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America's leading black law firms.

From New York to California, these 12 black-owned practices are at the top of their game.

Two years ago, Arnelle & Hastie vacated its low-rise, low-profile headquarters and set up shop in a new, glitzy tower on Market Street, one of San Francisco's power arteries. It was a move that paralleled the firm's professional direction: up.

Founded as a scrappy two-desk firm during the height of Republican rule, in eight years Arnelle & Hastie has managed to earn the kind of national reputation that other small firms only dream about. "We decided from the start that we would be a corporate firm," says Jesse Arnelle. "As it turns out, that was a good decision." Arnelle & Hastie's full-service offerings - from public finance to business litigation - don't hurt, neither does its A-list client roster and offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento, New York, Philadelphia and Cherry Hill, N.J.

Despite such trappings, Jesse Arnelle, 59, and William Hastie, 46, are incredibly grounded: Arnelle's office is littered with Penn State memorabilia; Hastie makes his office rounds sans jacket, carrying his own coffeepot.

Things, though, weren't always so comfy. Hastie, who like Arnelle, earned his legal spurs in the area of public interest law, recalls the days when corporate clients treated them "with politeness, and nothing else." But the firm took on cases that nobody else would touch, and stunned clients with their court-room skills.

Steady billings from companies like Ford, DuPont and, most significantly, RJR Nabisco (whom they've defended in the controversial cigarette wars) have helped fuel Arnelle & Hastie. The firm also billed nearly $500,000 with the RTC in 1992 and ranks among the top ten bond counsels in the state. Today, after a dip in staff ranks during the recession, the 36-attorney firm is hiring new lawyers in the hot areas of bankruptcy and environmental law. The goal: to expand the client base and pursue more transactional work.

Both Arnelle and Hastie, who earned law degrees from Dickinson University and U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall, respectively, are big fans of joint-ventures and co-counsel work with other firms - arrangements that sometimes lean remarkably in their favor. Last February, for instance, a majority firm invited them in on a 50-50 joint venture with the RTC. The deal sounded swell to Arnelle & Hastie - untilthe agency rejected the project terms and requested that they handle 90% of the work. Irked,the white firm walked away from the deal, leaving Arnelle & Hastie as exclusive counsel in the matter.

Aside from steamrolling the big guys, owning a firm, rather than working for one, has other benefits. After a long relationship with Wells Fargo Bank, Arnelle now sits on its board. As for the intangible rewards, Hastie sums it up: "It's nice to be in a place where you don't have to explain your own jokes."

ARRINGTON & HOLLOWELL, Atlanta

In a business where personality and connections are at least as important as degrees from the right schools and an office on the right street, few lawyers - black or white - have launched firms with as much going for them as Arrington & Hollowell.

When the practice opened in 1982, Marvin S. Arrington had already been voted one of Atlanta's top 25 lawyers by Atlanta Magazine, he was president of the Atlanta City Council and chairman of the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium Authority. A consummate politician, he had the direct-dial numbers of nearly every leader in town.

Donald Lee Hollowell, a renowned civil rights attorney who counselled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, agreed to join Arrington after a distinguished career with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Together, they cut an awesome profile.

Despite this, Arrington & Hollowell started with a work ethic they dubbed catch'em and hold'em." "Anybody who walked in, we tried to catch them, hold them, and represent them," Arrington explains, with a laugh. That included bickering spouses and some of the seediest figures of the southern underworld - not the most conventional brood for an aspiring corporate firm.

After about five years, the firm severed those ties. Not that white-collar criminal work wasn't lucrative. Quite the contrary. But Arrington, who helped integrate Emory University Law School in 1967, and Hollowell, a Loyola University Law School graduate, wanted to tackle the prestigious matters their classmates at major firms were quarterbacking.

As their heavy courting of some of Atlanta's major corporate heads started to pay off, the firm made a choice. "We decided we couldn't have [mafia types] and the chairmen of major corporations sitting side by side in the waiting room," Arrington jokes.

