Detroit’s leading law firms spoke out against racial injustice as the appalling deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among many others, have sparked protests worldwide.
The murder of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands’ Derrick Chauvin, a white, now former Minneapolis police officer, has given rise to a new level of outrage and unprecedented support across many different lines. Just last year the term Black Lives Matter was met with controversy with many corporations and politicians refusing to acknowledge the meaning or the movement.
However, it seems that the video of George Floyd pleading for his life while Chauvin kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds could not be ignored.
The video conjured up intense feelings of trauma, grief, and anger.
Even the ultra-conservative uber right-winged Rush Limbaugh felt compelled to speak out against the actions of the Minneapolis police calling for first-degree murder charges against Chauvin and charges against the other officers who were on the scene with Chauvin. All officers were fired after the incident.
With many companies and organizations feeling compelled to speak out against police brutality, systemic racism, and criminal justice reform, African Americans are finding allies in high places. Recently, many of Detroit’s top law firms joined together to release a statement speaking out against racial injustice. Although the legal industry has responded more slowly and more measured than corporate America, there appears to be a sentiment of we can do more coming from the legal field.
The statement reads:
“The deaths of George Floyd and many others, along with police brutality and unequal access to opportunity suffered by many African American people and other people of color, must be a catalyst for change in our communities.
“As leaders of metropolitan Detroit’s largest law firms, we are strongly committed to doing our part to encourage and ensure equal voice, opportunity and legal representation for African American people and other people of color. Taking this stand, together, means valuing and insisting on diversity, inclusion, and racial equity at our firms and in our communities.
“Bias and racial injustice not only exist but also permeate every level of our society. Members of the African American community, as well as other people of color, have been oppressed since this country’s earliest days, and it must end. Regardless of background, we must all examine how to best utilize our talents, networks, and resources to combat the institutionalized racism that plagues us as a society.
“We must learn, reflect and reset. We must do better and we will.”
This is a pivotal moment in American history—everyone is watching—and law firms are faced with an important opportunity to demonstrate their core values and their commitments not only to African Americans but also to all Americans who believe in basic human rights.
There are a number of ways that law firms can use their voices and resources to show solidarity with the current civil rights movement and address the injustices that have been leveled against African Americans.
Khalilah Spencer, inclusion equity and social responsibility partner at Honigman LLP, who was instrumental in working with fellow Honigman partner and member of the firm’s Board of Directors Gabrielle L. Sims White to ensure the statement included items that were quantifiable so that the group could hold themselves accountable.
David Foltyn, Chairman and CEO of Honigman couldn’t have picked a better person for the job. Known for her work in the community with organizations such as the Lakeshore Legal Aid, NAACP, and the Wolverine Bar Association, Spencer is definitely about that life. “To me it didn’t matter what the statement said, what was important to us was what would be the action items,” she said. “What the statement says is not nearly as important as what we have agreed to do—the commitment that we are making.”
Accountability is key and Spencer says they are going to keep their foot on the gas and will track progress by reviewing diversity metrics, having diversity training and they have also put together resources for use by their colleagues.
“Internally we have a group working on a document that talks about how to be an ally. It will talk about things like microaggression, how someone may display implicit bias, movies to watch that deal with racial injustice, books they can read and things that will help people educate themselves about racial bias because it’s important that people be able to do the work of learning to become an ally themselves.”
The law firms that signed off on this statement primarily practice corporate business law and traditionally tend to work quietly behind the scenes and avoid anything that even remotely resembles a political stance, however, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd was just too much to ignore. At a time where various companies are looking for ways to do their part in being part of the solution, these Detroit firms have banded together to do their part and they don’t plan on easing up their efforts.
“We are going to keep our foot on the gas and ensure that we keep these actions front of mind and continue to look for ways to do better. That’s our charge.”
The legal community leaders have committed to implementing the following critical action items:
- Continue to advocate for equality, equity and justice for all and institute additional policies and practices at our firms to further those goals.
- Create regular and supportive forums for our attorneys and staff to have open and constructive dialogues about structural racism and racial justice.
- Re-double our efforts to increase the diversity and representation of African American people and other people of color within our partnership ranks and leadership teams.
- Continue to partner with organizations focused on racial justice by providing pro bono services, personnel resources and funding support.
- Dedicate pro bono legal support and other resources for African American people and other minority entrepreneurs and small business owners.
- Advocate for appropriate policing reforms that include unconscious bias, de-escalation and other progressive training techniques, improved diversity in law enforcement hiring and promotion decisions and legislation that mandates zero-tolerance for police officers who injure or kill unarmed, non-violent and non-resisting individuals.
The statement is endorsed by: Carrie Leahy, chair – Bodman PLC; Justin G. Klimko, President, and CEO – Butzel Long; Michael C. Hammer, CEO – Dickinson Wright PLLC; Peter M. Kellett, chairman and CEO – Dykema; Philip B. Phillips, Detroit Office managing partner – Foley & Lardner LLP; David Foltyn, Chairman and CEO – Honigman LLP; William J. Anthony and Kevin G. Lauri, co-chairs – Jackson Lewis P.C.; Jeffrey Weiss, CEO – Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss, P.C; and Michael P. McGee, CEO – Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone, P.L.C.