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Remembering the 'White-Shoe Firm'
(Tolga Yalçinkaya/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Remembering the 'White-Shoe Firm'

Irwin M. Stelzer

A sign of what might be called “progress” jogged some memories of battles fought. In reporting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s nomination of a new chief to a state regulatory agency, the New York Times identified the appointee as being a litigator in “the white-shoe law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind,” et al. The reporter seemingly did not know that the designation “white-shoe law firm” was invented to describe firms at the pinnacle of the WASP establishment, no Jews allowed, named apparently for the shoes these WASPs favored in the summer at their restricted country clubs.

In the 1960s, my partners and I were attempting to establish an economic consulting firm that marketed its services to law firms and public utilities. The “white-shoe” firms were off-limits. We identified them by adding up the Roman numerals after partners’ names—I, II, III, etc.—adding to that partners with first and last names that were interchangeable, and dividing by the total number of partners. A high result meant we had no chance.

Then there were cases in which no such arithmetic was needed. A partner in one firm told me at a cocktail party, after his usual consumption of truth-producing alcohol, that he was happy to be living in a New York suburb that did not allow Jews. That firm later merged with another; both went bust. Another pointed out that the new civil rights legislation wasn’t a problem for him because it did not protect Jews, whose upward drive would threaten him and his executives. The general counsel of a public utility invited me to lunch to congratulate me on starting the firm and added what he thought was encouraging news: “If we ever hire a firm with Jews, your firm will be the first.”

We were not the only disadvantaged group. One company CEO told me that he was certain new legislation did not force him to change a company rule that permitted men, but not women, to smoke at their desks. In the early 1960s, women were finding it difficult to procure professional positions, both in law firms and in the consulting field. Our firm took advantage of that market imperfection by hiring the best and the brightest women economics graduates, with emphasis on my mentor’s and my own former students at Cornell. When I was due to testify at an administrative proceeding at a Washington regulatory agency, I brought my assistant along to help check data, refresh my recollection during recesses, find sources, and perform other chores. The hearing officer quietly suggested to me that it was inappropriate to have a woman in the hearing room; I argued that she was entitled to see the fruits of her research and prevailed. It wasn’t easy.

With time and hard work, we managed to build a successful consulting practice. Time, because gradually the law business changed, with the bright young Jewish graduates joining predominantly Jewish firms that prospered, in many instances by accepting cases that the white-shoe firms would not take—contingency fee arrangements, lawsuits against establishment corporations—and prevailing over rivals that had denied themselves access to this portion of the most talented law school output. One WASPy partner in a Pittsburgh firm told me one evening, “We made a mistake discriminating against you guys. We should have hired you instead of giving you an added incentive to beat us.” Discrimination, especially against a group with no recourse to the law and therefore reliant only on its efforts, can be costly.

We were helped, too, by three events. A metropolitan New York utility hired as general counsel a Jewish lawyer who had an offer from a white-shoe firm rescinded a day later when the firm discovered he was Jewish. He was in the market for what we had to sell, especially in cases in which he was up against the Wall Street WASP law establishment. Second, a patrician partner in a southern law firm had no use for discrimination, interviewed several firms to handle a series of matters, and selected us on merit—for a client group led by a Philadelphia patrician who had somehow found his way into a top executive position in the utility industry. Not all WASPs wore white shoes.

Finally, a group of utilities found itself appearing before a Jewish administrative law judge. The executives in the group who knew that Jews are clannish—after all, there were none in their city and country clubs—thought it best to agree with the meritocrats in the group so they could play the Jew card in the hearing. We did well. It was easier but not storm-free sailing from then on.

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