The firm has hardly suffered from its decision. In 1988, it proved its metlie with a large soft drink company, handling the $278 million buy-back of a local bottler. Today, the 15-attorney firm represents a dozen other Fortune 500 companies (whose names it guards zealously). In addition, the firm has worked on more than 75 tax-exempt bond issues totalling over $4.1 billion.

On the firm's "to-do" list are lucrative private placements and major real estate closings. High visibility should help. Arrington serves as vice mayor of the city, and the firm recently "adopted" Atlanta's Grove Park Elementary School as part of the Atlanta Business Partnership in Education. Says Arrington: "You have to put as much back into the community as possible."

BARNES, MCGHEE, NEAL, POSTON & SEGUE,

New York City

Talking to Joseph Barnes about his New York City law practice is about as easy as getting a one-on-one with Michael Jackson. Guarded about the affairs of the firm, Vincent McGhee,the founding partner of Barnes, McGhee,doesn't typically give interviews. (Nor does he pose for photographs.) Such evasiveness is indeed curious, given the firm's enormous clout on the nationwide bond scene. In 1992, Investment Dealers' Digest ranked the firm sixth nationwide for bond financings; while the Bond Buyer ranked it sixth in the country for underwritings.

Barnes, McGhee, is known primarily for handling public finance matters, though the 31-attorney practice bills itself as "full-service." Since 1987, the firm has been writing bond opinions on issues of staggering sums. Last May, for instance, the firm completed a $1.1 billion bond issuance for the New York State Dormitory Authority.

Eight years ago, as a fifth-year associate at a majority firm, Barnes, 42, was handling bond deals solo. So it is ironic, says the University of Pennsylvania law grad, that in his seventh year at his own firm, he works on a co-counsel basis with majority firms.

Barnes, McGhee has the distinction of serving as sole bond counsel in deals for several states, including New York, Missouri, Texas and Connecticut. It has offices in six other cities. Like many firms of its size, however, Barnes, McGhee retains a stable of associates who handle the complex legal needs of an eclectic clientele, such as defense litigation, securities law, bankruptcy, and intricate contract negotiations. Non-government clients - whose names are carefully guarded include banks and large corporations.

McGhee, who attended the University of Florida College of Law, commands significant influence down South. Formerly an assistant county attorney in Dade County, Fla., the 38-year-old partner has kept up his ties in the area, and is now based in the firm's Miami office (one of nine), where he steers major deals, most notably, for the Miami-Dade Water & Sewer Authority:

Despite a hiatus in the issuance of housing bonds, Barnes expects that any Clinton tax hikes will bode well for tax-exempt bonds. In the meantime, the firm is eyeing still-secret deals in Africa, since according to Barnes, -We are always looking for new opportunities."

CARNEY & BROTHERS, Chicago

The principals of Carney & Brothers knew they had made it when General Motors chose their 17-lawyer firm over the venerable 39-lawyer Pope, Ballard, Shepard & Fowle in 1990. GM tapped the smaller firm to be its sole breech of warranty defense counsel in the State of Illinois.

The work generates at least $100,000 a year in billings. But more significantly, says partner Alan W. Brothers, the firm is savoring what would typically be a "majority piece," not a "miority piece" of business.

Demetrius E. Carney, a graduath of the Depaul University College of Law, and Brothers, a University of Colorado law school alumnus, started the firm in 1981. Now with a practice divided almost evenly between transactional work and commercial litigation, the business has arrived at a point that many firms strive for and never reach. Even as the nation's wealthiest law practices shrink due to a downturn in work, this firm's workload outpaces its staff-a fact which has forced it to grow almost in spite of itself.

In December, Deneice Jordan-walker, a heavy-hitter in the public finance arena, became the firm's first woman partner. A graduate of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, Walker, 37, was hired away in 1990 from Bell, Boyd & Lloyd, one of Chicago's top-10 law firms.

