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Normally when if I take time off in the summer, the biggest news when I get back is how little news there really was.

Not so this year. While I was away in Tennessee for two weeks at a writers’ conference in July it seemed as if just about every big story we were waiting on happened. That’s good for my staff and good for our readers, but when I got back I felt as if I had missed out on a great party.

And it wasn’t just news stories I missed out on. One of the things that really struck me was a joint letter from two trial-lawyer organizations in response to a series of articles The Legal had run on the lack of diversity at plaintiffs firms in Pennsylvania.

In case you missed the series, reporter Stephanie Lovett found that after looking at the largest plaintiffs firms in Pennsylvania, less than 3 percent of the attorneys at those firms were minorities. The number of female attorneys was around 23 percent. What makes those statistics all the more remarkable is that many of these firms’ clients are often minorities.

Plaintiffs lawyers tend to be fairly vocal and are usually not shy about expressing their displeasure when they see something in the paper they don’t like, so I was prepared for complaints.

Only there weren’t any.

Instead, what I got was a thoughtful and candid joint response from Tim Riley and Mark Tanner, the respective leaders of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association (PaTLA) and the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association.

The letter, which we published July 19, said our articles on the issue had done the plaintiffs bar “a great service,” and then laid out a number of initiatives aimed at improving diversity at plaintiffs firms.

Both organizations have directed their diversity committees to develop and implement comprehensive plans along with regular reporting requirements to the leaders of the respective organizations.

According to the letter, PaTLA is going to rebuild its diversity committee with new members, including opening it up to non-PaTLA members and nonlawyers from “diverse communities around the state.”

In addition, the letter also spells out other steps aimed at improving the situation:

Develop best practices for law firms – even suggesting the idea that law firms should consider including at least one minority candidate among the final three, based in part on the NFL’s “Rooney rule;”

Reaching out to law school students, including minority job fairs;

Creating models for intern programs for plaintiffs firms;

Reaching out to minority legal organizations; and

Including more minority attorneys as the speakers for CLE programs.

The letter then ends with a pledge that the initiatives are merely the start of a movement to build “plaintiffs firms that more accurately reflect the quilt of our community.”

Despite all those good suggestions, I think their honesty in acknowledging the problem might make the biggest difference in turning things around.

Early in the letter Riley and Tanner admit that “we would be disingenuous if we assured you and members of the minority communities that we will make this change overnight.”

It’s a realistic assessment, but more importantly it avoids making promises they can’t deliver on.

But perhaps the most telling paragraph was this one: “We have been struck by an irony in facing this test. As trial attorneys, we work hand in hand with people who are seeking civil justice, and they are often the most vulnerable people in Pennsylvania, many of them from minority communities.”

I point out that sentence because I had heard a number of minority attorneys over the past few months express frustration and anger over that irony. It’s one thing to admit there’s a problem to be fixed. It’s another thing – and sometimes more importantly – to acknowledge how those problems can appear and the level of anger they may cause.

Although I haven’t had a chance to get broad reaction to the letter, I have heard from a few people who said they were surprised and happy with Riley and Tanner’s candor. The real test, though, will be in how the firms follow-through and the end results.

What the articles and the letter point out, though, is that diversity is an issue across the board for law firms of all sizes in Pennsylvania, and that current efforts aren’t making enough progress.

As I’ve said repeatedly in this column, I’m not here to preach, nor do I claim to have the answers. But I can relate what people tell me.

Over the past few months I’ve heard from a number of minority attorneys at all different levels: partners, associates, law school students. Their most consistent complaint is the criteria used to bring in candidates in the first place.

Most of the big firms (and I realize this is a slightly different problem for plaintiffs firms, but some of the same principles apply) claim to recruit only the very best (in terms of grades and rankings) law school students from the very best schools.

Many minority attorneys and law school students have expressed frustration with that, saying it ignores some of the glaring racial disparities at those schools, and that it’s exclusionary, particularly for people who might not be able to afford those schools regardless of loans, or who have worked for a living first and then, because of other commitments, chosen to go to law school at night.

Limiting yourself to the “best” students from the “best” schools might sound like a good strategy for stocking a firm with the best lawyers, but I’m not so sure.

There have been a few studies to suggest that theory doesn’t necessarily play out in real life at law firms. I didn’t go to law school, but I was in the Ivy League, and while I did meet some amazingly smart people in my time, I also met plenty of knuckleheads I wouldn’t trust to dial a phone number properly. Elite schools are elite for a reason, but they aren’t guarantees that everyone who graduates from them – even those with good grades – is going to live up to the hype. And given my experience with talking to numerous lawyers over the years, I have no reason to believe that doesn’t hold true for law schools as well.

It might be helpful to consider a sports analogy. Professional football is a billion-dollar business. Teams rise and fall depending on their ability to study college players and draft young talent. They spend loads of money scouting and testing these kids. Now, if NFL teams were to apply the thinking of many law firms, in theory they would only consider drafting stars from the biggest, mostly highly ranked college teams.

But that isn’t the case. Sure, plenty of guys from USC and Notre Dame and Florida and Ohio State get drafted. But there are plenty of other schools, sometimes very small schools, who send players to the NFL too. Why? Because the teams took the time to look at them as real prospects.

That’s why Walter Payton and Jerry Rice, players from relatively tiny schools like Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State, got drafted. They only went on to become arguably the greatest running back and the greatest wide receiver in the history of the game.

So maybe it would be a wise move for all law firms to reconsider their criteria for bringing in candidates in the first place. Not just in the interest of diversity, but in the hopes of actually fielding a better group of lawyers.

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