Midsize law firms are lagging behind both their larger and smaller competitors when it comes to fostering a diverse workplace. The good news is that they appear uniquely positioned to show real improvements if they choose to do so, according to diversity experts.

At law firms with between 101 and 250 attorneys, just 4.65 percent of partners belonged to minority groups, according to 2011 numbers compiled by NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement. Minorities represented 15.05 percent of associates. In both categories, midsize firms had lower minority percentages than law firms of any other size.

Despite their low numbers, midsize firms are well positioned to make improvements, said Kendra Brown, chairwoman of the National Black Law Student Association. On the one hand, they are big enough to provide a pool of diverse attorneys to promote mentorship, she said. On the other, they are small enough to foster a sense of community and inclusion.

“They tend to be a more regionally specific,” Brown said. “Larger law firms have a larger budget for networking across the country, but it would be easier for regional firms to have more networking relationships among students and alumni. They have the immediate impact on their schools in the region.”

Compare the midsize numbers to two other categories of law firms: At firms with between 251 and 500 lawyers, 6.26 percent of the partners were from minority groups, and 18.21 percent of associates, according to NALP. At firms with fewer than 100 lawyers, minorities equaled 6.5 percent of partners and 15.38 percent of associates.

The biggest firms posted the highest diversity numbers. At those with 701 or more attorneys, 7.8 percent of partners belonged to minority groups and 22.9 percent of associates.

Part of the struggle for some midsize firms when competing with larger firms for diverse hires is the latter’s proximity to major urban areas, said Scott Murphy, chairman of Hartford, Conn.-based Shipman & Goodwin, which has about 145 attorneys. Especially on the East Coast, midsize firms in smaller cities lose out when vying for top-performing minority applicants from strong schools, who often prefer bigger cities, he said. “There are larger, more diverse professional communities in those places.” Starting salaries are higher in big cities, too.

As for midsize firms performing worse than smaller firms, Murphy couldn’t explain the reason. In fact, “there’s not a single explanation,” said James Leipold, executive director of NALP. The location of firms, he said, plays a major part, and with small firms the addition or loss of even one minority attorney means a big change in terms of percentages.

Some midsize firms, including those that enjoy the benefit of big-city demographics, are making good progress. At Chicago-based Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione, which has 134 attorneys, more than 18 percent of the attorneys belong to minority groups, according to the Vault/MCCA Diversity Databases for 2012. Those percentages include ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability and account for partners, associates and of counsel positions.

Fifteen of Brinks Hofer’s 48 associates are minorities and 10 of its 78 equity partners. Among partners, one is African-American, two are Hispanic, five are Asian and two are openly gay or lesbian. The firm focuses on intellectual property law.

SIZE AS ADVANTAGE

Partner Mike Chu sees the firm’s size as an advantage in recruiting. “We’re not so large that it’s difficult to get everybody to rally around a particular issue,” said Chu, who serves on the diversity committee. “The information chain and the ability to know each other have significant advantages. It’s much easier for us to address any problems with respect to diversity that we perceive.”

Results, he said, require recruiting and retention, and the firm believes in targeting them while they’re young. On November 13, some 70 students from the Legal Prep Charter Academies in Chicago took a field trip to Brinks Hofer to meet in small groups with its attorneys. The purpose was to prepare for the school’s mock trial. Brinks Hofer is a founding partner of the charter school, which opened in August and provides a tuition-free, legal-themed college-prep education to a student body that is 95 percent minority and 90 percent low-income.

About once per month, a group of Brinks Hofer partners visits the school to meet with students. “We have been with this program since Day One,” Chu said. “We’re not just throwing money at it.”

Law firms, in general, have improved their outreach, Brown said, although minorities remain woefully underrepresented in the profession. During 2009 and 2010, minority representation declined at law firms — a drop blamed largely on recruitment cutbacks during the economic downturn. In 2011, according to NALP, minority representation among associates in law firms overall rose to 19.9 percent, compared with 19.5 percent in 2010.

Pipeline efforts by firms, law schools and nonprofit legal groups are critical to building the numbers, Brown said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Repeated interaction with minority law students has been key to Hanson Bridgett’s diversity initiatives, said Mike Moye, a partner at the firm and former chairman of its diversity committee. “It’s been a question of establishing consistencies,” he said.

Nearly 19 percent of the San Francisco-based firm’s 144 lawyers are members of minority groups, according to the Vault/MCCA numbers — including eight of its 37 associates and 18 of 84 equity partners. Four of the partners are African-American, five are Asian, three are multiracial and six are openly gay or lesbian of any race.

For the past 10 years, Hanson Bridgett has hosted résumé and interview workshops each fall for minority first-year students from law schools in Northern California. “Some of them have never set foot inside a law firm,” Moye said.

This year, about 90 first-year law students attended. Hanson Bridgett lawyers addressed the entire group, passing along interview and résumé tips, and then students met individually with attorneys in mock interviews. The workshops benefit the students, but they also help the firm “establish a presence” on campus, Moye said. Hanson Bridgett hires only two or three associates each year, he added, but little by little it has gained a reputation as a good fit for minority lawyers. Even if they land a job somewhere else, “we’re doing what we need to do. We’re working for the profession as a whole, as opposed how it affects our firm or even our market.”

Leigh Jones can be contacted at ljones@alm.com.

Source: The American Lawyer's 2012 Diversity Scorecard, *Vault/MCCA Diversity Survey

A browser or device that allows javascript is required to view this content.