James Cole Jr. barely registered a blip on the radar screen until he made partner earlier this year at New York's Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, erasing the firm's distinction as the last of the most profitable firms that hadn't elected its first African-American partner. Since then, Cole's become the talk of the town -- particularly within the elite circle of black partners and general counsel. Sharon Bowen, an African-American partner at Latham & Watkins' New York office, says that when Cole's name surfaced, the question on people's lips was, "Where's this guy been all this time?"Cole has been invisible because he's been working hard -- very hard. "I've been billing 3,400 hours a year for the last seven years,"
he says. Now that he's made it, the 36-year-old M&A lawyer and Harlem resident says he intends to become much more active in the black community -- particularly the Urban League and NAACP, among others.
Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison's Theodore Wells Jr., part of the black bar's old guard, says Cole came to see him about "what his appointment means to the black community." Wells was impressed: "I think he will make a broader contribution. He's not somebody who will say, 'I'm a partner at a major firm -- and that's my contribution.'"
Wachtell, meanwhile, is downplaying the significance of finally having a black member in its select club. Managing partner Daniel Neff says Cole's election was just an "extremely logical outcome" because he had been a "spectacular" associate. But Neff is coy about whether Cole's position will help black recruitment: "I can't assess how people will respond."
Making partner at Wachtell, says Cole, is "not a race issue -- it's a personality issue." With two potential black partners now in the pipeline, Wachtell has always been a meritocracy, says Cole: "It's no more difficult before or after [my partnership]. I don't feel we couldn't have made it before."http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1087855514925