Similarities Between Kentucky Country Clubs and Boston Law Firms

Similarities Between Kentucky Country Clubs and Boston Law Firms

Comparing the number of black members at Kentucky's private clubs versus Boston's major law firms. The results may surprise you.

In a post last month, I compared the opportunity gap for women at major law firms in New York and San Francisco with the gap for women at Walmart, which is being sued in a class action employment discrimination case.   Walmart's numbers were better than the firms'. This month's shameful comparison: the number of black members at Kentucky's private clubs versus Boston's major law firms. The results may surprise you.

U.S. Senate Candidate Rand Paul recently stated that he did not believe the government should force private businesses to uphold civil rights laws and standards.  His statement, from which he later backpedaled,  flew in the face of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and sparked perhaps the only bipartisan response Paul has solicited thus far- outrage.  The Washington Post noted that the ongoing legacy of segregated private clubs in Kentucky, Paul's home state, may help to contextualize and explain the shocking remark.

In 2004, Kentucky's Supreme Court ruled that the state's private clubs must integrate or risk tax penalties. In a pattern that should by now be familiar, the state's institutions held out. The Idle Hour Country Club in Lexington accepted its first black member, retired NBA player Sam Bowie, only seven months ago. According to the Washington Post, Phil Scott, a trial lawyer and chairman of the board at The Idle Hour, said that he agreed with Paul's incendiary statement and believed the equal protections clause to be at odds with First Amendment rights to assemble. Elsewhere in Kentucky, the Louisville Country Club accepted its first black member in 2006. John McCall, president of that club, opined that self-selection was part of the problem: he was inviting black candidates to join but no one wanted to be the isolated black member of a club.

The self-selection argument is also popular among law firms with dismal diversity numbers. If you thought it couldn't get worse than country clubs in Kentucky, wait until you see the numbers at major law firms in Boston. According to Building a Better Legal Profession's data on Black associates and partners at nineteen major Boston law firms, nine of the eighteen firms that reported numbers had no black members in their partnership. Three firms had an astonishing low number of Black associates-- zero.  Two of these firms reported having no Black associates or partners in their 2009 Vault data. Take that Kentucky!

If Kentucky's segregated private clubs get credit for fostering the kind of atmosphere where Ron Paul's comment are accepted, what atmosphere and what messages are being sent by Boston's major law firms? To protest Kentucky's segregated clubs, preacher and civil rights activist Louis Coleman would set up a folding card table in front of an offending institution at lunch time, lay out a tablecloth, candles, and fine china and eat with himself.  Perhaps its time to bring these tactics to Boston.  

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Yan Cao is a member of Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP,) an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.