Big Law Hiring Spree Lifts Diversity in Mostly White Industry

After nearly six years at Cantor Colburn, Atlanta lawyer Daniel Mitchell decided it was time to expand his horizons beyond patent prosecution.

Mitchell joined the intellectual property boutique’s Georgia office after graduating law school in 2016 because he knew he would get a lot of experience and hands-on work, like drafting patent applications. In February, he made the jump to Duane Morris, a much larger firm that brought in nearly $600 million over the year.

Mitchell was one of thousands of associates that moved into Big Law amid a frenzied hiring market for associate talent, known as “lateral hires,” as demand has spiked for high-end legal services.

Many Big Law firms have cast a wider net to find lawyers to fill the roles. They’ve looked outside of typical recruitment criteria—a degree from a top school like Harvard or Yale, perfect grades, and experience at another major firm—in a rush to boost headcount.

In doing so—either by design or accident—hiring teams ended up increasing the number of diverse attorneys at law firms that have long struggled to attract and retain attorneys of color.

Uptick in Diverse Hiring

Racially diverse attorneys accounted for 4.94% of all lateral hires made by the nation’s top 100 firms last year, according to data provided by Firm Prospects. That’s up nearly 2% from 2019, which saw diverse attorneys make up 3.14% of lateral hires.

Big Law’s recruiting war has created opportunities for attorneys of color who may have been overlooked because of where they went to school, as well as those who eschewed large firms in favor of opportunities in public service or at boutiques, like Mitchell.

“I’ve seen them consider candidates that I don’t think would have been considered if this were 2018 or 2019, especially diverse candidates, and I’ve seen those candidates get multiple offers,” said Chantal Raymond, CEO and founder of Inclusive Legal Search, a recruitment firm that specializes in placing attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds.

When demand levels out, will law firms continue to be as open-minded, or fall back on their rigid hiring criteria?

“The firms that are willing to do things differently than they were done pre-Covid are going to thrive in the war for talent, and the other ones have a slim chance of survival,” said Kathryn Holt Richardson, founder and principal of HR Legal Search.

Open Doors

Skyrocketing demand forced some law firm leaders to realize they simply couldn’t hire the same way they always had, Raymond said.

In 2021, Am Law 100 firms made 21,948 lateral hires, and 1,088 were diverse attorneys, according to data compiled by Firm Prospects. The group defines a racially diverse attorney as an attorney who has self-identified as diverse through membership in various affinity groups either in law school, bar organization, or the like.

By contrast, in 2019, the same group of firms brought on 17,720 lateral hires, of which only 557 were diverse.

Big Law firms facing mounting workloads don’t just need more bodies, said Anthony Upshaw, the global head of diversity and inclusion for McDermott Will & Emery. They need lawyers with the skills and experience to complete jobs as fast as possible.

“You need to hire people who can do the deals, you can’t just use the normal pipeline and expect to get the work done that’s been generated right now. You need an associate who’s a fourth- or fifth-year associate that already knows how to do that,” Upshaw said.

Big Law Hiring Spree Lifts Diversity in Mostly White Industry

Some firms “all want to drink from the same well,” said Richardson, pulling lateral talent from other Big Law firms, many of whom graduated from Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, she said.

Now more firms are looking at lawyers that were able to get hands-on experience by starting at smaller firms, she said. They’re also pulling in laterals from municipalities, government agencies, academia, and even in-house corporate departments, all places where there’s a depth of diverse legal talent.

“There’s this large pool of really, really good attorneys, who they wouldn’t have looked at before they had this dire need and so guess what, you find some really, really great talent there,” Upshaw said.

Getting diverse talent in the door is just one piece of the puzzle. Firms that want to keep those lawyers also have to ensure that they have access to work that give them an opportunity to advance and make partner.

Mitchell said Duane Morris stood out from other Big Law suitors by including its diversity and inclusion team in one of his interviews. Joe West, the firm’s D&I chief, detailed how Duane Morris would support Mitchell in his new role and the assignment of work, he said.

“They actually review what cases are assigned to what associates and they not only want to make sure that diverse associates or associates in general are getting work, but they want to make sure you’re getting meaningful work and that’s a really big deal,” Mitchell said.

New Pool, New Cities

Diverse attorneys are often the first lawyers in their family, leaving them without the vast legal network and understanding of the legal market that others may have, said Ru Bhatt, a Major Lindsey & Africa legal recruiter.

Maybe they didn’t have access to the same LSAT prep classes to help them get into a top-ranked school, which can come with a hefty price tag and the weight of student loan debt.

Big Law’s willingness to look beyond those schools “opens up all of these diverse attorneys that they would not necessarily have been open to before,” Bhatt said.

Firms also expanded beyond the major markets of New York and San Francisco, opening offices and creating new opportunities in regional markets.

“Many people are looking beyond the city limits where they have an office to find associates, and sometimes they’re finding it, there’s a lot of diverse associates who live in different markets that they want to employ,” Upshaw said.

Changing Criteria

Top law firms have long struggled to diversify their ranks. Attorneys of color made up only 27.6% of associates and 9% of equity partners last year, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

It remains to be seen whether firms will continue to look outside the traditional pipeline when the pace of work slows and demand softens.

“Some firms are like, ‘we just need diverse associates and we’ll do whatever it takes,’ whereas others are like, ‘let’s take a step back and look holistically at our recruiting process and see what we can do to change things,’” Bhatt said.

Relying exclusively on rigid hiring criteria like schools and grades doesn’t tell you who is going to be successful in Big Law, according to Raymond.

“The firm can’t say ‘we care about diversity, and we want to create an inclusive environment,’ but also say, ‘well, you need to have mostly A’s from a top 10 school,’” Raymond said.

That so many diverse candidates have “upgraded” for bigger, more prestigious firms could create new opportunities as those midlevel associates advance to senior levels and into decision-making roles, Raymond said.

“A lot of diverse lawyers also feel that it’s our job to pull the next person up,” Raymond said.

And having senior associates of color makes all the difference for up-and-coming diverse talent, Mitchell said.

“Just being able to see associates that are doing the kind of work that you want to do that look like you, that may have had the same experience as you in a in a diverse environment, that speaks volumes and that I think it just attracts more talent that way,” he said.