With law firms continuing to be dominated by white males and clients expecting more diverse attorneys on their cases, the industry is tasked with finding ways to not only attract women and minorities but fostering an environment that lets those attorneys reach the partner level.
Maryland is no exception. The percentage of attorneys of color who reach partner (or partner-equivalent) at many of the largest law firms in the state is in the single-digits, according to data compiled by The Daily Record. Only four firms reported that at least one-third of their partner-level attorneys are women.
One exception is Maryland Legal Aid, a private, nonprofit firm that offers free, civil legal services to low-income people across the state.
“We try to hire people who can be passionate about representing the interests of that population,” said Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., executive director of Maryland Legal Aid. “We don’t talk about diversity that much. It speaks for itself.”
While Maryland Legal Aid is not structured like the typical large law firm, the organization’s supervising or chief attorneys have responsibilities akin to that of a partner, while staff-attorney responsibilities are similar to that of an associate at other private firms. Forty six percent of Legal Aid’s supervising attorneys are minorities, and 77 percent are women.
“It’s a very simple formula. You do it, you nurture it, you empower it,” Joseph said.
Legal Aid says its hiring process is not a science. In an industry where hiring is often numbers-driven, the organization balances competency with identifying candidates that have, as Joseph puts it, a “fire in the belly” for public interest work.
“People want to work somewhere they relate to,” Joseph said, noting that some of Legal Aid’s attorneys grew up in the communities they now serve.
Data show that women attorneys are more likely to pursue public interest work; on the other hand, more than 70 percent of Legal Aid’s clients are women.
“We are working with our culture, our process,” Joseph said.
The concept of prospective employees wanting to work in firms that reflect their identity is widely part of the diversity conversation.
“Lawyers of color when they see people like themselves in leadership positions, that is one thing that will get them to stay,” said Demetria Johnson, who was recently hired as director of diversity and inclusion at Miles & Stockbridge PC.
The firm is nationally recognized for hiring attorneys of color and has implemented a range of strategies over the years to both hire and retain minorities.
“There’s increasing demand to have diverse teams of lawyers,” said John Frisch, chairman at the Baltimore-based firm. “As the firm has become diverse, our leadership team is more diverse. We get higher quality decisions when the participants in the groups are more diverse.”
About 9 percent of the firm’s partners are minorities, according to data the firm reported to The Daily Record.
“The legal industry has a long way to go but we feel like that we’re off to a great start,” Frisch said.
In 2015, the firm started a hiring practice modeled after the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for each vacant coaching position. Miles & Stockbridge interviews at least one woman, minority or LGBT lawyer for each open position.
The firm has seen a dramatic increase in the diversity of its new hires. In 2016, 48 percent of the firm’s new lawyers were minorities.
After Legal Aid, Baker Donelson’s Maryland office, which was formerly Ober|Kaler in Baltimore, has the highest percentage of attorneys of color, according to data provided to The Daily Record. The firm started a diversity committee in 2002 and set goals to increase the number of minority attorneys at the firm.
“Diversity is part of our firm’s overall strategic plan,” said Mark Baugh, the Nashville, Tenn.-based chairman of Baker Donelson’s Diversity Committee. “Moving our associates to shareholders and trying to retain them is the ultimate goal.”
The firm pairs up minority attorneys with mentors, including another minority associate and a practice group mentor, Baugh said.
“The idea is that we’ll keep an eye on that associate to help them grow,” he said.
Minority attorneys are also encouraged to get involved in targeted bar associations, such as the Hispanic National Bar Association and the Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
“We help them try to find a way to climb and credential themselves,” Baugh said.
Pessin Katz Law P.A., a Towson-based firm with one of the highest percentages of women partners in the state, uses flexible work policies, mentorship and career growth opportunities
“Everybody is really looking out for each other’s success. Tremendous amount of support is given to developing your practice, you voice and your name,” said Elizabeth A. Green, a member of the firm and an estate planning attorney who has been practicing law for 20 years.
Creating that culture is a matter of priority on part of law firms, Green said.
“It takes an effort on the part of firm leadership to be a place that is conducive to people of all types.”