential candidate and former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whom she says sexually assaulted her in the New York City hotel where she worked and where Strauss-Kahn was staying last year.
Established in 2003, Thompson Wigdor specializes in litigating such complex cases, and counsels clients in employment, criminal, sports and entertainment law, as well as in civil rights and catastrophic torts. Prior to establishing the firm, Thompson was a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York. He gained his initial experience in civil practice as an attorney at Morgan Lewis & Bockius L.L.P., a 139-year-old Philadelphia, Penn.-based firm with an international clientele. “I learned employment discrimination and I was able to bring my experience of being a trial lawyer into the subsequent areas in employment law. The combination of those two skills — the trials and employment law — allowed me to start my current law firm with my partner,” he says.
A 1992 graduate of New York University School of Law, where he received the prestigious Arthur T. Vanderbilt Medal for outstanding contributions to the law school, Thompson acknowledges that he is passionate about employment law. It is imperative that more attorneys of color practice in this field, he says, arguing that many people do not realize that discrimination based on race, sex, gender, age, ability and religion, as well as sexual harassment, still occur frequently in the workplace. “So many people are in need of competent representation right now. When people are terminated for discriminatory reasons, their lives are in ruin and in distress, including financial distress — especially in this economy. At that point, they need lawyers who are competent and committed,” he says. That’s why his work as an attorney is so important, Thompson insists. “I stand up for victims. All types of victims. I have represented white males who have alleged that they were discriminated against based on their race, and women who have been sexually harassed by some of the people in the highest positions of their company.”
Thompson affirms that being the son of a single mother — now a retired New York City police officer — and the experience he gained as a federal prosecutor had great impact on the direction of his career. “[My mother’s] decision to become an officer back in 1973 left an indelible impression on me. And when I got older, it was natural that I would become a federal prosecutor and that’s why I joined the U.S. Attorney’s office,” he explains. He is committed to doing all that he can to prevent injustice and considers it his mission to see that victims get what they need and perpetrators get what they deserve. To that end, he is mulling the idea of running for Brooklyn district attorney. With the experience, background and vision he would bring, he muses, the Brooklyn DA’s office could be a shining star among DA offices throughout the country. That’s not a casual boast. All attorneys, including himself, should “be true to themselves and practice what’s in their heart,” Thompson says.