In its twelfth year, Carney & Brothers' lists among its clients several Fortune 500 companies, as well as the nation's third-largest black-owned financial institution, Seaway National Bank of Chicago. The firm has served as counsel in the issuance of more than $2 billion in bond obligations for public offerings and private placements. And in a significant milestone earlier this year, Carney & Brothers was placed on retainer by Illinois Power Company, the second-largest utility in the state, to do regulatory work.

Despite such coups, Carney, 46 and the most cautious of the firm's four close-knit partners, remembers all too well the days when he and his high school classmate, Brothers, 47, alternated paying their mortgages to keep their fledgling firm afloat.

Altthough Carney & Brothers expects to break the 20-lawyer mark this year, its partners balk at any growth for status' sake. Hubert O. Thompson, a 38-year-old employment labor law specialist who joined the firm in 1988, puts it this way: "My ego doesn't require my saying that I'm a partner in a 50-lawyer firm."

FITCH, WILEY, RICHLIN & TOURSE, Boston

While some may scoff at the notion of mergers, Fitch, wiley, Richlin & Tourse knows that strength in numbers is de rigeur for reeling in big clients. Partnerships of one sort or another have propelled d to the top spot among New England's minority law firms.

The 18-lawyer practice grew from the 1991 merger of New England's two largest minority-owned law firms: Fitch, Miller & Tourse and Wiley & Richlin. Before the merger, each had about 10 lawyers, and they were forced to compete against each other in the public finance area.

Since the union, Fitch, Wiley landed a place among the 12 elite firms to serve as bond counsel to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The state's initial bond offering of 1991 - a $567 million general obligation transaction - marked the first time a minority firm acted as sole bond counsel in the state.

It's only in recent years that black firms have had the capacity and skill to do this work,' says partner and Harvard Law grad, Dennis Tourse, 52.

Positioning itself as a player in the narrow but lucrative bond field has required more than being a quick study. If s also meant forging strategic alliances with firms like Detroit's Lewis, White & Clay (and its network of affiliates in eight states). And sometimes it's necessary to import specialists when the work demands mare bodies than Fitch, Wiley has in-house. Frequently, the firm serves as co-counsel with a majority firm. In 1989 Fitch, Wiley, tapped Boston's 250-lawyer Goodwin, Procter&hoarto play second fiddle in a$225million equity real estate transaction with Aetna Life Insurance Co. It was one of the largest real estate deals Aetna had ever done.

Columbia University-trained partner, Harrison Fitch, 50, says his firm has avoided the ego clashes and other barriers to cooperative ventures between firms: "All of our mergers have been client-driven. That reality allows you to put ego issues aside. We are competing with majority firms, so the question is whether you can compete honorably and honestly."

HARDIMAN, ALEXANDER, BUCHANAN &

HOWLAND, Cleveland

When it comes to the potential for big legal fees, practicing civil rights law hardly ranks with handling, say, mergers and acquisitions. Yet the principals of one Cleveland law firm have spun a lucrative full-service practice on top of a solid civil rights foundation.

Hardiman, Alexander, Buchanan & Howland started in 1984, when three civil rights lawyers-friends from their law school days - decided to combine their strengths. Now the firm is one of Cleveland's premier civil rights defenders, partly on the reputation of Cleveland Marshall Law School graduate James L. Hardiman, 51. He had been chosen in 1974 as a member of the NAACP'S lead counsel team in the landmark Cleveland schools desegregation case. That affiliation helped propel Hardiman, Alexander to its status. The ongoing case continues to generate six-figures annually for the firm.

Since its infancy, the firm has evolved into a general practice, handling criminal defense, collections and commercial transactions. Unlike some minority firms, that aim narrowly for large, blue chip clients, Hardiman, Alexander works on the principle that responding to broad-based black concerns can be lucrative, too. Aside from taking on matters for giants like DuPont and General Motors, the 14-attorney firm serves as general counsel for Personal Physician Care, a local, black-owned $25 million health maintenance organization (HMO). Another prized minority client is Unity Rubber, a $10 million rubber parts maker.

