Midsize law firms are lagging behind both their larger and smaller competitors when it comes to fostering a diverse workplace. The good news is that they appear uniquely positioned to show real improvements if they choose to do so, according to diversity experts.
At law firms with between 101 and 250 attorneys, just 4.65 percent of partners belonged to minority groups, according to 2011 numbers compiled by NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement. Minorities represented 15.05 percent of associates. In both categories, midsize firms had lower minority percentages than law firms of any other size.
Despite their low numbers, midsize firms are well positioned to make improvements, said Kendra Brown, chairwoman of the National Black Law Students Association. On the one hand, they are big enough to provide a pool of diverse attorneys to promote mentorship, she said. On the other, they are small enough to foster a sense of community and inclusion.
"They tend to be more regionally specific," Brown said. "Larger law firms have a larger budget for networking across the country, but it would be easier for regional firms to have more networking relationships among students and alumni. They have the immediate impact on their schools in the region."
Compare the midsize numbers to two other categories of law firms: At firms with between 251 and 500 lawyers, 6.26 percent of partners were from minority groups, and 18.21 percent of associates, according to NALP. At firms with fewer than 100 lawyers, minorities equaled 6.5 percent of partners and 15.38 percent of associates.
The biggest firms posted the highest diversity numbers. At those with 701 or more attorneys, 7.8 percent of partners belonged to minority groups and 22.9 percent of associates.
Part of the struggle for some midsize firms when competing with larger firms for diverse hires is the latter's proximity to major urban areas, said Scott Murphy, managing partner of Hartford, Conn.-based Shipman & Goodwin, which has about 145 attorneys. Especially on the East Coast, midsize firms in smaller cities lose out when vying for top-performing minority applicants from strong schools, who often prefer bigger cities, he said. "There are larger, more diverse professional communities in those places." Starting salaries are higher in big cities, too.
As for midsize firms performing worse than smaller firms, Murphy couldn't explain the reason. In fact, "there's not a single explanation," said James Leipold, executive director of NALP. The location of firms, he said, plays a major part, and with small firms the addition or loss of even one minority attorney means a big change in terms of percentages.
Some midsize firms, including those that enjoy the benefit of big-city demographics, are making good progress. At Chicago-based Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione, which has 134 attorneys, more than 18 percent of the attorneys belong to minority groups, according to the Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Database for 2012. Those percentages include ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability and account for partners, associates and of counsel positions.
Fifteen of Brinks Hofer's 48 associates are minorities, as are 10 of its 78 equity partners. Among partners, one is African-American, two are Hispanic, five are Asian and two are openly gay or lesbian. The firm focuses on intellectual property law.