Very few people in Baltimore legal circles would argue that women and minority hiring ratios in the city's biggest law firms have improved over the last five years. Disagreements arise when the discussion turns to whether things are improving fast enough.
"Improved, or gotten better, are relative terms when you talking about minority hirings," said one local black attorney who asked not to be identified. "Five years ago, there were no black partners in the big firms. Today there are maybe a dozen. That's an improvement, sure, but everything is relative."
The election of Kurt L. Schmoke, a former associate at Piper & Marbury, to succeed William Donald Schaefer as mayor of the Baltimore, prompted a number of the larger firms to step up their efforts in hiring minority attorneys, says Nathaniel E. Jones Jr., a black partner at Venable, Baetjer and Howard, where 13 of 275 attorneys are black.
"Firms say they are doing more in terms of recruitment and retention, but they really need to do a better job of it," Mr. Jones said.
Figures provided by four of the city's largest firms -- Miles & Stockbridge, Semmes Bowen & Semmes, Venable Baetjer & Howard and Frank Bernstein Conaway & Goldman -- show that white males dominate local firms, making up from 64 percent to 79 percent of a firm's total associate/partner attorney population.
Moreover, the number of minority attorneys in management positions at these law firms is generally almost non-existent.
Women fare better in terms of total numbers and management positions. At Semmes Bowen & Semmes, with 152 associates and partners, there are 39 women, nine of whom are partners.
Officials at some of the city's larger firms say they are deeply committed to hiring more women and minorities, particularly blacks, but must maintain their firm's hiring standards when interviewing law students.
"What we are looking for is to hire the best lawyer available, regardless of whether they are women or men," said Fred Wolf, a partner at Frank Bernstein Conaway & Goldman, where there are four black attorneys and one Hispanic. We have been less successful on the minority side and are not satisfied with that figure and are endeavoring to increase those numbers."
"We're satisfied with our efforts," said Lowell Bowen, a senior partner at Miles & Stockbridge, where there are 37 female and three black attorneys out of 189. "Obviously, we are looking for good people of any type."
In those cases where a qualified minority applicant is recruited, many officials from Baltimore's big firms complain that in most situations dozens of other firms have made a pitch, too.
In many instances, the wealthier and more prestigious law firms of New York and Washington make a more attractive offer to these highly touted students.
But Patrick Roberson, president of the Monumental City Bar Association, a black lawyers' group in Baltimore, says he understands these arguments made by the large firms but adds that if the city's professional community is committed to improving race relations, "somebody has to take a chance."
TH "The bottom line is that larger firms simply have to stick out their
necks and do things like expand their summer associates program, look beyond the top 20 percent of a law class and try and reach minority students earlier in the [recruitment] process," Mr. Roberson said.
Others argue that many of the larger firms have increased their efforts to attract minority lawyers but can only go so far in establishing new or different standards.
"You just can't bring someone who hasn't done well in law school into a major practice," said Steve Symms, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Bar Association. "It's not fair to them and it's not fair to the client."
Donna L. Jacobs, the first black female partner at Semmes Bowen & Semmes, says what worries her more than the recruitment of minority lawyers are retention efforts at the larger firms. Ms. Jacobs says she sees a disturbing pattern in which new minority hires work for a larger firm for two or three years and then, dissatisfied, leave to pursue other opportunities.