Law Firm Reflections on Black Lives Matter

by savoystaff

l to r:  Vincent H. Cohen Jr., Partner, Dechert LLP and Sozi Pedro Tulante, Partner, Dechert LLP

Over a year since the tragic and unconscionable killing of George Floyd, Dechert’s Washington, D.C.-based litigator Vincent Cohen recalls the visceral pain of that day – and his urgent need to explain the unexplainable to his family. Their response was immediate. “My kids knew they had to protest, had to be heard,” says Cohen, who chairs Dechert’s Black Lawyers Alliance, an affinity group. “They marched out, all the way down 16th Street towards the White House. To see them express their feelings like that was transformative.”

For Cohen and his colleagues, Floyd’s killing also demanded a robust professional response. As others relied on ad hoc resources, Dechert devised and rolled out an ongoing strategic initiative, Building Understanding, aimed at deepening the firm’s understanding of racism, anti-racist practices and ally-ship.

Cohen was instrumental in developing virtual forums for Black associates and other Dechert personnel, providing an immediate outlet for people to share their feelings and a safe space to support one another. Cohen attended one of the first “wellness” check-ins: “It was one of the most emotional, educational experiences I have had at the firm,” he says. “We had to deal with the invisible, emotional weight carried by our Black employees.”

For Philadelphia-based white collar crime partner Sozi Tulante, it was important for the firm to understand that what came after Floyd’s death had to be different from what came before. “The conversations around race and racism couldn’t be just for people of color,” says Tulante. “It was vital that all of us – our white colleagues and leaders included – were engaged early on so that what we did could be sustained.”

Tulante, who previously served as Philadelphia’s City Solicitor, played a lead role in organizing Dechert’s “Stand Against Racism,” a Town Hall and speaker series set up to address racism and social justice. An early speaker was Kevin Richardson, member of the Exonerated Five and advocate for criminal justice reform. “Kevin challenged the audience to really think about how we can best make change through lobbying and legislation,” says Tulante.

At Dechert, a long-standing initiative to recruit and support the growth of diverse talent has helped the firm achieve Mansfield Plus Certification from Diversity Lab for three consecutive years, confirming the firm has affirmatively considered 30+ percent of underrepresented lawyers for equity partner promotions and other leadership roles.

For Cohen, an elected member of the firm’s global policy committee, leadership by people of color is critical. “To build a sense of belonging among employees and really make systematic change, people need to see underrepresented attorneys in senior leadership roles,” he says.

Together, Cohen and Tulante have broken ground by advising clients on equity issues, including equity audits, holding frank
conversations on best practices and barriers to inclusion while outlining actionable steps to achieve equitable workplaces. Dechert’s equity audit team also includes human resources professionals and the firm’s Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, Satra Sampson-Arokium.

Elsewhere, Dechert is also taking action within the communities in which it operates. Working pro bono, a 20+-strong team of Dechert lawyers advised The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the largest U.S. human rights coalition, on a project to increase transparency in the use of force by law enforcement agencies. Dechert lawyers supported the launch of Accountable Now, the first publicly accessible national repository of “use of force” incidents.

Much more can still be done, of course. But Dechert’s commitment to action remains ongoing. “After George Floyd, I feared the  momentum wouldn’t last,” says Tulante. “I’m proud that at Dechert we have not let that happen.”

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