Black Lawyers: Struggling to Survive

The market for black lawyers. Insurance, corporate, and business law. The leadership role. Black ideas and the U.S. relationship with the Third World.

I think that this conference says something that is very significant in America. As I see all these participants, particularly those who come from distant places -- probably more of you are from the East Coast than from the West Coast and you came at your own expense and with little notice -- I think that we all share a sense of urgency, a sense that America is in big trouble, that it is necessary for us to forget political labels. This conference is not a partisan affair. It transcends the labels of "Republican" or "Democrat."

Blacks in the country look to the leadership of the lawyer for his spokesmanship, for his direction, and for his ability to tackle the main issues that this nation faces

The black lawyer is in big trouble. In the thirty-five years or so that I have been one, he is hardly in better shape today than he was twenty-five years ago. There are more of us. But we are making about the same amount of money -- and, many times, less money -- than we used to.

Some time ago I argued with the administration on the need for government and business to make a serious effort to support the efforts and the energies of the 5,000 black lawyers that happened to be in the country at that time. More law schools have been opened to blacks since then, and now there are probably 12,000 or 13,000 black lawyers. I just asked Bob Harris, former president of the National Bar Association, what he thinks black lawyers are making now in the United States. He said, "About $15,000 to $20,000 less than white lawyers, and the mean average of white lawyers is $32,000, so he's perhaps making about $15,000 a year on an average." And that percentage would not be high if it were not for the fact that probably 50 percent of us have found our way into government jobs when we were driven off the market and were unable to maintain ourselves in the private sector.

Probably the thing that is so devastating about that observation is the fact that the 25- or 30-odd million blacks in the country, by and large, look to the leadership of the lawyer for his spokesmanship, for his direction, and for his ability to tackle the main issues that this nation faces. And the black lawyer can only do that if he is pulled into the situation in such a way that he can participate in the society and have the kind of money that is necessary to let him assume that responsibility. By and large, the black lawyer is completely out of the situation of corporate law

A few years ago some of the big corporations approached our firm and asked me about the possibility of doing defense work. We have now embarked into a situation where we have a few defense cases. One insurance company that we represent has 8,000 cases pending now in Northern California. We have fifty of them in our office, probably three times more than any black firm in California.

By and large, the black lawyer is completely out of the situation of corporate law. He is out of business law. And the tragedy is that, until he is brought into that situation, America is going to lose the ability of that leadership and ultimately the ability to motivate and benefit from the energies of 25 or 30 million blacks.

America must draw upon its Third World people to make itself understand, interact with, and be viable in the total world picture

And where are we in the world picture? America is considered a white nation, except possibly by 50 million members of the Third World consisting of blacks, browns, and yellows. But Caucasian or white people consist of less than 500 million of the 5 billion people who occupy the earth's surface and occupy, on a land mass basis, less than 15 percent of the world's land mass. In fact, if we placed against a wall in mosaic form the population of the world based upon the color separations, there would be sixteen designations of racial groups, and of these sixteen, only one would be white. America must be aware of this and must draw upon its Third World people, of which the blacks are the dominant number, to be used as handmaidens to the nation as it attempts to make itself understand, interact with, and be viable in the total world picture. This black economic conference suggests the need to use black ideas to make us better understood by the other colored peoples of the world.

If you want to solve a problem -- and we are in a problem -it is first necessary to have the ability to recognize that there is a problem. It would take a fool not to recognize, looking at the economics of this country, where we are in our balance of payments, what we are doing in worldwide industrial competition, and that we are in very serious trouble.

What we have to do is compete as a nation

I had the happy circumstance in the last twelve years to be a member of the Oakland Port Authority. In that capacity, I have become acquainted all over the world with societies with which America, at this point, is attempting to compete. I was in Shanghai not long ago and, standing on the docks, was talking to some longshoremen about what is happening in connection with the People's Republic of China and what they were going to do with containerization. One of the Chinese longshoremen came to me and asked, "Will you show us, Mr. Berkley, how we can increase the productivity of our dock? We have a quota this year of producing 5 million tons of cargo over this dock." There was not a container crane anywhere in sight. So I replied, "If you guys are going to do 5 million in one dock, maybe we should ask about how you are doing it."

The Port of Oakland is the second largest port in the United States and the largest in the Pacific Basin. We get 88 percent of all the cargo that comes into San Francisco Bay; the other 12 percent goes to the other five ports. And the total amount that we have in tonnage is a little less than 15 million. The Port of Shanghai produces and handles 65 million tons of cargo a year as against our 15. We just interfaced with Yokohama and became a sister port of theirs; they are now producing and handling 126 million tons of cargo against our 15, and we are number two in the United States.

What we have to do is compete as a nation. It is interesting that, as I stand here talking about what blacks are going to do, I feel like I am on the Titanic shifting around the deck chairs.

Wendell Wilkie Gunn: "Thinking about Private Investment"

As I listened to the speakers trying to place in perspective business and the professions in the 1980s, I tried to put it into the context of what the role of the black business professional is going to be in this process.

The first step in solving any problem is to think about it

A few years ago, when the current minimum-wage legislation was being debated, I asked a number of my friends -black professionals and white professionals, too -- what they thought about the new proposed minimum-wage legislation. Eight out of every ten people I asked said, "Well, I haven't thought about it." The real problem is that most people have not thought about it. Because the minimum wage affects only a very small percentage of the work force directly, the other people -- whom it affects only indirectly -- simply do not think about it.

Today we heard a lot about affirmative action and the minimum wage -- and these are, of course, emotional issues. But the important question is not whether you agree with Walter Williams or with Bernard Anderson. That is not the most important question -- not the most important issue. The most important question is whether or not you have thought about it. I am sure that this conference is not going to solve all these problems, but if it can stimulate all of us to go home and think about them -- and at some point to talk about them -- then we have truly accomplished something very important. I think that the primary role -- the first step in solving any problem -- is to think about it.

Discrimination is going to occur

As I look at the issues of the minimum wage, affirmative action, and our role in the 1980s, I think of the musical chairs that we played when I was a kid -- twenty kids running around fifteen chairs, and no matter how unbiased the piano player was, when the music stopped there were five kids without chairs. In the real-world of musical chairs, if somebody's got a job to fill and there is more than one applicant, discrimination is going to occur. We hope that the discrimination will not be on the basis of race, that it will be on the basis of talent and potential contribution. Sometimes two people are perceived to be equivalent in every respect except that one is taller than the other; one has blue eyes, the other, brown. Some kind of discrimination will occur when the hiring decision is made.

In the real-life game of musical chairs we can spend all of our time trying to determine who deserves a chair and why. It is an important question. Or we can allocate part of our time to determine how to increase the number of chairs. I am not just talking about the creation of incentives; I am talking about the removal of disincentives on the part of government. Because, ultimately, the solution to any problem -- any substantive problem, whether it is economic or social -- requires the deployment of real economic resources which are produced only in the private economy. If the government does not raise corn, it cannot give corn; it can only take corn from one and give it to another. If Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest had caught every merchant every time one ventured into the forest, all the merchants would have found another way to get to the other side and Robin Hood's beneficiaries would have starved to death.

Five Policy Proposals Table of Contents V. Politics: Goals and Strategies