Do Small Firms Have a Diversity Problem?


A few weeks ago, I asked a local solosmall email list whether small firms have a diversity problem. My question was prompted by a job posting from a small firm made up exclusively of young, white men (except for the secretary, who was a young, white woman).1 On reflection, I could not think of many small firms with any better diversity (including my own, which, at its most-diverse, was three white men and a remote assistant who was a white woman — oh, and a couple of Irish foreign exchange students from a local law school, both men).

But I didn’t think it was fair to apply my limited anecdotal experience to an entire segment of my state’s legal market, so I tried to crowdsource it. While it is relatively easy to survey big firms for diversity, it would be virtually impossible even to list all the firms with 2–20 lawyers or so in any metropolitan area, much less survey them for diversity.

I figured the members of my state’s solosmall listserv, who come from all over the state, would be able to give me a better idea of small-firm diversity. So I asked, and although I got well over 50 responses, almost nobody told me whether they had encountered diversity in small firms. Instead, I got responses like this:

[T]his resembles a camel in the Sahara, looking for sand. There’s plenty of it, but so what?

I’m really not sure what that means. I also got a lot of reactions like this one, suggesting that many lawyers took the question personally:

My firm consists of two lawyers – one fifty something woman, one thirty something man. Does the fact that we are both white mean that we have a diversity problem?

And a few anecdotes noting the existence of a person who is a member of a racial minority somewhere nearby:

There is an attorney of Chinese ethnicity in the Stearns County attorney’s office. Is that enough diversity for you?

(That one may have been a joke, to be fair, but there were many others essentially identical to it that were definitely not jokes.) Many of the responses went similarly, with an account of the sender’s firm’s makup, and a challenge — “Is that diverse enough for you?”

Just by asking about diversity, I guess I set myself up as a target for people who either don’t want to talk about diversity or don’t believe there is a diversity problem in small firms. I felt like I was asking the NFL about concussions.

It would be easy to assume that these comments come from people who are defensive because their own firms lack diversity, but that is not necessarily the case. Some of the lawyers I quoted about are diverse in their own right, or come from firms most would consider diverse.

So in the end, I still don’t know whether small firms are diverse, much less whether or not we should consider the existing level of small-firm diversity to be a problem. What I do know is that most small firms don’t do a lot of hiring. A very small firm may hire just a handful of people during its existence. That’s not a lot of opportunity to introduce diversity, and I wonder how many small firms even consider diversity when taking on a partner. Maybe a lot. Maybe none. And if small firms tend to be homogenous as a result, is that a problem?

One person who responded came at the issue from a different angle:

I started my career in Biglaw and periodically hang out at events where someone is addressing the “lack of diversity” in the profession – without questioning the unspoken assumption that “the profession” is big firms. Biglaw was invented by old white guys between 1900-1970, and it continues to bear all the hallmarks of its era. Expecting it to accommodate difference in any meaningful way is (in my opinion) like expecting a cruise ship to sprout wings and fly. That’s just not what it’s for.

So after hanging my shingle, imagine how fun it was to discover where the missing “diversity” was hiding… in plain sight, in solo practice. Pretty much every Title VII protected class I can think of is “overrepresented” among solos and smalls relative to Biglaw.

In other words, maybe solosmall, taken as a whole, is more diverse and that’s a problem.

Still, I am no closer to an answer, so I will try again. Do you think small firms are diverse? Do you think the level of diversity you have observed in small firms is a problem? Why?

Featured image: “Image of businesspeople’?? silhouettes in a rush” from Shutterstock.

  1. I did follow up with one of the owners. He said his first two hires were women, although the next few happened to be men. And even though the firm photo had only men, they recently hired a female lawyer who was not yet on the website. He said he was sensitive to the perception that his firm lacks diversity, and that the firm is doing its best to address it.


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  • I am a solo currently. We have all women so far but one is Puerto Rican and I am hiring a Puerto Rican attorney out of law school this year. And yes one of my staff is a blonde! LOL.

    • Paul Spitz

      Does no men mean that you are not diverse, or does it mean that you are 100% diverse?

      • I am ethnically diverse but not diverse in gender. Might hire a black homosexual male soon and then I think all my bases are covered.

  • Here’s a question: how diverse is the pool of Minnesota lawyers in general? While I assume that the Twin Cities have a fair percentage of non-white lawyers, I also assume (and again, it’s just an assumption) that there are fewer diverse lawyers who already live in other parts of the state or are willing to move to other parts of the state. This, in turn, is based on an assumption about the diversity of Minnesota’s population as a whole.

    Also, are you including LGBT lawyers in the diversity calculus?

    Finally, while women in general are under-represented in the ranks of Biglaw partners, are women (particularly white women) under-represented as attorneys in small firms, either in Minnesota or nationally?

