They are thriving among the ranks of attorneys at the city’s big-name law firms and corporations. They are not just the best and the brightest. Participants of the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group Summer 1L Program are the growing number of rising stars dedicated to increasing diversity among Philadelphia’s legal community.

Philadelphia lags behind the national average (13 percent) and ranks below nearly every other major city in terms of its practicing minority lawyers (approximately 8 percent). In 2001, a group of local law firms and businesses seeking to address this dearth of diversity formed the PDLG, which has since offered several programs encouraging the recruitment and retention of diverse attorneys.

Launched in 2003, PDLG’s summer program invites select first-year law students (1Ls) from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds to interview for internships with the largest legal employers in the area.

Legal internship positions, especially at top firms, are generally coveted among law students because of the potential for offers of full-time employment after graduation. Each year the program receives close to a hundred applications from 1Ls at Drexel, Penn State, Rutgers, Temple, University of Pennsylvania, Villanova, Widener, Howard and increasingly from other schools across the country.

Lois Kimbol, the program’s coordinator and a retired Dechert partner, reveals the broad range of diversity the program encourages: “We look to accept diverse applicants, not just racial minorities. That includes people from disadvantaged backgrounds, underrepresented populations and anyone who has overcome a major obstacle in life.”

This year, a total of 37 1Ls will participate in the program, as compared to the 12 students placed in the program’s first year. The program also facilitated the placement of 10 additional candidates in Montgomery County through the local bar association there. More than 250 students have been part of the program in the 10 years of its existence.

Candidates undergo a rigorous vetting process. In addition to an extensive paper application, students are asked to provide law school and undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation from law professors, and a statement of interest regarding how they qualify for the program and specific connection to the region.

Tiffany Wong, a 1L at Washington University in St. Louis who was selected through the program to be a summer associate at Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, is among the most recent group to complete the program’s application process. She explains that by seeking details about applicants dating back to their years in college, and requiring professors who have taught students for less than a semester to submit recommendations on the student’s behalf, “the program is going to get the notable students, the ones who have consistently made an impact in the classroom.”

Wong’s application in part discussed how, in addition to managing a first-semester course load, she also ran her own business during the crucial first months of law school.

Dana Blue, a mother and a 1L at the University of North Dakota returning to Philadelphia to join the summer class at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, similarly said: “They do a great job of identifying the top-notch candidates who are most likely to succeed at a firm.”

“We really look to get the superstars,” said Danielle Banks, a co-president of PDLG and partner at Stradley.

Kimbol emphasizes how the candidates’ plans after graduating also play a major role in the admission into the program. She conducts screening interviews with prospective applicants at law schools outside of the state.

“The key is that we want people with a connection to the area, who want to practice here after they finish law school,” she said. Only out-of-state 1Ls who demonstrate a genuine interest in practicing in Philadelphia are invited to submit a paper application.

The students remaining after the pre-application and application stages are asked to take part in several rounds of interviews with lawyers from participating firms and corporations. In the final round, law firm and company representatives meet with a small group of randomly selected students to determine which student would be the right fit for the company or firm’s particular business culture.

Once accepted, and in addition to the activities hosted by the firm or legal department where the interns are placed, program participants take part in educational seminars hosted by PDLG that are geared toward promoting professional growth, including training on how to navigate firm culture and group and one-on-one sessions with a mentor focused on improving fundamental legal-writing skills.

Like many of the program participants, Christopher Nana-Sinkam, a law student at Temple who will be interning this summer with Dilworth Paxson, finds the program seminars to be particularly helpful in preparing him to excel as a summer associate. “They are different from what we learn our first year in school,” he said. “They give you a head start on the competition.”

“Believe it or not, I actually used some of what we learned in the writing seminar to finish a brief I was writing at school. Very helpful,” Blue said.

As told by its past participants, one of the program’s key features is that it fosters a sense of community among current interns and alumni, in part through its annual alumni reception, where current and former participants meet law firm and law department decision-makers. Past program participants also volunteer to help provide insight to current participants through program lectures and panels.

And as the program continues to grow, so does the number of diverse legal professionals willing to continue PDLG’s recruiting efforts.

“It is a good network to have,” said Troy Crichton, a program alumnus and associate at Kane, Pugh, Knoell, Troy & Kramer. Since he interned with Wolf Block through the program in 2007, Crichton has attended the annual alumni event nearly every year it has been held.

Diana Cortes, a commercial litigator at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, agrees, listing the mentors and prominent members of the Philadelphia bar with whom she developed professional relationships while interning at Sunoco.

“The larger purpose of the program,” Kimbol explained, “is to introduce people who may otherwise leave for a bigger city to the joys of practicing in Philadelphia.” Many past participants cite the program’s alumni network as a lasting benefit of the summer program.

In addition to its summer program, and in an effort to help keep existing minority attorneys in Philadelphia, PDLG began a mentorship initiative that pairs minority associates with successful firm partners who share their strategies for rainmaking and overall business success.

For three years, PDLG has also coordinated some events with the American Bar Association Litigation Section’s Judicial Intern Opportunity Program, or “JIOP,” a six-week-long judicial internship for diverse candidates that places law students in Philadelphia. More recently, PDLG has offered a free “boot camp” for rising local 1Ls to prepare them for the rigors of law school.

Banks said that while, collectively, these programs have undoubtedly helped to increase the number of new lawyers in Philadelphia with diverse backgrounds, the retention of those diverse lawyers remains the more elusive goal. She believes the growing PDLG network helps. “Everyone agrees — we’ve got to keep at it.” •

Elisa N. Bramble is an associate at Flaster Greenberg and a participant in the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group’s mentoring program. She focuses her practice on commercial litigation and employment matters, as well as trademark and Internet disputes.