Many law firms, looking to boost their diversity, have launched formal committees or initiatives to attract and promote women and minorities.
Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano, a 37-lawyer workers’ compensation and personal injury firm based in Philadelphia, found it took a less formal approach to outdo most of its peers.
Among personal injury firms in Pennsylvania, Pond Lehocky’s demographics show far-above-average diversity, with nearly equal numbers of men and women among its lawyers. Founding partner David Stern acknowledges that there’s more to be done—the four-lawyer partnership is still all-male, for one thing, and the percentage of nonwhite lawyers remains just under 15 percent. But abandoning an old-guard approach to hiring and promoting has helped shape the firm’s makeup and culture, he said—and it’s been good for business.
Plaintiffs firms in Philadelphia are dominated by white men, with women making up 28 percent of their head count and minorities 7 percent on average, according to The Legal’s annual survey of trial lawyer diversity. That survey has shown progress over the past decade, but it has been slow at most firms. Many personal injury firms hire new lawyers infrequently and keep their head counts low, so there are few opportunities to fix the problem.
Still, a few firms stand out for having nearly equal numbers of male and female lawyers and at least some racial diversity in their attorney ranks. One of them is Pond Lehocky, a 7-year-old firm focused on workers’ compensation claims.
Pond Lehocky started with five white men and one Asian-American woman. But the partners weren’t content with that balance.
“I don’t think it’s a good culture or work environment to have a fraternity,” Stern said. “Maybe that was fun in college, but I think as a professional, having a culture where it’s a diverse group of people where we’re all working for the same endgame or cause, that just makes for a better place to work.”
A New Approach
Beth Kaufman, a former president of the National Association of Women Lawyers and managing partner of a certified woman-owned firm in New York, said not all firms need quotas or other strict policies to increase diversity, but law firms need to be deliberate and broad in their recruiting if they are serious about hiring minorities and women. For large firms, a diversity initiative, program or policy may be necessary, she said, but at smaller firms, it could be as simple as seeking large applicant pools, or specifically telling a recruiter to find diverse candidates.
If “you’re not proactive expressing your diversity goals, then they don’t have any incentive,” Kaufman said.
Pond Lehocky was formed in 2010, when law firm Martin Banks Pond Lehocky & Wilson broke up. As it has grown to nearly 40 lawyers, the firm has consciously sought out diverse applicants in its hiring process, Stern said.
“As a personal injury firm, our clientele is diverse. So I think that the lawyers who represent the clients … should fall in line in terms of having some diversity,” Stern said.
Stern said there was no hard-and-fast rule requiring the firm to interview diverse applicants. But the firm screened a lot of candidates when an opening existed, he said, so there tended to come from a variety of backgrounds. Many were pulled from the defense bar, but in the last few years the firm has brought in more entry-level hires from law schools.
What the firm hasn’t done, he said, is rely on existing acquaintances, which may reduce the likelihood of a homogeneous firm.
“We haven’t hired a friend’s kid,” Stern said. “We’ve never really gone that route, so I don’t think we’ve ever been in that position where we have only candidates that look like our friends.”
In terms of retention, Stern pointed to two factors that help maintain diversity: making sure lawyers in leadership don’t all look alike or come from the same background, and facilitating business development. Leadership doesn’t have to start at partnership, he said, but it could include leading a trial team or representing the firm in a bar association.
Stern said Melissa Chandy, one of the firm’s original six lawyers, is a good example. As a senior associate at the firm, she is the manager of the brief writing department as well.
“Anybody who’s here, it doesn’t matter what you look like, you have the ability to get significant autonomy and leadership roles here with hard work,” Stern said. “There’s really not a lot of mystery in terms of who is going to be the next person to advance here. If you’re the next person in line, the opportunity is yours.”
Pond Lehocky currently has 20 men and 17 women practicing law at the firm. Five of them belong to racial minorities—three are black, one is Asian-American and one is Hispanic.
In contrast, at many personal injury firms in Philadelphia, women make up a quarter of the head count or less, according to The Legal’s most recent survey. And many of those firms just have one attorney belonging to a minority, or none at all.
While his firm is ahead of most of its peers, Stern freely admits that it could be more diverse. The partnership ranks haven’t changed since the firm opened nearly seven years ago. But there are a few associates on that track, he noted, so the firm will likely see more women and minorities in partnership in the foreseeable future.
“I think we do a good job, [but] I don’t know that I’d give us an A-plus,” Stern said.