by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
It was 2018, two years before the tidal wave of diversity initiatives unleashed by George Floyd’s death, and Starbucks needed a public relations win. The coffee giant was under fire after an employee at one of its stores mistakenly called the police on two black men, prompting the company to announce a “multiphase effort” to become “more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.”
Part of that effort was a series of “civil rights assessments” conducted by Covington & Burling, one of the top white shoe law firms in Washington, D.C., under the leadership of former attorney general Eric Holder, a senior counsel at the firm.
Holder—who has charged as much as $2,295 an hour for such work—issued a final report in 2021 that outlined the steps Starbucks had taken to promote “equity.” They included tying executive pay to diversity targets, setting spending goals for “diverse suppliers,” and launching a mentorship program for “BIPOC” employees, which Holder pressed the company to expand. Each initiative, he wrote, demonstrated the coffee maker’s “commitment to civil rights and equal treatment.”
But one year later, Starbucks was fending off a civil rights lawsuit over precisely the programs Holder had blessed. The lawsuit, which is still ongoing and was filed last August by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative nonprofit that is also a Starbucks shareholder, argued that the programs violate non-discrimination laws as well as the company’s fiduciary duties. Such claims may have come as a surprise to Starbucks executives: At no point did Holder’s report address the legality of the policies at issue.
When a law firm’s “civil rights” advice gets its client sued for race discrimination, one might expect the firm to dispense less of that advice, or at least to warn other clients about the risk of taking it. But Covington, which represents some of the largest companies in the world, did neither.