Lida Rodriguez-Taseff. Photo: J. Albert Diaz

Senior attorneys who’ve given some thought to questions of inclusion at a number of AmLaw 100 firms in Miami agree: Most of the diversity in large firms is at their lower levels. That goes for both women and ethnic and racial minorities.

“I have seen so many women that are talented and so many people of color leave the AmLaw 100 because of perceived barriers that are really a lack of inclusiveness that allows them to feel nurtured and satisfied within their careers,” said Duane Morris partner Lida Rodriguez-Taseff in Miami.

Tiffani Lee.

It’s not that these firms aren’t trying. Tiffani Lee serves as firmwide diversity partner for Holland & Knight. When she started in the position several years back, Lee’s managing partner told her, “I want to focus on results, not rhetoric.”

What will drive results? For one, it’s giving greater attention to teaching female and minority attorneys the sort of business development skills that will more easily make them partner.

It’s also embracing ideas from outside organizations like the Diversity Lab, the idea incubator behind the Mansfield Rule. Now starting its second year, the initiative measures whether participating firms are considering women, minority — and in 2018 for the first time, LGBTQ — candidates for leadership positions.

Clients are also increasingly demanding clear signs of improvement.

“The institutional clients all have initiatives surrounding who has diverse counsel,” said Akerman chairman and CEO David Spector. “It’s something AmLaw 100 firms like ours are used to. It’s not going away, and it shouldn’t.”

Lee, who’s also in Miami, noticed outside counsel have been nudging firms in recent years to be more creative in taking on the issue. Rather than filling out surveys, firms are invited to attend symposia. Some clients have latched onto research that shows sponsorship — a support mechanism that goes beyond mentorship — is the No. 1 factor determining whether someone succeeds in a professional services firm.

One even mandated the installation of a client-approved sponsorship program by the end of 2017 with noncompliance meaning suspension from the company’s panel of outside counsel.

“From my standpoint, it was a really courageous thing,” Lee said.

While Holland & Knight services clients nationally, Lee noted many Florida companies have been at the forefront of these new initiatives, an outlook that makes sense in one of the most diverse states in the country.

They look around at the demographics of the markets in which they are based, and they see the same thing we see, especially if they’re consumer facing,” she said. “The face of the American consumer is changing, and they want to respond to that.”


Minority Attorneys

With Hispanics making up 69 percent of the Miami-Dade County population, it’s not surprising that many law firms with South Florida offices show impressive outcomes when it comes to ethnic diversity.

Roig Lawyers is a minority-owned firm with its main office in Deerfield Beach and a presence in Miami and five other Florida locales. About 41 percent of its 78 attorneys are minorities, while 37 percent of partners are minorities. 

Julie Harris Nelson.

“You have to remember that with Miami-Dade County, we are a melting pot. You have so many different ethnic backgrounds and people from different countries,” said Miami attorney Julie Harris Nelson, the sole African-American female partner at the firm. 

In second place, Fowler White Burnett has 24 percent minority attorneys and 26 percent minority partners.

The AmLaw 200 firms that participated in the survey don’t fare as well. One explanation comes from the obstacles in rapidly changing the culture of large organizations. Initiatives like the Mansfield Rule owe their existence to this uphill battle. Another is that in drawing from a national pool of attorneys, these firms’ numbers reflect more than just exceptionally diverse South Florida.

“Our state and our region, it has growth rates that are faster than the rest of the nation,” said Jaret Davis, co-managing shareholder of the Miami office of Greenberg Traurig. “With an influx of folks from around the world, you’re going to see it becoming even more diverse and inclusive.”

But Spector, the Akerman leader, questioned whether the region’s demographics explain everything.

There are certain opportunities that you have with a large office in Miami with a large international presence and an international practice that increases your ability to be diverse,” he said. “But New York, Texas, Chicago all draw from a diverse pool. I don’t think that the trends in Florida are any different from anywhere else in the country.”

And even as Florida law schools are turning out more diverse graduates, competition is high.

“When we’re looking at the top tiers of applications for younger hires, we’re interested in those that meet our criteria and happen to be diverse,” said Aliette DelPozo Rodz, who chairs the diversity committee at Shutts & Bowen. “If you’re going to the local schools, the creme de la creme, it gets pre-selected very quickly. It’s a sign that our peers are also taking this very seriously.”


Gender Diversity

The numbers for gender diversity — both in terms of overall numbers and women partners — tend to cluster more closely together, for larger and smaller firms that participated, with the exception again of Roig.

More than half of its attorneys are female. There’s more work to do at the partner level, but the recent addition of two means that a quarter of partners in the firm are women.

Miami-based Shutts & Bowen also has been growing its roster of female partners. After completing the survey, the firm announced hiring two new female litigators as partners in Miami.

When I started, there weren’t any younger female shareholders,” said Rodz, who was 37 when she became the firm’s first Hispanic female partner in 2007. “From then, the doors have opened to the incredible talent that’s out there.”

She and others see growing momentum toward women taking leadership positions in the region. One example was the vote to make West Palm Beach attorney Michelle Suskauer president of the Florida Bar in a contested election.

I think that is an indicator that lawyers as a whole, and not just law firm leaders, are recognizing the importance of putting female lawyers in power,” Rodriguez-Taseff said.

Mary Leslie Smith, who became managing partner of Foley & Lardner’s Miami office last spring, is another example.

I would like to think its because the numbers of women staying long-term in the law is increasing,” she said. “It’s partly that our time has come. Perhaps it’s overdue.”

Smith also pointed to client pressure, as well as structural changes like flexible work schedules and technology enabling more remote work. She’s optimistic the trend will prove to be sustained rather than ephemeral.

I hope that a positive byproduct of the MeToo movement is that the traditionally male leadership at law firms are really beginning to think intentionally about this issue,” Smith said. “It’s certainly sparked a lot of conversations at these places.”


LGBT Inclusion

Miami’s Bilzin Sumberg, which landed on top for LGBT inclusion, has a mathematical advantage: it was the smallest firm to complete the survey. But with six LGBT attorneys, it is home to double the number that work at several Florida firms twice its size. And five of the LGBT lawyers are partners, a considerable figure for a 92-attorney firm.  

Brian Adler.

Partner Brian Adler, himself a member of the LGBT community, said the firm works hard to make it a welcoming place. It has been hosting a yearly networking session with OUTLaw, the University of Miami law school’s LGBT awareness group, for five years. It’s also one of the few single-office law firms that sends representatives to the Lavender Law career fair, the National LGBT Bar Association’s annual hiring event.

Adler said the firm also encourages attorneys to take leadership roles in community organizations. He sits on the board of SAVE, South Florida’s leading organization for protecting the rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.

These efforts, taken together, send a message to prospective and incoming attorneys.

“Often, you don’t know the firm’s culture with regard to certain minorities,” he said. “Here, there is no guessing. You don’t have to dig very deep to know our stance on inclusion.”

Adler acknowledged the firm’s size made it easier for him and others to personally reach out and make newly hired diverse attorneys feel at home, but he argued the spirit of openness would continue even with further growth.

“I think it’s something that’s endemic in the attitude we have,” he said. “I can’t see that changing whether its a 100-person firm or a 500-person firm.”