Local African-American lawyers pitch city to cohorts

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Edward Diggs had no connections to Pittsburgh when Downtown law firm K&L Gates recruited him in 1992 from Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston.

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Since accepting the firm's offer and relocating here with his wife and family, Mr. Diggs, an African-American, has risen from summer associate to a firm partner specializing in construction law. He credits K&L's culture, which he describes as "pretty diverse with relatively young leadership and very progressive," as the reason he has enjoyed a successful career in a city that doesn't have a strong reputation for attracting minority lawyers.

Minority recruitment in Pittsburgh is a challenge, he said, because outsiders don't consider it a preferred place for minorities, compared with places with large minority populations such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and Houston.

But because it's not a top choice among minorities, young lawyers may actually experience a better career path here, said Carl Cooper, K&L's chief diversity officer.

"You don't have to go to cities with a large African-American population for opportunity," said Mr. Cooper, a Philadelphia native who came here in 1977 to teach at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Law. "Pittsburgh will give you opportunities and you'll rise faster here because you're not in stiff competition with kids from Harvard and Columbia who go to Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; Chicago; New York; and the other prime cities most African-Americans go to."

Mr. Diggs is among the professionals who hope to showcase Pittsburgh this week as a welcoming place for young, aspiring minority lawyers as the city hosts the Mid-Atlantic Black Law Students Association. An estimated 150 to 250 law students from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, West Virginia and southern New Jersey are expected to attend the event, which runs today through Sunday at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown.

While the students will engage in activities, including moot court and mock trial competitions, the agenda also includes career-related events and opportunities for networking with local lawyers and judges. Scheduled as keynote speaker Saturday is Derrick Bell, a Hill District native and Pitt law school graduate who was the first African-American tenured professor at Harvard Law School.

Mr. Diggs will address the group tomorrow on what it takes to make it in the legal profession. "My main message to these students is to approach law school with the vigor and ideals of being a successful lawyer and through that effort, they will be positioned well to be a highly recruited candidate."

The lack of a critical mass of minority professionals is an issue in Pittsburgh but not one that can't be overcome, said James Barnes, who in January was the first African-American to be named an office managing partner at the Downtown law firm Reed Smith. A New Jersey native who was recruited by Pittsburgh firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney 18 years ago from the Howard University School of Law, Mr. Barnes joined Reed Smith five years ago.

"There certainly are difficulties being a minority professional in this market," he said. "The most significant is the lack of others to look to as mentors and role models. That creates obstacles both professionally and socially. But overall Pittsburgh has been a great place to raise a family and is receptive and positive."

Mr. Barnes' rise to a top position at one of the city's largest firms "should demonstrate to minority lawyers that one has the opportunity to be successful in a large firm environment," he said. "My position does not indicate our job is done. It does demonstrate at least an example of a minority lawyer having success in this environment."

Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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