    • I don’t have a diversity calculus. I am not trying to be the arbiter of anything. I am trying to find out what other lawyers — nationwide — think about small-firm diversity. This seems to be a near-impossible task, because everyone just wants to tell me about their own firm, and ask whether it meets with my approval. Or lash out at me for asking the question. Or divert the inquiry.

      You work with a lot of small firms. Do you consider them diverse? Do you think the level of diversity you observe is a problem, or not? Why?

      • Melanie P.

        I practice employment law in California and am a minority in many respects–black, woman, queer, immigrant (from the Caribbean). It’s easy to feel comfortable and valued in a plaintiff-side environment. Very small firms and solos mostly do that work here. On the other hand, if one doesn’t mind conservative culture and laying low while doing defense-side work, biglaw is the way to go. I’ve done both without a preference. I think my politics are showing a little but it makes a difference in answering your question.

      • Marcia Phillips

        As a black seasoned female attorney who loves and appreciates all people, white, black, etc., the answer to your question is no! I went to great colleges, clerked for a stellar judge, worked for a top notched large law firm and several wonderful political small firms. Now I am working for me and truly loving it. The main reason I answer no is because its true. We seem to speak a different language. People in general do not take enough time to know one another and appreciate the innate gifts we all have. For example, I am very passionate. I enjoy serving others. I am a superb researcher and presenter. But sometimes others will never know this because they do not take the time to know me or notice me and my gifts. They prefer to operate upon bad assumptions partially based in racism and so they miss out. It is my dream to continue to grow my own practice in a diverse fashion.

  • Josh King

    Do we care about diversity because we want to a) ensure opportunities for the under-represented or b) keep organizations from having myopic perspectives? Head-counting based on characteristics like race, gender or sexual orientation may be correlated to the first goal, but it’s utterly useless for the second.

    • I think “Should we care?” is part of the “Is it a problem?” question. Diversity is key to achieving both of the goals you identify, but it seems to me that limiting diversity to a few characteristics is pretty antithetical to the entire concept.

      That doesn’t mean it is useless to look at the number of women or gays or people from poor neighborhoods, but that’s just a small-picture look at diversity.

      • Josh King

        Exactly. Looking at high level identity stuff is a very small part of the picture, particularly when it comes to avoiding a uniform perspective. But it’s invariably the only thing that people focus on.

  • Fuzz

    I think diversity for solos/small firms is tough. As a young lawyer, diversity in the law firm setting is often shorthand for a biglaw or midlaw hiring program that hires diverse 1Ls and fastracks them for a summer associate position. (Again, the myopic view of a somewhat recent grad).

    So I see what you’re driving at Sam. My sense is that when the “profession” talks about diversity it’s through useless State Bar and ABA articles that latch on to the resources biglaw and midlaw firms are putting into special programs. I think that’s much less interesting than the a lot of the organic diversity among solos. I also think that most solo/small firms are trying to so hard to balance the demands of running a business with the demands of practicing law that they’re pressed for time and energy to think about diversity (or smart ways to use technology, or marketing, or strategic planning, or succession planning or whatever else the issue is). My sense is that the Plaintiff bar and criminal defense bar is full of characters and diversity and does an OK (but not perfect) job of reflecting the communities they serve.

  • Walker

    The main issue is that what lawyers mean by diversity is “people who have been through a grueling and wildly overpriced weeding and sorting process intentionally constructed from the start to prevent actual diversity and yet who, somehow, in a physical trait that is apparent to strangers, or overt behavior, are otherwise different from the herd.”

    There is no profession outside of priesthood that is more intentionally destructive of actual diversity, and there is no professional that more zealously guards its arbitrary tall barriers to entry. The raison d’etre for the profession is service to those in power, and those in power are all about keeping OUT those without power, and seeing that they don’t have access to the levers of power. Thus, the absurd requirement that one attend a wildly overpriced accredited school in order to sit the even more absurd examination that determines whether one can be admitted to the ranks of the elites — a devastating one-two punch that works beautifully, given that the motive when the system arose was to prevent too many of the “wrong” people (jews, wops, and most especially negroes) from entering the profession.

    As a white guy (solo practice), I get so sick of “diversity” discussions, not because we are diverse but because of the hypocrisy of the droning figures atop a profession that does everything possible to lock out anyone who is different in any meaningful way sitting around holding “diversity” seminars and proposing ethics rules to sanction people for “manifesting bias.”

    Bring back “reading law” where practitioners can train their children or the children of their community and set them up in practice via the age-old apprentice system — end law school debt and abolish the idiot bar exam. Condition admission to practice on three experienced practitioners recommending admission for the candidate, and being willing to put their reputation on the admission certificates of the candidates recommended.

    Watch diversity happen with no one having to say a damn thing about it.