VINCENT COHEN became the first black partner in Hogan & Hartson - the oldest law firm in Washington, D.C. - in 1972. Ask him how much progress has been made toward increasing the number of minorities in his profession and his response is: ``What minorities?''
Twenty years after the civil rights movement breached the segregation walls around the nation's professional schools, the number of minority-group lawyers is low, and they remain conspicuously absent from top American law firms.
According to a survey taken by the American Bar Association's task force on minorities in the profession in 1985, blacks then accounted for only 2.9 percent of the nation's 618,000 lawyers. Hispanics made up 1.8 percent.
Most minority lawyers, because of roadblocks to hiring with firms, go into public-interest law or work for local or federal government, according to ABA sources. The association task force found in 1985 that nearly 90 percent of law firms with 1 to 25 staff attorneys employed no minority lawyers. More than half of all firms employed no minority associates, and 78 percent had no minority partners.
Hogan & Hartson is an exception to that pattern. Mr. Cohen says people in the firm in position to make changes were profoundly affected by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. After being made to ``sweat'' by the realization there was no minority representation at a firm in a predominantly black city, they took affirmative-action steps.
Now there are three black partners and two black associates in the firm. Ten minority law students were offered positions with the firm after completing its intern program, he said.
In January 1986 the ABA task force made sweeping recommendations for members of the bar to:
Induce lawyers, law firms, corporations, governmental entities, and other employers of law school graduates to intensify their efforts to hire, retain, and promote minority law school graduates.
Induce lateral hiring to select minority lawyers who have demonstrated competence.
Induce those regularly engaged in recruiting law students to evaluate recruiting, interviewing, and hiring procedures to determine the extent of their disparate impact on similarly qualified minority and majority law students.
``The ABA wants faster action, but for so long they discriminated against these same people,'' says Roderick McLeod, who chairs the ABA Committee on Minorities in the Profession and is an associate in the San Francisco firm of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison. The ABA maintained a racial bar to minorities until 1943. The earliest recording of black involvement in the association is 1966.
Historic discrimination can only ``be cured by time and hard work,'' says Norman Redlich, dean of the New York University Law School. ``Affirmative action means affirmative action based on the criteria: Can people do the work? ``They have done the work,'' he asserts.
Cal Udall, a longtime partner in the 115-member law firm of Fennemore Craig in Phoenix, Ariz., says: ``There is a tremendous amount of residual discrimination. It's depressing, but it's a fact.''
Mr. Udall, who worked for a year and a half on the ABA's report calling for concrete steps in minority hiring, says the steps recommended in 1986 are in the right direction, but the ``process is slow despite goodwill and good efforts.'' He says he thinks it will be generations before minorities achieve parity.
Elizabeth Armour, who does the hiring for Boston's seventh-largest law firm, Foley, Hoag & Eliot, is qualified to do some of that teaching. Her firm was founded by a ``Catholic, a Jew, a Protestant, and a Quaker'' who joined forces in a cross ethnic-cultural-religious association revolutionary for the 1940s. This history translates into the firm's current staffing of two black partners, two Asian associates, and three black associates. This diversity at the start resulted in a recruiting policy that takes a total look at applicants. Ms. Armour says the tradition at other firms has been to look at a candidate's grades or whether he or she made law review.
``We look at other successes, whether that person worked full time in law school, had a family, whether the person is a team player, has leadership skills,'' she explains. It's not enough, Armour adds, to bring ``tokens'' in and say ``sink or swim.'' The firm nurtures and trains, because ``numbers of senior members and partners tell the story.''
According to Mr. McLeod, there is a current ``explosion'' in hiring by law firms. This forces them, he says, to look beyond the limited pool of applicants with the highest grades and law review ranking. It presents ``a tremendous opportunity for large firms to make an irrevocable decision that they want more representation, not only because the minority associates hired will produce good work, not only for business reasons, but because it makes for a healthier atmosphere.''