Legal excellence knows no color or gender, reads the tagline for the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF). Unfortunately, NAMWOLF’s egalitarian notion of legal excellence doesn’t extend to size: shockingly, NAMWOLF bars women and minority owned solo and two-attorney practices from even applying for membership .
For an organization that professes a mission of promoting diversity in the profession, NAMWOLF’s size-based exclusionary policy is shocking. Sure, many organizations, even the ABA are criticized for giving short-shrift to the needs and priorities of solo and small firms. But I’ve never come across an organization serving lawyers that disqualifies solos and small firms from joining at all.
NAMWOLF’s policy comes at a time when increasing numbers of women and minority lawyers are eschewing big firm practice to take advantage of enormous opportunities enabled by the emergence of new law firm business models and beefed-up corporate spending commitments to engage women and minority owned firms. NAMWOLF’s impressive roster of strategic initiatives and membership benefits such as referrals, networking and marketing could greatly assist newly-launched solo women and minority law firms in getting a foot in the door.
NAMWOLF’s exclusionary practices also penalize solo and two-person women and minority owned firms that have innovated to reduce the cost of services while improving the quality. For example, rather than pay top dollar for a full-time law firm grad who either learns on the client’s dime or requires costly training, many solo and small law firms work with highly experienced big firm expatriates who offer their service on an outsourced or freelance basis. Through outsourcing, solo and small firms can match or exceed the quality or larger firm competitors at a fraction of the cost and as a result, can offer sophisticated, competitively legal services to the corporate entities that seek NAMWOLF’s assistance in identifying qualified women and minority law firms.
When NAMWOLF was founded ten years ago, many solo and two-person firms lacked the capability to handle big corporate matters. At that time, the cost of computerized legal research services was still high, as were technology solutions – meaning that only the most deep-pocketed law firms could afford the accoutrements like Westlaw/Lexis or law firm extranet – to meet corporate clients’ demands. So arguably, NAMWOLF’s size-based eligibility criteria was justified back then.
But what a difference a decade makes. Technological advancements have given solos access to the same suite of powerful tech tools available to their larger counterparts. Today, a solo like myself can (and indeed, has) set up a fully secure, online project management and document portal for fifty bucks a month. Likewise, while most solos serving big firms don’t rely exclusively on low cost legal research tools like Google Scholar, Fastcase or Casemaker, these services have driven down the cost of mainstream research options and made them more affordable for small shops. These changes, collectively, enable solo and two-person firms to do everything that biglaw can – only faster and less expensively, too.
As I see it, there are two possible explanations for NAMWOLF’s continued exclusion of solo and two person firms from eligibility for membership. First, NAMWOLF may be unfamiliar with the capabilities that solo and two-person firms bring to the table. If that’s the case, NAMWOLF ought to educate itself and pronto, because its ignorance suggests that the entire organization hasn’t kept pace with changes in the legal profession and practice of law over the last few years. Alternatively, NAMWOLF may indeed recognize that solo and two-person firms can capably and cost effectively serve coporate clients – but chooses to bar them from membership to insulate existing member firms from competition from lower cost providers.
In any event, it goes without saying that neither explanation for NAMWOLF’s exclusionary policy is justified. How sad that an organization dedicated to promoting diversity within the legal profession must accomplish its goals by diminishing the diversity within its own ranks — not based on legal excellence but on size alone.