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.
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.