Collection of headshots representing the California plaintiffs' bar. Collection of head shots representing the California plaintiffs bar. (Courtesy photos)

Plaintiffs lawyers like to say they represent the people.

But according to a recent survey conducted by The Recorder, the plaintiffs bar in California doesn’t quite reflect the diverse population it purports to represent in the state, where minorities make up a majority of the population.   

According to a diversity survey of plaintiffs firms conducted by The Recorder, 23.7% of the lawyers at 22 of the state’s largest plaintiffs firms with 15 or more lawyers in California are minorities, and 31.4% are women.

Even in the legal profession, which has a dismal track record in terms of gender and ethnic diversity, those numbers mean the plaintiffs bar in California is underperforming compared with private practice firms as a whole. According to data from the National Association of Law Placement, 24.9% of all lawyers in California law firms are minorities and 38.18% are women, a full seven percentage points higher than what The Recorder found in the state’s largest plaintiffs firms.

The Recorder consulted with industry groups and experts to determine which plaintiff-side firms had the largest head counts of lawyers in the state, then surveyed firm websites and publicly available records to get a preliminary count of total lawyers and breakdowns by gender and ethnicity. The Recorder then reached out to those firms that had 15 or more lawyers in the state asking them to confirm our counts, with the exception of firms that primarily represent plaintiffs in securities cases. Where firms responded with numbers that differed, we have relied on the firm’s internal counts in our data set.

Where firms did not respond, The Recorder considered photographs of individual lawyers on firm websites and LinkedIn, a lawyer’s memberships in affinity bar groups, and surnames when making individual race and gender determinations. There were two individual lawyers for whom no determination was made because of a lack of identifying information. The Recorder did not attempt to assess firms’ LGBTQ diversity in this initial survey.

Some plaintiffs lawyers contacted for this report questioned whether the survey data provides an accurate snapshot of the plaintiffs bar’s demographics given that the vast majority of plaintiffs lawyers in the state practice in firms smaller than those surveyed. Many women- and minority-owned firms who primarily represent plaintiffs, they point out, have fewer than 15 attorneys.

But many agreed that plaintiffs firms have a long way to go in order to better reflect the diverse client base they represent, especially in a state that has been majority-minority since 2000, according to census data.

“I think it’s something that has to be addressed,” said Abbas Kazerounian, the founder of the Kazerouni Law Firm, which at 50% women and 50% nonwhite is among the most diverse of the plaintiffs firms surveyed. Kazerounian, who was born in Iran and educated in England, currently sits on the board of the Consumer Attorneys of California, the plaintiffs bar’s largest statewide membership organization, and is a past chairman of its diversity committee.

“I think it’s important because diversity is what speaks to people and people are our clients and clients are our livelihood,” Kazerounian said. “Unless you understand your clients’ needs—how they’re hurting, and why they’re hurting—it’s going to be hard to seek” justice on their behalf, he said.

Kazerounian said that the solution for recruiting and retaining diverse talent in all parts of the bar starts with the “grass roots.” On that front, he said that he and others at the CAOC have started to reach out to law school students to educate them about the organization and the opportunities to practice in the plaintiffs bar. Through the efforts of its diversity committee, new lawyers division, and women’s caucus, CAOC has worked over the course of the decade to make sure that women and lawyers of color are represented on panels at its conferences and educational programs.

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Micha Star Liberty of the Liberty Law Office in Oakland, the incoming president of CAOC for 2020, was a founder of the organization’s diversity committee early in the decade. “There’s a pox on everyone’s house. There’s so much bias—implicit and overt—in the law in general,” says Liberty, pointing out that the overall numbers point to problems recruiting and retaining diverse candidates in all parts of the bar.

But Liberty adds that plaintiffs firms face structural challenges in recruiting new, diverse attorneys to the consumer-facing practice that large defense firms might not have. For one, she said new lawyers are entering the profession with unprecedented levels of debt. The small size and contingency fee-based model of plaintiffs firms means they have trouble paying competitive salaries to diverse candidates, who are in demand elsewhere in the profession.

Liberty, however, said she thought the numbers collected by The Recorder could be skewed by another phenomenon. “When a woman is unable to advance because a firm is small, they go out on their own,” said Liberty, who started her own small shop after practicing in a larger firm. “You see a lot of sole practitioners who are diverse in some way—something other than what I like to call the stale, pale and male.”

Joseph Cotchett, whose firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy was among the largest of the firms surveyed with 31 attorneys, said that the plaintiffs bar, and the bar as a whole, has made significant leaps since he started practicing 50 years ago. Still, he said that his firm has had to work hard to attract and retain women with trial experience, especially with three of his firm’s female partners being elevated to the bench: U.S. District Judge Susan Illston, and San Mateo Superior Court Judges Nancy Fineman and Marie Weiner. Cotchett, whose firm has 12 women, or 38.7% of its attorneys, said that he could not imagine going to trial today without having a woman on his trial team.

Says Cotchett: “Women are where the world is moving.”

Chart by David Palmer.