Managing partner A. Deane Buchanan, 46, says that these relationships make sense. "Our roots are in the black community," says Buchanan, who earned his J.D. at Case Western Reserve University. Handling transactional work for smaller clients should help the firm to pursue similar matters at larger concerns as well.

JONES, WARE & GRENARD, Chicago

Andrea M. Buford remembers the day when a presiding judge asked who was defending Shell Oil Company and she stood up. "The judge looked down at me from the bench in disbelief, like, 'How are you representing them?'" says Buford, head of Jones, Ware & Grenard's litigation section.

It's a reaction that this 37-year-old graduate of ITT-Chicago Kent College of Law, and other attorneys at Jones, Ware encounteroften. Particularly since their client list includes other corporate behemoths such as Ford, McDonald's and Wendy's International, as well as the RTC and FDIC.

The firm is one of several tapped to work on the professional liability suits brought by the RTC and FDIC against officers of large, collapsed financial institutions. This work will generate a significant percentage of billings over the next year, says managing partner Mitchell Ware, 55.

Jones, Ware was formed during the heyday of the late Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. Now 10years old, Jones,ware has dropped from about30 lawyers in the late '80s, to 20. And like many small firms, it is constantly grappling with talent leaks: Two of its former partners, Martin P. Greene and Eileen M. Letts left three years ago to launch their own firm. And Carol Moseley Braun, prior to her run for the U.S. Senate, was of counsel to the firm. Ware, an alumnus of the DePaul University School of Law, says, "Losing good people is frustrating, but its a part of the business," adding that the firm hopes to replenish its ranks soon.

While Jones, Ware is black-owned-and plans to remain so, Ware notes-it has achieved a level of diversity that many major firms claim to be nearly impossible. Two of its five partners are white and its associate ranks are split almost evenly between blacks and nonblacks, including Asians and Hispanics.

"I believe in diversity," says Ware, who is in his 50s. "When we go to another firm to take a deposition, I always look to see if they hire on an equal opportunity basis. When people look at my firm, I don'twant them to believe that I'm as biased as some of the people I serve."

LEFRWICH & DOUGLAS, Washington, D.C.

Back in 1970, when Willie L. Leftwich helped to launch the law practce that would later become Leftwich & Douglas, he had a simple motivator: Opportunity. "There were things we wanted to do as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement," explains Leftwich, 55, "that we never would have been able to do at a majority firm."

The graduate of George Washington University's (GWU) law school was right about that. Back in the early 80s, as Leftwich, Moore & Douglas, the firm sued Washington's Evening Star, settling a class action suit on behalf of its minority reporters - a precursor to a similar matter that would erupt later at New York's Daily News. And in 1986, the firm successfully sued the federal government over Louis Farrakhan's right to travel to Libya.

Over the years, the firm has enjoyed a fair share of firsts. During its original incarnation, as Hudson, Leftwich & Davenport, some of its members were among the first minority lawyers to earn a coveted place in the Bond Buyer's Municipal Marketplace.it was also one of the first black firms to seriously take up the mantle of environmental law, representing clients in asbestos cases and hazardous building transfers. As Leftwich points out, "Most toxic dumps are in black communities." The attorneys'passion for this area of the law is likely to keep them busy, given that 25% of all matters passed by Congress today are environment-related.

Representing both plaintiffs and defendants, 16-lawyer Leftwich & Douglas moves deftly around the complex borders of commercial, real estate, civil rights and employment law. The firm is versatile, serving as bond counsel and suing makers of faufty breast implants while handling pro bono and community service work, including cases for the homeless.

"We represent not just the larger institutions but also indi-viduals," Leftwich stresses. Adds 37-year-old Michael M. Hicks, a partner who also earned his J.D. from GWU, "History has shown us that anyone captured in any one area of the law has no chance to survive."

Maintaining a diverse - and integrated - practice is something all of their clients have come to expect, including corporate customers, such as banks, leasing companies and insurance firms.

