American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division

 

Government Practice Is Home to Diversity

By Maj. James M. Durant III

A close friend and private practice lawyer once asked me why I chose government service. As an American of African decent and a lawyer with the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) Department, I answered that my "firm" is committed by statute to equal opportunity and reducing discrimination in the workplace. My friend, also an American of African decent, pointed out that his salary is twice that of mine. True, I said, but money doesn't equal happiness, and noted the number of holidays, weekends, passes, work hours, and general leave I receive annually. Three law firm changes and one divorce later, my friend entered government service. Now, on federal holidays and weekends, he phones regularly to see if we can go to the movies, fishing, or dinner. He's married, has a child, feels content, and expects to finish his career in government service.

Being the minority is not comfortable. Most of my associates do not want to be regarded as the firm's "black lawyer," "Hispanic lawyer," or "ethnic guy." These labels detract from a person's professionalism and make one feel as if he or she belongs to a special class of lawyer. Don't get me wrong, I cherish my ancestry, but in today's America, placing lawyers in an racial or ethnic group often means we are seen as something less than a "regular" lawyer. Unfortunately, Hollywood has created cultural and behavioral stereotypes about Americans with distinct, ethnic heritages in which, for example, it's not uncommon for Americans of African decent to be portrayed as gangsters, Hispanics as domestic workers, and Pacific Islanders as laundry workers or cleaners. In my life, some of my "majority" associates have expressed surprise that I don't listen to rap, play basketball, or enjoy soul food. To my surprise, when I first met an associate whom I had only talked to on the phone, he exclaimed, "I thought you were white!" I couldn't help but wonder if from that point forward-for better or worse-he would regard me differently.

In government service I've experienced little discrimination. As a JAG lawyer there is freedom from the worry about rainmaking or generating profits. I received immediate responsibility, ranging from trying federal criminal cases (rape, drug distribution, grand larceny, and murder) to providing advice on million-dollar contracts to drafting ethics opinions and thousands of wills. In addition, as a military officer my professional limits are based solely upon my inherent ability and desire for challenge. While I've stayed with the same "firm" my entire career, many of my classmates no longer practice law because of perceived inequities they experienced in civilian firms.

And solo practice has its own roadblocks for minority lawyers-mostly in attracting clients. Friends in solo practice have told me that their potential clients were simply not comfortable with being represented solely by a black lawyer. Johnny Cochran and Willie Gary aside, these racial and ethnic classifications can still mean the difference between being hired or not.

Another roadblock to solo practice for minority lawyers is obtaining the initial capital. The years of slavery and discrimination mean many lawyers of color are not well-situated to financially back a solo enterprise. Times are changing, but for many attorneys of racial and ethnic backgrounds, solo and small firm practices are as far away as Jupiter.

If I had to start again, I would not hesitate to join government service. My quality of life and the congeniality of my colleagues is simply too attractive. Ten bulldozers and a tsunami couldn't pull me away from my career as an Air Force JAG.

James M. Durant III is a major in the U.S. Air Force, serving as a staff judge advocate with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. His e-mail is james.durant@DTRA.MIL.

 

 

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