Gabrielle Lyse Brown, director of diversity and inclusion for the New York City Bar Association. Courtesy photo.

New York’s midsize law firms are struggling to achieve diversity, especially at the partnership level.

While the vast majority of midsize firms have programs in place, Interviews with firm leaders, analysis of diversity data, discussions at professional meetings and conversations with experts reveal that midsize firms are no more diverse than their larger competitors.

Consider this:

  • 92 percent in top management at New York’s midsize law firms are white as are 73 percent of associates, according to New York City Bar Association data.
  • Even law firms that pride themselves on diversity concede that few if any equity partners are diverse.
  • While celebrating diversity at the New York State Bar Association in January, the frustration was palpable. An African-American tax attorney who started his own business 25 years ago because no firm would have him said he was tired of hearing the same panel discussion every year without seeing results.
  • In upstate areas such as Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo and in New York City suburbs, such as Long Island, law firm leaders say they’re having a very difficult time diversifying.
  • Several midsize firms are so uncomfortable with the makeup of their workforce that they declined to discuss the subject publicly.

Despite the sobering statistics, it’s not for lack of trying. Almost 97 percent of midsize firms in New York have an active diversity committee or council and the same percentage of firms have a dedicated diversity budget. Nearly 94 percent of the midsize firms have affinity groups while 84 percent have diversity mentorship programs.

But all is not lost.

“I do think the compelling element is the better practices, which are innovative and strategic—and while there is no magic bullet to diversity, this seems to be moving us in a positive direction,” said Gabrielle Lyse Brown, director of diversity and inclusion for the New York City Bar Association.

Brown said the midsize firms, defined in the 2016 Bar Association data as having between 101 and 250 lawyers in New York, were doing a tiny bit better than larger firms on some diversity measures but the differences weren’t significant.

“I think all of the firms are struggling with these issues—they’re just on a different scale for the larger firms, which have more resources to allocate to these efforts,” she said.

The leaders of midsize law firms agree that a lot is at stake. “The successful firms are the ones who are going to be able to diversify their legal work forces,” said David Burch of Barclay Damon, who is based in the Syracuse office and is the firm’s hiring partner.

But the firm, which doesn’t have any diverse equity partners, concedes that diversifying the workforce is not going to happen quickly.

“Are we satisfied? No. We’re not where we want to be yet,” said David Cost, a partner in Barclay Damon’s Albany office who sits on the diversity and inclusion committee. “But we have a plan and we think that plan is working. We see these efforts as preparing the soil and we’re going to see flowers in the future.”

All the firm leaders interviewed agreed that becoming more diverse is a business imperative.

“More and different kind of voices at the table make for better decisions,” said Craig Wittlin, managing partner of Harter Secrest & Emery in upstate New York.

Wittlin said the firm’s recruiting efforts are complicated by its location outside of the top 20 markets. “The people who are interested in coming to Rochester or Buffalo are people who grew up in Rochester or Buffalo or have some other tie to it,” he said.

“That dynamic is very true in our recruiting efforts generally and in our diversity efforts,” he said, noting that when the firm sends representatives to recruiting fairs at minority bar associations “very frequently we’re not on their radar geographically.”

“I think that every day we come into work saying we can do better and trying to find ways to do better. We’re doing our best and I think we’re making progress,” he said.

Robert Creighton, managing partner of Farrell Fritz, said when he goes to business gatherings—some with more than 1,200 participants—in Long Island where the firm is headquartered he sees very few attorneys of color. Diverse attorneys are more likely to take higher-paying jobs in the city, he said.

“When we go about interviewing for new lawyers we cast a very wide net and we try to get students not only from local schools but also from schools throughout the U.S.,” WIttlin said. “We’re talking internally about whether there are other strategies we can employ to increase our success rates. It would be ideal if our firm represented the diversity of the community where we work.”

Law firms have had more success increasing gender diversity than attracting people of color, he said. “And frankly it’s not for lack of trying but maybe we have to rethink our strategies.”

For instance, Farrell Fritz gives two $5,000 scholarships each year, one at The Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University and the other at Touro Law Center. But the schools pick the scholarship students and as luck would have it this year, neither student is interested in pursuing career paths in Farrell Fritz’s practice areas.

Gabrielle Brown, the diversity expert at the New York City Bar Association, agrees that midsize law firms, like their larger competitors, face many obstacles in recruiting diverse candidates. But after discussing diversity one on one with nearly 50 New York law firms, she does think the best practices listed in the Bar Association report are working.

“I use the marathon analogy when I’m talking to a law firm. You can’t wake up tomorrow and run 26.2 miles,” she said.