D.C. residents are as likely to find these attorneys giving talks at a local high school, as making speeches in the courtroom - or on a radio show discussing women's rights. And the firm encourages its associates to take on at least two pro bono cases per year. Says Hicks: "We pride ourselves on not turning our backs on folks."

LEWIS, WHITE & CLAY, Detroit

From its inception in 1972, Lewis, White & Clay and its founders set out to do more than peek through the corporate veil - they wanted to build a barrier-breaking institution. Today, with 36 lawyers and clients such as Chrysler, MCI and Avon they have done just that.

"If we don't build our own legal institutions, we're going to be stuck with the same limfted options," says managing partner Richard T. White, 48. The firm's rise began in 1974, when Coleman Young became Detroifs first black mayor and hired the new law practice founded by David B. Lewis, now 48. Lewis earned an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago and a law degree from the University of Michigan; his partner, White, was a recent Harvard Law School grad. Eric L. Clay, now 43, a Yale Law School alum, joined the firm that year. With Mayor Young's support, the budding firm was inducted into the lucrative public finance arena and, in 1977, became the first minority firm to be listed in the Directory of Municipal Bond Dealers.

It built its name handling innumerable matters for city and state agencies as well as for Fortune 500 companies. For Lewis, White, now affiliated with eight other black-owned law firms across the country, joint ventures proved to be the first step toward establishing a national presence.

Critics say Lewis, White's affiliate arrangement is a slick marketing tack aimed at giving the firm a deceptively large, cohesive image. Others applaud it as a savvy business maneuver and a clever way to get work outside of Detroit's depressed market. Certainly, it has allowed the firm to cash in on connections beyond its local borders. In 1992, the firm was selected over 30 competitors as Washington D.C.'s lead bond counsel. The potential transactions for Lewis, White which (will be working with its D.C. affiliate, Roxborough & Tillerson) could top $1 billion. And for that, its principals make no apologies.

Given the obstacles still in their path, minority firms must create every advantage they can, says White, adding: "I could not have imagined in 1972 that we would have come so far - or that we would still be so far from where we could and should be, given our capabilities."

MCGEE, LAFAYETTE, WILLIS & GREENE,

San Francisco

What's in a name? In the case of McGee, Lafayette, Willis & Greene, the answer is "change". The San Francisco firm, formerly the nation's largest minority-owned practice, has seen three incarnations, going from a three-man shop in 1980, to a full-service behemoth, and finally, in 1991, to the West Coast's second-largest black-owned firm, with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"The bottom line was, we lost no clients in the transitions " says founding partner Otis McGee Jr., 47, who along with Gary T. Lafayette, 40, earned his J.D. at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. In fact, they report, billings went up, along with gross income - with fewer attorneys.

Today McGee, Lafayette's 23 lawyers serve the broad needs of a diverse clientele: corporations (including large automakers like Ford and GM and insurers such as The Travelers) and public institutions share its services equally.

A seasoned trial lawyer, McGee, relishes his double duty at the firm: In court he's been known to bring expert witnesses to their knees; at the office, he both mentors and cajoles young associates with his wry wit. He's also not one to miss out on an opportunity.

Picking up on a trend, four years ago, the firm set out to bone up on the hot area of environmental law, one of the first small practices in the state to do so. More recently, McGee, Lafayette has hired an intellectual property lawyer to handle such matters as copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Specializing has paid off: McGee, Lafayette was selected by an unnamed "large manufacturer" as lead counsel in what promises to be a high-profile toxic contamination case, going to bat against 400 plaintiffs. Forthis case alone,thefirm is billing roughly $50,000 a month.

Just as key as boistering its legal offerings, the firm works hard to establish a presence in the California law community. Associates and partners alike are expected to "represent the firm" - be it at the country club, alumni affair or on a legal panel. "We strive to put everyone on the front lines," says Lafayette.

The firm's success hasn't exempted it from handling small matters, though. in fact, McGee, Lafayette prides itself on taking cases that would likely get lost in the shuffle at a larger firm - betting that they'll pay off big in the long run. Says McGee: "Ifs a matter of developing a reputation to get the job done."

