Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Diversity Initiative

Many firms have implemented supposed "Diversity Initiatives" in recent years as a response to the underepresentation of minorities in the practice of law. How honest are these initiatives? How many firms honestly care about increasing diversity in the workplace? Lately, many firms have been taking supposed pro-active steps to foster an environment that favors diversity. But do the words "equal opportunity employer" on a firm's website really mean that they intend to hire visible minorities? Does hiring a Diversity Director exonerate a firm from it's duty to create a true and reflective environment where diversity can thrive?

In 2003, the Equal Opportunity Commission issued a report on the representation of minorities and women as professionals in law firms. The report found that the representation of women in the legal workforce has more than doubled since 1975, from 14.4% to 40.3% in 2002. Yet, although the representation of women in the legal workforce is relatively proportionate to the number of women receiving JDs, the representation of racial minorities has yet to follow such example. For example, the representation of African Americans and Hispanics in the professional legal workforce is still proportionate to approximately half of the number who earn JDs.

Statistics aside, I happen to know a few partners at prominent law firms who are from visible minority groups. Of course, I do benefit from living in San Francisco, where diversity is the norm. My one favorite example of diversity in action is the junior partner at a prominent litigation firm who happens to be a Muslim woman wearing the head scarf. Conversely, I also know people who left large law firms, claiming that they felt that their ethnicity made their chances of growth much harder. I remember asking an Asian attorney from another well respected litigation firm about the diversity at his firm. He replied by telling me that his coworkers would often confuse him with another Asian attorney who was a whole foot shorter than him!

As the economy continues to globalize, law firms across America will need to reflect this globalization by retaining attorneys from various ethnic groups. And if law firms are unprepared to do this, we will probably soon see many smaller practices and solo attorneys popping up across the nation, reflecting the diversity of law graduates.

Perhaps, then, it will be the small firms and solos who initiate the change.

Related Links

Friday, May 9, 2008

Lawyers Suffer the Highest Rate of Depression

The California Bar Journal recently published an article, written by Diane Curtis, on the correlation between the practice of law and depression. A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that lawyers suffer the highest rate of depression- 19% of lawyers suffer from depression, where only 3-9% of the general population suffers from depression.

The article mentions the "telltale signs" of depression among attorneys, as noted by a member of the Lawyer Assistance Program of the California State Bar. These signs are generally fatigue, low energy and a sense of being overwhelmed. He interestingly enough calls this depression a "creeping paralysis".

So why is it, then, that so many lawyers suffer depression? One would assume that lawyers would feel pride and a sense of accomplishment. I believe that this sense of pride is exactly what may trigger depression for some attorneys. We struggle so hard to achieve heights in our career with minimal rewards. The article calls the profession of law a "lonely profession" due to the adversarial nature of the work.

Perhaps we need to change the nature of our practice. Perhaps we need to look into the way we practice and figure out what makes us happy. I've met plenty of people who are dissatisfied with the profession of law and I've also met plenty of people who are very satisfied with their career choice. I've noticed that the ones who are more satisfied are ones who have work-life balance and mostly, ones who run their own practices.

So, how do we acheive career satisfaction?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

How Accessible is Too Accessible?

A solo practitioner in Orange County once shared some wisdom with me. He told me never to be too accessible to my clients.

At the time, I was fresh out of the bar. And frankly, I had no clue what he was talking about.

I ignored his advice, freely giving my cel phone number to clients.

Well, 3 years later, I must say that I agree in part with what Orange County attorney. But to his wisdom, I add my own: I also it's important to be somewhat accessible to one's client, without giving away too much of your time.

Some attorneys feel perfectly comfortable giving their personal phone numbers to their clients. I prefer having an answering service that screens my calls. Thus, I have a special phone line dedicated to business use.

It's really not that difficult or expensive to set up such a phone line. The Internet provides many voice-over-IP options nowadays and you can even set some of these services to ring your cel phone. Skype is one service that many of my peers use. RingCentral is another good service.

Once upon a time, I did give my cellular phone number to all my clients. But what resulted (from the odd one or two clients) was my phone ringing at all hours, including Friday nights when I was at the movies.

You see, where some clients respect your privacy and the fact that you have a life outside our practice, there are inevitably the small few that think you must abide at their beck and call.

But, mind you, only a small few.

Recently, I had a client who insisted on working with me, despite the fact that I was too busy to take his case. I referred him to two other solo practitioners. One gave the client an ultimatum on getting in touch with him. The other attorney called him and reached out, even though the client was hesitant. Eventually, the client chose to go with the latter, the attorney who had reached out to him. When I spoke to the client yesterday, he told me that he just didn't feel comfortable being given an ultimatum.

The same thing happened a few months ago with another client, where the client felt like he was being "talked down to" when I referred him to another attorney and was extremely grateful that I took the time to speak to him about the nature of probate and a will.

The bright-line conclusion: Each client is different and the level of accessibility really depends on the nature of the case, the amount of time you have to dedicate yourself and finally, the nature of the client.

Networking With Other Solos

A client came to me by way of referral today. The client wants a will done for his father. Of course, with liability issues and attorney-client privilege, I insisted that I be in touch with the father. The son told me that his father lived in Oakland and that my office in San Jose was too far for him to come down to.

No problem, I said. At that point, I reached out to my network and found office space that I could borrow for half an hour.

In solo practice, networking can be your best tool. It pays to get to know as many solo attorneys as possible. For starters, you can get overflow work from overburdened attorneys. Most significantly, though, you gain a support system and can call on other solos when you need some help. I've come to know quite a few other solo practitioners over the past eight months. Of these attorneys, one is an employment attorney who traded firm life for the solo practice life so that she could have time to enjoy life and to take the types of cases that she wanted to take. She currently shares my office space. Another attorney I got to know in the past few months was a more experienced woman who has been practising family law for over fifteen years. She often shares insight with me and has never hesitated to nudge me in the right direction, as needed.

As for the client I spoke to today, I told him that I would call his father back and let him know where in Oakland I could meet him. By the end of the evening, I already had permission to use the office of another solo attorney whom I recently met.