Some midsize firms have tried everything: mentoring, coaching, scholarships, committees, associations, lectures, luncheons, sponsorships, scorecards, action plans and even high school internships. Yet, diversity remains out of reach.
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But there are some midsize firms that have made dramatic changes or at least started on the evolutionary path. Here are their secrets:
Marc Landis, managing partner of Phillips Nizer, said the firm decided to expand about two years ago because “it’s critical to not just sit still.” The growth provided a rare opportunity for Phillips Nizer to remake itself, and Landis knew that its diversity numbers were woefully inadequate.
The few female partners were either semi-retired or not practicing, he said. There were no partners of color.
Working with recruiters that were attuned to the firm’s needs, Landis took advantage of several opportunities. By adding at least 10 new partners—many laterals—and making a couple strategic promotions, the firm became a lot more diverse, Landis said.
One of the most prominent hires was Lauren Wachtler, who is now co-chair of the litigation practice.
She’s a member of the Women’s Leadership Board of the Harvard Kennedy School, the Council for the Sackler Center for Feminist Art of the Brooklyn Museum and the lawyer for Same Sky, a trade initiative devoted to empowering HIV-positive women who survived the genocide in Rwanda.
As a former chair of the commercial and federal litigation section of the New York State Bar Association, she is a co-author of the report, “If Not Now, When? Achieving Equality for Women Attorneys in the Courtroom and in ADR.”
Wachtler’s reputation in the women’s rights arena is helping the firm hire female associates who want to learn from her, Landis said. “She’s the new exciting thing that we talk to prospective associates about,” he said.
While the firm doesn’t pay as much as bigger law firms, it’s the supportive environment that attracts partners and associates, Landis said.
In addition to hiring Wachtler, the firm elevated two female attorneys to partner and named a female co-chair for its real estate practice. It also added Asian-American and African-American partners. And of five associates who joined in 2017, four are female, one is African-American and one is Asian-American, Landis said.
In assembling a diverse workforce, Landis said it’s important to take a broad view. So look to hire and promote younger partners, lesbian and gay partners, and partners with different political views, he said.
“I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. We happily bring in talented men and people who are not of color as well,” he said. ”I want to emphasize that while we have promoted many people into leadership roles and leadership opportunities, we haven’t discarded our senior people.”
“When diverse attorneys come, we make sure they’re focusing on high-level cases so their careers can take off,” said Latisha Thompson, a partner in Morrison Cohen’s business litigation department.
That means exposing diverse attorneys to the firm’s biggest and most influential clients, she said.
“I think the challenge for midsize firms is getting diverse attorneys in the door,” Thompson said. “It’s harder to get diverse attorneys in the door but when they get here, something really special can happen.”
Thompson said she was the first lawyer in her family and lacked grounding in important skills such as how to generate business. But she learned from chairman and managing partner David Scherl and other mentors.
“Mentors don’t have to look like you,” she explained. “I think a lot of times you have firms say they’re going to place the Latina associate with the Latina partner or the black associate with the black partner. One of my best mentors has been David Scherl who is a Jewish man,”
She suggests many ways to nurture diverse attorneys such as allowing them to appear in federal court.
There have been times, she said, when she was the only woman arguing cases and all the other female attorneys were “carrying boxes and didn’t say a word. When you have that dynamic, what tends to happen is diverse attorneys leave the firm.”
“It makes a difference when women attorneys, attorneys of color are in a position where they’re visible. Not just in the office writing briefs,” she said.
Compared to Big Law, midsize firms have fewer levels of hierarchy, more flexibility in staffing and more opportunities for hands-on experience, Thompson said.
“Because of the size of the firm, there’s not a danger you’re going to be lost. Your talent won’t go unrecognized,” she said.
But even with all these strategies, Thompson acknowledges that the firm could be more diverse.
“We’ve done really really well in terms of promoting diversity,” she said. “We are not where we want to be but we’re certainly getting there.”
David Burch, the hiring partner at Barclay Damon, said the firm has a 1L summer associates program for diverse attorneys. It hires associates from an unrepresented background, such as racial diversity or sexual orientation, for the program.
The firm recruits for its offices in Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo on law school campuses in the fall, does interviews in the winter and employs the associates during summer break.
“When they’re here for the summer, they’re just like any other summer associate. They’re shadowing and doing real work,” Burch said. “Sometimes folks stay with us a long time and sometimes they don’t.”
David Cost, a partner in the Albany office who sits on the diversity and inclusion committee, said each office sets goals for diversity.
“In Albany, we made a conscious effort to attend diverse bar association and community events,” he said.
Each associate is assigned a mentor and the firm has potlucks where the staff shares dishes from their ethnic background, he said.
“The thing that I think I learned growing up in a fairly majority white community in upstate New York and then when I went off to college and law school is it’s important to immerse yourself in different viewpoints,” Burch said.
He added that it’s important to have long-term diversity goals.
“We’re thinking so far into the future on some of these issues that in Syracuse we have had high school internships for some of these people,” he said, hoping that the exposure will encourage students to go to law school and perhaps one day return to Barclay Damon.
“Diversity and inclusion at Barclay Damon is a daily commitment,” Cost said. “It’s at the forefront of what we do. That’s the great thing about it. It’s an attorney and staff effort that we think sets us apart from some of the other firms.”