After nearly six years at Cantor Colburn, Atlanta attorney Daniel Mitchell decided it was time to broaden his horizons beyond patent prosecution.
Mitchell joined the intellectual property boutique’s Georgia office after graduating from law school in 2016 because he knew he would get plenty of experience and hands-on work, like drafting patent applications. In February, he made the jump to Duane Morris, a much bigger company that brought in nearly $600 million for the year.
Mitchell was one of thousands of associates who moved into Big Law amid a frenzied hiring market for associate talent, known as “side hires,” as demand surged for services high-end legal.
Many large law firms have expanded their network to find lawyers to fill the roles. They looked outside the usual recruiting criteria (a degree from a top school like Harvard or Yale, perfect grades, and experience at another top company) in an effort to increase staff numbers.
In doing so, whether by design or by accident, recruiting teams have ended up increasing the number of diverse lawyers in law firms that have long struggled to attract and retain lawyers of color.
Increase in diverse hiring
Lawyers of various races accounted for 4.94% of all lateral hires made by the nation’s 100 largest firms last year, according to data provided by Firm Prospects. That’s an increase of nearly 2% from 2019, which saw miscellaneous attorneys account for 3.14% of lateral hires.
Big Law’s recruitment war has created opportunities for lawyers of color who may have been overlooked because of where they went to school, as well as those who shunned big business in favor opportunities in public service or in boutiques, like Mitchell.
“I’ve seen them consider applicants that I don’t think would have been considered if it was 2018 or 2019, especially diverse applicants, and I’ve seen those applicants receive multiple offers” , said Chantal Raymond, CEO and founder of Inclusive. Legal Search, a recruitment firm specializing in the placement of lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds.
When demand stabilizes, will law firms continue to be so open-minded or will they fall back on their rigid hiring criteria?
“Companies that are prepared to do things differently than they were before Covid will thrive in the talent war, and the rest have a slim chance of survival,” said Kathryn Holt Richardson, Founder and Director of HR Legal. . Research.
Soaring demand has forced some law firm executives to realize they simply can’t hire the way they always have, Raymond said.
In 2021, the Am Law 100 firms made 21,948 lateral hires and 1,088 were miscellaneous attorneys, according to data compiled by Firm Prospects. The group defines a racial diversity lawyer as a lawyer who has self-identified as diverse due to membership in various affinity groups, either in law school or the bar, etc.
In contrast, in 2019, the same group of companies recruited 17,720 lateral hires, of which only 557 were diverse.
Big law firms facing growing workloads don’t just need more bodies, said Anthony Upshaw, global head of diversity and inclusion at McDermott Will & Emery. They need lawyers with the skills and experience to complete the work as quickly as possible.
“You have to hire people who can close the deals, you can’t just go through the normal pipeline and expect the work that’s been generated right now to be done. You need an associate who is a fourth- or fifth-year associate who already knows how to do this,” Upshaw said.
Some firms “all want to drink from the same well,” Richardson said, drawing lateral talent from other big law firms, many of whom are Harvard, Yale or Stanford graduates, she said.
Now, more and more firms are looking for lawyers who have been able to gain hands-on experience starting in smaller firms, she said. They also attract laterals from municipalities, government agencies, universities, and even internal corporate departments, all places where there is a depth of diverse legal talent.
“There’s this big pool of really, really good lawyers that they wouldn’t have gone to before they had this dire need and then guess what, you find some really, really great talent there,” Upshaw said.
Getting diverse talent in the door is only one piece of the puzzle. Firms that want to keep these lawyers also need to make sure they have access to jobs that give them the opportunity to grow and partner.
Mitchell said Duane Morris stood out from other Big Law contenders by including his diversity and inclusion team in one of his interviews. Joe West, the company’s D&I chief, detailed how Duane Morris would support Mitchell in his new role and the job assignment, he said.
“They’re actually looking at which cases are assigned to which associates and they not only want to make sure that various associates or associates in general get work, but they want to make sure that you get meaningful work and that’s a really big problem.” Mitchell said.
New pool, new cities
Various lawyers are often the first lawyers in their family, leaving them without the extensive legal network and understanding of the legal market that others may have, said Ru Bhatt, a legal recruiter with Major Lindsey & Africa.
Maybe they didn’t have access to the same LSAT prep classes to help them get into a top-tier school, which can lead to a high price tag and the burden of student debt.
Big Law’s willingness to look beyond these schools “opens up all these diverse lawyers that they wouldn’t necessarily have been open to before,” Bhatt said.
Companies have also expanded beyond the main markets of New York and San Francisco, opening offices and creating new opportunities in regional markets.
“A lot of people look beyond the city limits where they have an office to find associates, and sometimes they find it, there are a lot of diverse associates who live in different markets that they want to employ,” said said Upshaw.
Large law firms have long struggled to diversify their ranks. According to the National Association for Law Placement, attorneys of color made up just 27.6% of partners and 9% of equity partners last year.
It remains to be seen whether companies will continue to look outside the traditional pipeline when the pace of work slows and demand falters.
“Some companies say, ‘We just need diverse associates and we’ll do whatever it takes,’ while others say, ‘Let’s take a step back and look holistically at our recruiting process and see what we can do to change things. “” Bhatt said.
According to Raymond, relying exclusively on rigid hiring criteria like schools and grades doesn’t tell you who will succeed in Big Law.
“The company can’t say ‘we care about diversity and we want to create an inclusive environment,’ but also say ‘well, you have to have mostly A’s from a top 10 school,'” Raymond said. .
The fact that so many diverse candidates have “upgraded” for larger, more prestigious companies could create new opportunities as these mid-level associates move up to higher levels and decision-making positions, Raymond said. .
“I think a lot of diverse lawyers also think it’s our job to pull the next person up,” Raymond said.
And having senior associates of color makes all the difference for emerging diverse talent, Mitchell said.
“I think just being able to see associates who are doing the kind of work you want to do who look like you, who may have had the same experience as you in a diverse environment, I think that says a lot and that I think it just attracts more talent that way,” he said.