The names on the doors of America’s largest law firms often hearken back to the days of the robber barons – but the era of “white shoe” firms is steadily coming to an end – thanks in part to a growing group of diverse attorneys who are providing top-tier legal counsel to some of the country’s most prominent companies.
As the first African-American attorney to become a “name on the door” partner among the largest 350 law firms in the United States, Don Prophete is helping lead this new generation of attorneys into the future.
In 2015, his name was added to the doors of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete – a national labor and employment law firm working across 15 states. Since joining the firm, Prophete has helped drive a 30% increase in the firm’s headcount and seen the opening of more than half a dozen new offices.
Much of the firm’s growth has been focused on what Prophete calls ‘top down diversity.’ “A lot of firms focus exclusively on hiring young women and minority attorneys and hoping they will rise to the top,” said Prophete. “We’re more focused on attracting talented diverse attorneys who are already skilled in providing top-notch client service, but who can also serve as mentors to those growing ranks of associates working to follow them up the ladder.” “Having my name on the door signals to the marketplace that we’re a different kind of firm. Our growth strategy is an experiment for diversity done right and an incubator to create new best practices for the legal profession.”
Neil Wasser, chair of Constangy’s executive committee, says the decision to put Prophete’s name on the door was easy. “Don’s name outside the door is reflective of what’s going on inside. Talented diverse teams add value to our client relationships by allow- ing us to bring broad perspectives and to help meet the challenges of today’s workplaces.”
Three years in, the experiment is working. Constangy’s minority representation at the partner level is more than double the national average, and 4 in 5 of the firm’s up-and-coming attorneys are women and/or minorities. For the past two years, the firm has been recognized by Vault.com’s associate survey as both the #1 firm for women and the #1 firm for minority attorneys. Constangy has also received high rankings for diversity from the National Law Journal, the American Layer and Law360. In addition to a leadership role in helping the firm grow in size and diversity, Prophete is a highly-regarded trial attorney who heads the firm’s whistleblower and retaliation practice group and works with a number of leading companies to prevent and defend against charges of discrimination and harassment. His client roster over the past decade has included such high-profile names as Target, Huntington Ingalls, McDonald’s Corp., Lifetime Fitness, YRC Worldwide, Toyota, The Walt Disney Co., Darden Restaurants, Ace Mortgage Funding and Kansas City Power & Light. He advises sports franchises on employment matters, including the NCAA, the NFL and several NFL and MLB teams, as well as individual owners and NASCAR.
Prophete’s passion for the law began early. He came to the U.S. from Haiti when he was just five years old and was raised in New York City by a single mother who worked several jobs to send him to private schools. His inspiration to pursue law as a career was an African-American lawyer for whom his mother worked in the 1970s.After graduating from Fordham University, he attended Boston University School of Law, where he was drawn to the area of employment law. “I loved the subject matter and I found it to be very relatable as a black person. Then as I began to practice, I realized the value I could bring as a diverse lawyer. In the early 1990s, it was primarily white males who were defending racial discrimination cases for very large employers throughout the country. It seemed counterintuitive that employers would go in front of a jury in a nasty race discrimination case with just white lawyers at the table – they were unconsciously saying ‘we don’t discriminate, even though all our leadership and even our representation is white.’” It seemed obvious to me that large employers would naturally benefit by having diverse high-end lawyers defending their cases to juries.
After spending a few years as an associate at a Big Law firm, Prophete moved in-house, where he spent several years with Sprint Corporation, ultimately serving as Director of Labor Employment Law before making the decision to return to law firm life. “I could see that law firms were becoming more in tune with changing times and having served in-house, I felt like I had a better understanding about what clients wanted – great legal skills coupled with an understanding of evolving workplace dynamics.” Along the way, Prophete has been recognized by Best Lawyers in America, Chambers USA, Missouri Super Lawyers, 435 Magazine, Ingram’s-The Best Lawyers in Kansas City. In January 2002, President George W. Bush announced his intention to nominate Prophete to be general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While honored, he ultimately withdrew his name from consideration to remain in Kansas City with his family. In 2008, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in conjunction with the White House, appointed Don to serve a two-year term as chairman of the commission’s Advisory Committee.
Turning 50 this year, Prophete wants the next chapter of his professional life to go beyond the billable hour. He wants to create a legacy by helping to promote meaningful diversity in the legal profession. “While we’ve made some amazing strides in recent years, the legal profession continues to be difficult for racially diverse attorneys,” says Prophete. “I think those of us who have succeeded have a responsibility to mentor our younger colleagues and help make sure they have the opportunities and resources they need to succeed. Too many law firms see diversity as a numbers game, or a checkbox to fulfill client requests. What we’re trying to show at Constangy is that our diversity makes us better as a firm – with stronger insights into what will help make our clients successful.”
Prophete points to a wide range of research showing that organizations with greater racial and gender diversity are generally more successful and productive. “If you accept that as true, then diversity is something by clients and their law firms alike should desire, because if you have real diversity, you make more money, you are more valued, and you generate better ideas.”
Prophete cautions though, that achieving real diversity can be a challenging process.“It takes a lot of people out of their comfort zones. You have to create expectations that are more than just purely saying ‘these are our numbers.’ Meaningful diversity has to be approached holistically and from the highest levels. We have to look at what is working and what isn’t? How can we transfer success, and how can we overcome active and passive resistance. It requires a lot of thought, a lot of commitment, and it has to be more than just somebody saying that they like diversity because it’s the politically correct thing to do or say.”