What’s up with former Attorney General Loretta Lynch representing companies accused of racial discrimination?

OPINION: The central question for us, as Black people, is always when does loyalty to the community stop and obligation to self begin?

Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks at the New York Historical Society on June 20, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Let me start with a serious question. Is it ever OK for a high-profile Black icon and a historic first like former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to defend companies or brands accused of race discrimination? My short answer is: maybe.

Lynch—now a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison who served as President Obama’s second attorney general and the nation’s first Black woman to serve in the role—recently came under fire from Black Twitter for stepping up to represent a large brand accused of racial discrimination. This time, instead of her work for McDonald’s defending accusations of racial discrimination, she is defending the NFL against charges of racism in the hiring of Black coaches. 

You’ll get no argument from me that Lynch’s defense of McDonald’s against racism claims by Black franchise owners and Byron Allen, owner of Allen Media Group (Allen Media Group’s Entertainment Studios Networks, Inc. is the parent owner of theGrio), and now the NFL gives me pause. But let me say that I see both sides of the coin as a Black woman who practiced law in a big law firm for five years and observed the pressure put on lawyers of color, particularly Black partners, to produce big business and big revenues for the firm.

Lynch, a Harvard Law School graduate, became a federal prosecutor in 1990, rising to become head of the Eastern District of New York and later served on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s board of directors. She made her bones prosecuting drug offenses and violent crime, including taking on the NYPD officers who brutally assaulted Abner Louima. She was not like Eric Holder (her predecessor at the Department of Justice), who built a career in the Justice Department as a career U.S. attorney and judge. Holder was also a staunch defender of civil rights and equality for Black people; Lynch’s pedigree was a bit different. 

Like many of you, I was not happy when I saw that Lynch was going to be defending the NFL against former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores. I felt like it was a kick in the gut to coach Flores, Colin Kaepernick and many other Black men who have been treated as less than men by the NFL. 

Attorney General Loretta Lynch is sworn in during a formal investiture ceremony as U.S. President Barack Obama looks on at the Warner Theatre June 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery, Pool/Getty Images)

I saw the outraged tweets of Black Americans when it was announced that she would be defending the NFL, and I thought quietly to myself: This is the strange reality of being Black and educated in America and working at a big law firm. Is she supposed to turn away work that is lucrative to her firm and to herself, to be some lone protest vote for white racism in corporate America? That is the difficult nuances of being Black in America. We have to constantly balance our own needs and our own success with the impact it may or may not have on the rest of the community. That reality for Black women (and men) partners in large U.S. law firms and other industries is real. We are also expected to handle the Black cases and clients at white law firms and companies.

The reality, however, is that it is hard to walk away from this kind of case when Black equity partners are so few and such big cases are so rarely thrown our way. I know because I worked in a big 10 law firm over 15 years ago, and it was hard. There were only three Black women partners in a firm with over 1,200 lawyers, and they were all in the Miami office. Believe it or not, that made my former firm one of the most “diverse” in America. Again, let that sink in.

My point is this: We as Black leaders always have to be mindful of the social and societal impact of our choices on the larger community. It may not be fair, but it is a real thing. If she has any redemptive opportunity on this one, it will be to settle the lawsuit she is handling for the NFL and work to create systemic change and real opportunities for equity and inclusion in the league. That would be a win for Black players and coaches alike. However, if all that’s on the table is Lynch’s firm will make millions, as will she, with no systemic changes on behalf of her client, that is a loss for all. 

Here’s the thing, folks: Former AG Lynch has to make a living like all of us. She has to perform at her firm, bring in big cases and create work for the associates. In a situation like this, I hope she sits her NFL client down and explains to them that they should find a better way forward than attacking Flores or painting him as some outlier. We attorneys are counselors, after all. And we should counsel our clients to live up to their brands and ethics, even as we defend them against baseless accusations or lawsuits. In this case, everybody knows the NFL has done exactly what Flores has alleged and likely more that we do not know. 

The central question here for us, as Black people, is always when does loyalty to the community stop and obligation to self begin? I do not have an answer. But what I do know is that Lynch has an opportunity to bring her client to the table with a better solution than attacking Flores, calling him a liar and denying what even Stevie Wonder can so clearly see: The NFL is a rich, old white man’s club where Black men entertain them for sport and make them millions of dollars. If she is really a woman about both her business and her people, she will find a way to make money for her firm as a partner is obligated to do and help make professional advancement for Black men in the NFL.

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”

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