Diversity and the Solo and Small Firm Lawyer

By Sandra S. Yamate

Sandra S. Yamate is Director of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. She may be reached at .

Although the past two decades have seen significant attention devoted to the topic of diversity in the legal profession, it should come as no surprise to learn that many lawyers in solo practice or small firms feel disconnected from the profession’s diversity efforts. Much of the emphasis on diversity in the legal profession has been on law school admissions, large law firm and bar association recruitment and retention of minority lawyers, and large corporate clients’ endeavors to diversify outside counsel. Small wonder then if diversity may be of general interest but less relevance to sole practitioners or small firm lawyers. Indeed, even among lawyers in solo practice or small firms who themselves are minorities, concerns about the diversity of the legal profession may, of necessity and practicality, take lesser priority.

Nevertheless, if the legal profession is ever to achieve diversity successfully, lawyers in solo practice and small firms comprise a crucial component in that endeavor. Diversity is not an issue just for law schools or large firms or bar associations or corporations. It is not an issue just for racial and ethnic minorities. It impacts our entire profession, our system of justice, and our society. Solos and small firm lawyers are integral to diversity efforts.

At the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, we frequently encounter lawyers in solo practice or small firms—minorities and non-minorities—who ask why they need to be engaged in efforts to diversify the profession. Given the limitations they may face owing to their size and the demands on their time, realistically what can they do that will have any meaningful impact? Many of these lawyers point out, rightfully, that few organized diversity efforts are suitable to the solo or small firm practitioner. Too often they require time, money, staff, and other resources that the solo or small firm practice cannot spare or could put to better use in other endeavors. Even minority-owned small firms must choose carefully how best to utilize finite resources.

It is misguided, however, to think that sole practitioners and small firm lawyers cannot do as much to advance diversity as their colleagues in larger organizations. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Solo and small firm lawyers willing to hire minority law students as interns and law clerks can provide these students with real-world experience, help them build their résumés, and offer the mentoring opportunities for which students and young lawyers clamor. The students, in turn, can provide welcome support services and research capabilities.

Solos and small firm lawyers, regardless of whether they themselves are minorities, can become active in minority communities. Many minority lawyers feel over-burdened trying to maintain their practices as well as serve the needs and meet the demands of individuals and organizations in their communities. The more lawyers who are able to help share these responsibilities, the more everyone benefits. Community outreach can take the form of organizing and making presentations at “law day” programs in minority communities. It can be service on the board or as a pro bono general counsel for a community-based organization. It can be writing articles on law-related topics that can be translated, if necessary, into another language and reprinted in local vernacular publications. And all of these activities can help generate additional business for the lawyer.

Lawyers in solo practice or small firms who are leaders in bar associations can educate themselves about the particular challenges that minority lawyers encounter and serve as an advocate for programs and resources to address those issues. The ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession is always available to assist in that education process.

Solos and small firm lawyers also can mentor young minorities who are trying to pursue a solo or small firm practice. This need not be done through a formal or organized program. In the organized bar, this can mean guiding other solos or small firm practitioners in the bar’s organization or helping them to find ways to attain work/life/bar participation balance. In practice, it can be as simple as making an effort to have coffee or lunch with a minority lawyer who is newer to solo or small firm practice and being willing to share expertise on topics ranging from office and staff management to personal war stories. And monetary contributions to minority bar associations and community organizations are never turned away.

The Commission understands and appreciates both the challenges and benefits of solo and small firm practice. We offer a range of services, initiatives, and programs to enhance the diversity interests of the solo and small firm lawyer and to support minorities pursuing careers as solos and small firm lawyers.

Appreciating the inconvenience posed when a solo or small firm practitioner is asked to be out of the office, many of the services that the Commission offers utilize technology to minimize disruption to one’s practice and allow participation without incurring travel expenses. For instance, the Commission offers a variety of special-interest e-mail lists such as DiverseNews, which periodically sends news blurbs to help the busy lawyer keep abreast of diversity issues, and KeepUp, which alerts lawyers to upcoming diversity-focused programs and activities across the country. Recently we launched web boards and blogs to supplement mentoring books that we’ve published. These web boards, blogs, and books allow experienced minority lawyers—such as minority women lawyers or minorities active in local bar leadership or minorities seeking to build their practices as minority-owned firms—to share their insights and experiences with each other and with less experienced lawyers and law students.

The Commission makes its newsletter and various reports available for easy downloading from its website at no charge. We archive diversity articles, research, and reports so that they are available for lawyers who are writing articles or otherwise trying to stay current with diversity statistics, programs, and scholarship.

The Commission is also engaged in pursuing initiatives that will directly benefit the solo and small firm practitioner. One new initiative focuses on educating insurance companies about the need to increase their efforts to diversify their outside counsel. We are very encouraged by initial response to this initiative and anticipate that as it becomes established, it will result in long-term benefits for many solos and small firm lawyers for years to come.

For minority sole practitioners and minority-owned small firms, the Commission’s Minority Counsel Program is of particular interest. This program brings together minority lawyers and corporate clients looking to diversify their outside counsel. The program fosters opportunities for minority and small firm lawyers to build mutually beneficial business relationships with corporate counsel and to collaborate with large law firms to provide legal services to corporate America.

The National Conference for the Minority Lawyer, a joint program that the Commission presents with the ABA Section of Business Law, traditionally includes programming specifically designed for solos and small firm lawyers as well as more general programming and discussion groups that provide the camaraderie many solos and small firm lawyers particularly enjoy.

In fall 2007 the Commission and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute on Race and Justice at the Harvard Law School will offer a program called Running for Office. The program will train lawyers to run for offices such as local school boards, town and city councils, judgeships, and statewide offices. We expect that the part-time nature of many local public offices should make this program of particular interest to solos and small firm lawyers.

The Commission is charged with promoting the full and equal participation in the legal profession by minority lawyers. Consequently, we serve and support lawyers in all practice settings, including our colleagues in solo and small firm practice. Some lawyers promote diversity, some champion it, and many more need it. The Commission is here, ready to lead, guide, or lend support—whatever is needed. We are here to aid solo and small firm lawyers in their diversity endeavors and to address their diversity needs. We welcome ideas and suggestions about how we can better accomplish that.

More information about the Commission’s services, initiatives, and programs is available at www.abanet.org/minorities.


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Copyright 2007

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