The Legal’s seventh annual survey looking at diversity among Pennsylvania’s largest plaintiffs firms showed less than a 1 percent increase in the number of female attorneys at those firms and a decrease in the number of attorneys from racial minority groups.
But despite those numbers, a few recent developments may signal that real change is on the horizon.
For one, medical malpractice and personal injury lawyer Royce W. Smith has joined minority-owned Philadelphia plaintiffs firm Mincey & Fitzpatrick as a partner.
Smith, who comes to the firm from Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelernter Tanner Weinstock & Dodig, where he was an associate, said Mincey & Fitzpatrick is committed to growing with diversity in mind.
Part of the motivation for that, Smith said, is to reflect the diversity of the community the firm serves, which is predominantly non-white, as well as the juries it typically encounters.
“I can tell you that, personally, I have had clients who have come to me because they wanted to be represented by someone who looked like them and identified with their families and their life story,” Smith said.
Smith said Mincey & Fitzpatrick strives to be the go-to firm for an underserved minority client base, not just in personal injury cases but in civil rights and criminal defense matters.
“It’s become clear that the community is searching for a place to find answers and a place to find justice,” Smith said. “We want to be that place.”
Mark W. Tanner, co-managing partner of Feldman Shepherd, said the firm wishes Smith “tremendous happiness and success in his new endeavor.”
Meanwhile, Nancy J. Winkler, an attorney at Philadelphia-based Eisenberg, Rothweiler, Winkler, Eisenberg & Jeck and president of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, said the organization has formulated and approved a plan to improve diversity among the state’s largest plaintiffs firms.
The overall aim of the plan, Winkler said, is to widen and diversify the pool of potential hires for plaintiffs firms.
Winkler said that, while it is true that plaintiffs firms hire significantly less frequently than defense firms do, the more pressing issue is that, when plaintiffs firms are hiring, minority attorneys aren’t always aware of it.
Winkler said part of her organization’s plan is to partner with Pennsylvania’s affinity bar associations like the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania, the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia and the Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania in order to help get the word out about job openings to a wider, more diverse pool of potential applicants.
Amber Racine, an attorney with Raynes McCarty in Philadelphia and president of the Barristers’ Association, said plaintiffs firms typically hire through word-of-mouth, meaning news of job openings never reaches beyond a relatively small group of attorneys—a formula that does not promote diversity.
This is particularly true considering that small group that is privy to job openings tends to be made up of attorneys who already know each other, Smith said.
“If they’re hiring or targeting individuals they know from personal relationships or from prior experience at other firms, there’s going to be a tendency against including diverse candidates from other pools,” Smith said.
Racine added that, by limiting the reach of their job advertisements to other plaintiffs lawyers, plaintiffs firms are missing out on quality attorneys with transferrable skills from the defense bar, as well as from prosecutors’ and public defenders’ offices.
“If we don’t reach out to other members [of the legal community] we’re going to lose talent,” Racine said.
Echoing Smith’s statement, Racine said a lack of diversity could actually end up hurting plaintiffs firms’ business.
“We represent the public and the public’s not going to keep using law firms [with attorneys] that don’t look like them,” Racine said, adding that firms that lack diversity run the risk of having potential clients look at their attorneys and wonder, “‘Why is my business good enough for you to represent me for a fee, but people of my background are not good enough for you to hire?’”
“The public’s not stupid,” Racine said. “They will begin to say, ‘Why would I select you when I look at your website and [your roster of attorneys] looks the same way as it did in the ’70s?’”
Winkler noted that, while the PTLA has a job bank on its website that lists job openings at local plaintiffs firms, the organization is now considering a more “proactive” approach, such as a “resume bank,” where prospective employers can find potential hires.
The PTLA’s new diversity initiative looks not only at improving awareness of developments in the plaintiffs bar among lawyers, but also among law students. According to Winkler, part of the plan is to have plaintiffs lawyers visit Pennsylvania law schools to talk to students about what led them to become trial lawyers.
Winkler said the idea is to educate and possibly drum up interest in that type of work among law students who might otherwise be drawn to the defense bar.
“Most law students, they don’t know the first thing about what it is to be a trial attorney,” Winkler said. “By doing that, we can answer a lot of their questions.”
Similarly, Winkler said, the PTLA’s diversity initiative will aim to set up a mentorship program through the various affinity bar associations in which plaintiffs attorneys will take diverse law students under their wings and teach them about the personal injury practice.
Winkler said the PTLA also hopes to establish either clerkships or summer internships at plaintiffs firms geared toward attracting diverse law students.
Jerry Lehocky, an attorney at Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano in Philadelphia and president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, said he has already spoken with Winkler about trying to adopt a similar plan at the statewide level.
“Quite honestly, the statewide organization is really behind the Philly organization on that issue and we need to do a better job,” Lehocky said.
In comparing the firms surveyed in both 2012 and 2013, the total number of lawyers at the largest 31 plaintiffs firms in Pennsylvania decreased by five lawyers, two of which were minority attorneys.
In 2012, 26 out of 461 attorneys, or about 6 percent, were from racial minority groups.
In 2013, 24 out of 456 attorneys, or about 5 percent, were from racial minority groups.
The number of firms surveyed that had no diverse attorneys among their ranks remained static at 13 firms.
The number of firms with more than one minority attorney did rise, however, from six to seven.
As for the number of female attorneys at the firms surveyed, the number rose by one from 117 last year to 118 this year.
In addition, the number of firms who were made up of more than 30 percent female lawyers increased from 11 to 12.
The difference in the percentage of women attorneys varied from nearly 55 percent to zero, but the number of firms with no female attorneys remained static at two for the second year in a row.
Likewise, only two firms had neither a female attorney nor a minority attorney this year.
Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. •