An attempt by the Senior Partner of Freshfields to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement has been strongly criticised by staff who complained that his email was "offensive in tone". It subsequently emerged that his message had been rewritten and approved by black colleagues before he sent it.
As highly-charged protests wrack the US following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, some corporate entities have been moved to state that they recognise there is a problem and will do better to combat racism.
In a heartfelt email to the entire Magic Circle firm this week, Freshfields Senior Partner Edward Braham wrote, "I have been shocked by the killing of George Floyd as well as the other recent killings in the US. I am not alone in being moved by the events that have followed and the solidarity shown by people around the world".
"The last few days have been a stark reminder for all of us of the racism in our society and of the personal risks that so many Blacks face and continue to face", he said. "These events are made even more tragic be the higher percentage of Blacks falling ill or dying due to Covid-19".
"This is a time for speaking up for our Black colleagues", continued Braham, who explained that US colleagues were exploring how to "take concrete steps to do better within our firm and by the communities in which we work and live".
"In particular we need to increase our numbers of Black team members and put in the types of systems that will nurture these talented people to rise to more senior positions", he said.
[Gag looted from the internet]
But some staff expressed outrage that London-based Braham, who is white, had sent the message.
"Needless to say, both the 'Blacks' and 'Non Blacks' are pretty disgusted that the Senior Partner of Freshfields appears to be still living in apartheid South Africa", a furious insider told RollOnFriday.
"The whole email is pretty offensive in tone", said the source, "but I think most people were disturbed by the reference to black people as 'Blacks'...you wouldn't refer to a group of white people as 'Whites'".
Other staff had issues with the "otherness" of the email, said the source, and had complained that the reference to "these talented people" suggested that black people "are somehow markedly different to people who are not black" or that "everyone who is black is the same".
"Every partner's being sent one to prevent UPCEs - Unsupervised Partner Comms Events".
However, the picture grew more complicated when it emerged that Braham's email had been checked and redrafted by a group of black partners in the US before it was sent.
Staff unintentionally became aware of their involvement when US partner Timothy Wilkins accidentally copied the entire firm into an email he sent to Braham in which he took the blame for the internal blowback.
"Happy to jump on a call", Wilkins informed everyone at Freshfields. "I take full responsibility for this and appreciate that language hits differently across jurisdictions and have an idea of how to diffuse tensions on our BAN call coming up".
Wilkins followed up with another email half an hour later. "Dear Colleagues World Wide," he wrote, "With huge egg on my face, I did not mean to hit Reply All". Braham "had reached out to me and others to provide feedback on his heartfelt words", said Wilkins.
"I appreciate that the term Black or Blacks hits out of tune in certain jurisdictions", explained the New York lawyer. "And, I must admit I must just be an old school radical where the James Brown refrain of 'I'm Black and I'm Proud' - is just how I speak - especially at a time when people are marching in the streets to protest violence against the Black community".
"So, thank you around the network for helping me understand better that adding 'people' and 'colleagues' after the term helps to humanize our experience to others in an important way".
One source said she found it ironic that aggravated staff, some of whom were white, had ended up compelling a black man to apologise for how he referred to other black people.
Braham replied thanking Wilkins for his "characteristically kind and thoughtful email and all you are doing". But not everyone was placated, with one insider complaining that Braham was "not apologising himself, even when he had sent it in his own name".
Asked about the controversy, Braham commented, “My email was sent to express my deep concern for the situation in the US and I am very sorry for any offence that I caused. I am grateful that people have given me feedback and am committed to learning from this, as we continue to increase our commitment to diversity and inclusion across the firm”.