WILSON & BECKS, Los Angeles

For attorneys in Southern California, the nation's hotbed of litigation, it pays to know who's suing whom. On this very large and lucrative stage, the firm of Wilson & Becks may be a minor player, but it seems to know all the right cues.

Founded by two partners who felt their -talents couldn't be realized" in somebody else's shop, Ronald N. Wilson and Harold G. Beeks, both 45,have spent the past 18 years building a 15-attorney practice, and today cut an impressive slice of L.A.'s litigious pie.

Clients - from DuPont, General Motors, Amtrak and the Southern California Rapid Transit District- look to them for matters such as insurance defense, wrongful termination and products liability. A twist? Many of their high-profile corporate clients actually prefer defending their names in court rather than settling. With such big reputations-and multimillion dollar verdicts - at stake, Wilson & Becks is kept busy: since opening its doors in 1975, the firm has tried 125 jury cases of 85% them successfully. "We were the first black firm to aggressively pursue the corporate work in Los Angeles," claims Becks. Their biggest case to date: Representing DuPont in a $2 million products liability case, in which the firm convinced a jury to award nil.

Roommates during their undergrad days at Stanford University, Wilson and Becks discuss train-derailment cases and their vitaes (law degrees from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively) with equal aplomb. "Clients appreciate our technical understanding,- says Wilson, who can expound on the complexities of a back injury with the authority of an M.D.

While trial law remains the firm's forte, Wilson & Becks also dabbles in high-stakes bond work. The firm was recently tapped as co-bond counsel for Los Angeles' department of airports, in an issuance worth $255 million.

As in most other cities, legal success hinges on being plugged into the political circuit. Ifs no surprise, then, that the partners have turned networking into a high art, and consider every contact to be as crucial as a client. Becks is a former attorney for the County of Los Angeles, and his wife is a superior courtjudge. Still, the partners haven't let such ins, not even their acquaintance with mayor Tom Bradley, go to their heads. Says Becks: "We still have to hustle."

WOOD, WILLIAMS, RAFALSKY & HARRIS,

New York

New York City is a tough place to build a black law firm - or any law firm. It's exorbitantly expensive, cruelly competitive, and, before David Dinkins became mayor, not big on inclusiveness.

It was onto this less-than-friendly turf that Wood, Williams, Rafalsky & Harris sprang in 1984. Almost a decade later, with 23 lawyers, its clients mirror the diversity of its home base: Sprinkled in with names such as Bear Stearns & Co. and Chemical Bank are Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church and the Arthur Ashe AIDS Foundation. Fees from such clients enabled Wood, williams to begin 1993 on a high note - as occupants of 22,000 square feet of new, high-tech office space in the Wall Street Tower, smack in the hub of the nation's financial playground.

Answering the call to specialize, Wood, Williams has developed five roughly defined practice areas: litigation, bank finance/general corporate, real estate, public finance and government relations. While its members-mostly Ivy League veterans of major national firms-have been chasing corporate and institutional clients in all of these areas since the beginning, Wood, Williams' real coups have come in the public finance arena. In the first quarter of 1993 alone, Wood, Williams acted as sole bond counsel on more than $2 billion worth of new municipal issues transactions.

Sounds like a good spot to be in, yet Wood, Williams' partners-like their peers aroundthe country - are loatheto give the impression that they are set. And for good reason. The firm is no longer eligible to participate in a New York State agency program intended to generate work for minority businesses because its average annual income exceeded the program's $3.5 million cap for minority firms.

Managing partner Homer Harris, 43, who graduated from University of Notre Dame Law School and practiced at Shearman & Sterling - one of the nation's top 15 law firms - says Wood, Williams will still get work from the agency, though it must now compete along with majority practices. He notes that the low threshold for minority-owned firms speaks volumes.

"We couldn't survive on $3.5 million," says Harris. "Even if a minority firm was making $30 million, that would still be peanuts compared to a large majority firm."
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Publication:Black Enterprise
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Date:Aug 1, 1993
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