Pennsylvania’s plaintiffs bar has continued to diversify its ranks slowly, The Legal’s latest trial lawyer diversity survey shows.
Since The Legal’s first trial lawyer diversity survey a decade ago, those firms have more than doubled the percentage of attorneys who are racial minorities. And the percentage of women lawyers, while stagnant in recent years, has increased as well. But, as in the greater legal industry, the statistics also show a long road ahead toward true diversity at plaintiffs firms.
The 10th annual trial lawyer diversity survey showed growth in the size of the state’s plaintiffs bar, and nearly proportional growth in the number of female and minority trial lawyers, as demonstrated by head count at 33 plaintiffs firms with more than four lawyers.
One minority group showed greater growth than others. The firms surveyed had 24 black lawyers in 2017—4.4 percent of the total 550 lawyers. Last year, there were 16 black lawyers at the same group of firms, representing 3.1 percent of the total.
There were 12 Hispanic lawyers at the firms surveyed (2.2 percent) and eight Asian-American lawyers (1.5 percent). Those numbers showed a very slight increase from 2016, when there were 10 Hispanic and seven Asian-American lawyers. No lawyers accounted for in the survey belonged to a race other than white, black, Hispanic or Asian-American.
In 2017, 92 percent of the lawyers at firms surveyed were white and just 8 percent belong to a minority race. Still, that’s vastly better than in 2007, when just 3 percent of lawyers at the firms surveyed were minorities.
Of the 550 lawyers, 72 percent were male, and 28 percent, or 156 lawyers, were female. That percentage has held steady for three straight years.
A decade ago, just 23 percent of trial lawyers at the firms surveyed were female, and women made up more than 30 percent of lawyers at eight firms.
Now, at 13 of 33 firms 30 percent or more of the lawyers are women. And at six of the 33 firms surveyed more than 40 percent of the lawyers are women.
After The Legal released its first trial lawyer diversity survey, representatives of the plaintiffs bar responded publicly, pledging to work toward greater diversity at plaintiffs firms. Even then, they said, it would be disingenuous to promise that change overnight.
Lisa Benzie, president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, said she’s noticed a change in the plaintiffs bar’s appreciation of diversity. Her own leadership position is evidence of that, she said. Benzie is not the first female leader of the PAJ, but the organization has experienced several-year stretches in the past with no female officers, she said. This year, there are three.
“Having more women in leadership breeds having more women in leadership. It shows there is a pathway,” she said.
As for the fabric of plaintiffs’ firms themselves, she said, there has been a more conscious effort to hire diverse attorneys when openings exist. Though, she admits, it’s a slow process.
Plaintiffs firms “don’t have a ton of turnover … the opportunities for hiring aren’t as much as they are with larger firms,” Benzie said. “I think that’s why it’s taking a little bit longer.”
Sophia Lee, the diversity chair for the Philadelphia Bar Association, said the 2017 numbers are “heartening.” But it’s just a start, she said. “Because these numbers reflect a snapshot in time, we do not have the complete picture of whether women and minorities are being retained, promoted, and given meaningful opportunities to participate fully in the profession, which are the true metrics of inclusion in the legal profession,” Lee said in an email.
And it’s a positive development that black lawyers accounted for nearly a third of the plaintiffs firms’ additions to head count this year, said Kevin Harden, president of the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia. But “there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said.
“I still think much of the lack of diversity in the plaintiffs’ bar is by design, because the trade secrets of the plaintiffs’ bar are closely held, and there are only a few firms who are willing to take the risk inherent in hiring people who don’t come by word of mouth,” he said.
Lee referred to this same tendency as implicit bias in the hiring process.
“For example, we may be unconsciously making a hiring decision based on our personal affinity with the candidate rather than on the objective competencies of the candidate,” she said.
Harden and Lee said plaintiffs firms should be reaching out to affinity bar associations when they have openings. And they should be more transparent about the work they do, to make all young lawyers more comfortable pursuing the career of a plaintiffs attorney. But it’s also an issue for the legal industry as a whole to take on, Harden said.
“We have to have a profession that’s similar to the client base,” he said. “I’d be happy to see it in my lifetime, but I doubt it.”
What Harden does expect, he said, is for more minority attorneys to take an alternate pathway toward growing their numbers in the trial lawyer community. He said it’s likely that minority attorneys will increasingly open their own shops to represent plaintiffs in civil rights and personal injury cases. He mentioned Mincey & Fitzpatrick as an example.
“There’s an increased scrutiny of criminal justice agencies, and with that increased scrutiny, it will be likely that the individuals who are potential clients for plaintiffs firms will be minorities,” Harden said. And “minority attorneys are not going to wait for plaintiffs firms to hire them.”