How Law Firms Are Commemorating Juneteenth
By Sonali K. Oberg
June 16, 2022 | 4-minute read
Marketing Management and Leadership Change Management Content Type Article
Big Law has embraced the recognition and celebration of the Juneteenth holiday, and we are continuing to see this trend grow as medium and small firms follow suit.
From a historical perspective, Juneteenth commemorates the Union troops' arrival in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, where they began enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln issued on Jan. 1, 1862. Texas was the last confederate state to free enslaved people of color, three years after the proclamation’s signing.
While it has taken hundreds of years for this holiday to gain widespread recognition, Black Americans have celebrated Juneteenth since the late 1800s. It is celebrated annually on June 19 as an observance of resilience in a centuries-old journey to the emancipation of enslaved Black people in the United States. It was not until 2020, however, that the legal profession as a whole began a close review of its historical relevance.
In June 2020, more than 20 Big Law firms recognized and celebrated Juneteenth. The holiday provided an opportunity for all personnel to take time off to celebrate freedom and justice, and reflect on issues around racism and its impact on the United States. In 2021, more than 50 firms adopted Juneteenth as a permanent firm holiday in the U.S. This year, the number of firms with a plan to honor Juneteenth through firmwide events and/or offering a paid holiday is predicted to increase even more.
The Push for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Law Firms
The National Association for Law Placement notes the legal industry's lack of diversity is stark. While the share of people of color who are partners grew to 10% from 2.5% between 1993 and 2020, and the share of associates who are people of color grew to 26% from 8%, much of this growth represents gains made by Asian Americans and Latinos, not Black Americans. Out of the increase in representation, less than 2% of firm partners are currently Black (less than 1% are Black women) and Black associates only make up about 4% of law firms.
This slow progress of achieving truly diverse law firm ownership and leadership has drawn scrutiny from industry critics, including corporate clients who want to be represented by legal teams that more accurately reflect their company and clients’ diversity. Many clients are interested in moving the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) agenda forward and are now more aggressive in pushing their law firms to think about representation through the DEI lens.
Most firms that recognized Juneteenth in 2021 also committed to do more to combat racial injustice, including participating in pro bono work, making more substantial nonprofit donations and vowing to accelerate internal DEI efforts. In discussing Juneteenth plans this year, several firm leaders stressed that observing the holiday again was only a small step.
Additionally, many firms have proactively created or expanded mentorship programs for underrepresented attorneys at their firms; however, the full adaption of these programs will take some time. Jean Lee, president and CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, said it can be harder for law firms than their clients to adopt internal reforms, as it requires buy-in from partners who may be averse to change.
To combat the slow rollouts of programs needing buy-in, many firms are also hosting forums in offices globally to focus on what Juneteenth represents. The forums are designed to help identify ways to eradicate the lingering effects of institutionalized racism. More broadly, the industry has been called on to serve as a voice for systemic change in society and law firm clients have been advocating for these changes through requesting diverse attorneys working on matters.
Law firms can be an excellent place to plant the seed of diversity in law, especially with firms being the starting point for judges, lawmakers, corporate leaders and other positions that shape legal discourse this country. Honoring Juneteenth is a step forward in the right direction, so long as firms continue to elevate and honor the work of DEI year-round