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Are Small Law Firms Tackling Diversity?

'Diversity' has been a buzzword in the legal profession for decades. However, a  recent article in GP Solo, published by the American Bar Association, asserts diversity efforts have largely been aimed at law schools, large law firms and corporate counsel, thereby ignoring small law firms and solo practitioners.

Many small firm attorneys and private practitioners often wonder why or how they play a role in the diversification of the legal profession, according to Sandra Y. Yamate,  the Executive Director of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, and the author of that article, 

"It is misguided, however, to think that sole practitioners and small firm lawyers cannot do as much to advance diversity as their colleagues in larger organizations. Nothing could be further from the truth," she writes.

In an attempt to get some answers, Above the Law recently released a Small Law Firm Diversity Survey. Respondents were asked to consider several general statements pertaining to diversity, then provide long-form answers.

An example of the statements includes "'Having attorneys or staff from diverse backgrounds is a competitive advantage for small law firms.'" Of the more than 300 respondents who participated in the survey, nearly half strongly agreed with the contention. Just over 21% indicated they agreed and 19% stated they had no opinion. The remaining responses were divided between 'disagree' and 'strongly disagree.'

One response in favor of the statement asserted that a diverse workforce encourages a range of attitudes and potential solutions. The author concluded that “can only help client service.” Conversely, a comment from a respondent against the proposition indicated there is no evidence to support the contention.

Ambrose Moses, III, an African-American solo practitioner in Columbus, expressed dismay with the survey. "Some of the attitudes and mindsets illustrated by some of the comments included in the report are disappointing because it appears that some trained and licensed lawyers are ignorant of American history or have no desire to remedy the societal and individual harm caused by bias, discrimination and injustice."

He labeled some of the comments as "troublesome hindrances to our nation achieving legal, social and economic justice for all." He also express dismay that some of the responses might have been made by judges, court personnel, government attorneys (such as county prosecutors and their assistants), attorneys general (and their assistants), U.S. attorneys and their aides, general special counsel and more.

"This is not to ignore the impact of such attitudes and mindsets held by private attorneys in large and small firms. Rather, it is essential to recognize that when such attitudes and mindsets infect the ranks of our judges, government attorneys, and court personnel, then the bias, discrimination, and injustice continues to be systemic and, I submit, both de facto and de jure,” sums Moses.

Steve Smith, President and Founder of Los Angeles-based GrowthSource Coaching, mentors business people from a myriad of professions, including law. He too dismissed much of what was highlighted in the survey, although for different reasons than Moses.

"Most of what I’ve experienced runs counter to these findings but that could be the legal crowd I’m running around with," says Smith. “Small firms and solo practitioners are usually only focused on a few things: can I find someone I can work with; can I afford the best person I can find; will they stay with me after I teach them all my secrets,” he says.

That’s not to say Smith dismisses the importance of diversity for small firms or solo practitioners. However, he says, "I’m not sure it leaks into the daily practice of running a law firm."

The general consensus in the business world is to be "considered inclusive," says Smith. However, "when it comes to running a business, diversity isn’t usually the first consideration when deciding who to employ. Most of the time, a law firm’s first consideration is whether the candidate fits with the brand and whether they will get along."

Another school of thought in the business world, he says, is that "unless a person has a degree from a name university, maybe (the employer) can pay them less. They won’t pay top dollar unless the (candidate) is bringing a big pedigree.”

According to Smith. "Diversity is fine unless it creates big inconveniences for me and my business." In expressing support for diversity, in general, Smith urges people to be honest when discussing the topic.

"I’m not down on diversity but I want the discussion to be real. It’s one thing to say it but another to live it," he says.

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.

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