Black law firms seek a corporate clientele THE BUSINESS OF LAW

March 18, 1991|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff

The law partners of Brown, Alston & Byrd are facing difficult odds.

The firm is less than a month old. Economic times are hard, and building a base of clients that will pay retainer fees needed to sustain a practice is tough for any start-up.

As black lawyers they are attempting to break new ground by primarily serving businesses. Traditionally, black law firms have focused their practices on criminal law and civil matters such as personal injury, civil rights, workers compensation and domestic cases.

But the trio feel they've got the right stuff.

"I had always dreamed of starting a minority law firm," said Charles G. Byrd. "We all kicked it around."

In fact, the idea developed while the partners were attending law school at the University of Baltimore. Byrd said they all knew they wanted to be entrepreneurs.

After the three graduated from law school in 1987, they worked in two of Baltimore's largest law firms. Byrd and Benfred A. Alston worked as associates with Venable, Baetjer and Howard. Dwayne A. Brown worked as an associate with Miles & Stockbridge.

Brown, Alston and Byrd feel they can fill a void by concentrating on commercial litigation, representing insurers and handling maritime law. Brown said he and his partners hope to add between 15 and 20 lawyers in the next five years catering to small to medium-sized businesses.

Other black attorneys in town say they wish the partners well and have nothing but praise for their decision to build a business clientele. But they say solemnly that the three face a battle that is often lost by black firms.

"Black lawyers traditionally have not been able to depend on retainer clients. Often insurance companies and banks don't give us their business," said Norris C. Ramsey, a black attorney in Baltimore. "Many black law firms fail or have difficulty surviving."

At the peak of his practice last year, Ramsey said he had four lawyers working for him. But because of the recession he had to reduce his staff to one full-time associate and another who works part-time.

Jean S. Fugett, an ex-NFL football player, tried to focus his practice on finance and entertainment law. He opened his law firm in 1987 and dissolved it two years later. Fugett said he felt he had the experience. He had worked in New York with his brother, Reginald Lewis, who in 1987 bought Beatrice International Food Co. in a $985 million leveraged buyout, making the company the largest black-owned business in the United States.

But Fugett said even with his Wall Street experience, his firm wasn't able to bring in big business clients on retainer.

At Middleton, Waters & Shavers, the four partners say the firm has done well in its two-and-a-half years, but business clients generally come to them to handle single issues or by way of joint ventures with white-owned firms.

The partners at both Middleton, Waters and Brown, Alston see the potential in reaching out to black businesses.

"I think there is a need for minority law firms," said Wendy Patrice Arnell of Middleton, Waters. "We need to be able to service black businesses and serve the black community."

"I think a lot of black businesses want to use a black attorney but there aren't any do do the type of work they need," Byrd said.

In the Baltimore metropolitan area, there are fewer than a dozen black-owned law firms or firms with a majority of black principals, according to estimates from practicing attorneys and the Monumental City Bar Association, a professional organization for black lawyers.

The Maryland Bar Association and Monumental in 1987 conducted a study that found most black lawyers were going to work for the government and that the number of black law firms JTC doing both criminal and civil work in Baltimore was declining.

Of the approximately 4,300 practicing attorneys in Baltimore, that report said 350, or 8 percent, were black.

During the last four years, the overall number of attorneys practicing in Baltimore has more than doubled to 9,000, an increase of 109 percent. During the same period, the number of black attorneys in Baltimore has increased 21 percent to about 425, according to Patrick A. Roberson, president of Monumental.

Roberson said 49 of the 425, or 11 percent, work for the 10 largest law firms. Baltimore's top 10 firms employ about 1,600 attorneys.

The 1987 report said the scarcity of black law firms and black lawyers in private practice is due mostly to the failure of large corporations to send legal business to minority attorneys, and the poor record of large, white-dominated law firms in hiring blacks.

The study arose from a conference on minorities in the legal profession. A similar statewide conference sponsored by the Maryland Bar Association is scheduled April 13 at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel.

Lowell R. Bowen, managing partner of Miles & Stockbridge, said times are changing and that major law firms are giving blacks a chance to practice in areas of law that most have not been in before.

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