Law Firms Slow to Embrace Diversity

News Updates

The majority of law associates and attorneys of counsel” who make partner at U.S.-based law firms are white men, despite the growing presence of women and minorities within the law firm population, according to Vault/Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) Law Firm diversity data released Sept. 27, 2011.

Even though more than half of law firm associates and nearly 60 percent of summer associates for the past eight years have been women and racial minorities, white men continue to dominate the partnership ranks, representing more than 76 percent of partners and 79 percent of equity partners, according to Vault.

“The continuing lack of progress towards a more balanced demographic of partners within the law firm community suggests that some current firm leaders do not fully appreciate the importance of diversity,” said Joseph West, MCCA president and CEO, in a statement.

The Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Database was developed in 2004 in cooperation with Accenture, Bank of America, Microsoft, PPG Industries, Sara Lee and Wal-Mart to support the Call to Action, a corporate counsel initiative devoted to increasing diversity at U.S. law firms. Data is compiled from responses to an annual diversity survey.  In 2010, 265 law firms, including the majority of the Am Law 200, the 200 top-grossing law firms in the U.S., as ranked by The American Lawyer, took part in the survey.

Minority Attorneys Make Some Progress

In 2009, minority lawyers were affected disproportionately by the economic downturn, with minority recruitment falling and departures rising, according to Vault/MCCA data released in 2010. These attorneys regained some ground in 2010, however, as hiring and attrition returned to pre-recession rates and the proportion of minority equity partners grew.

Overall, the percentage of minority attorneys in the law firm population returned to pre-recession levels in 2010, at just under 14 percent. Moreover, racial/ethnic minorities represented 21 percent of attorneys hired in 2010, up from 19 percent in 2009.

Retention rates for minority lawyers improved as well: In 2010, 19 percent of attorney departures from law firms were minorities, vs. 21 percent in 2009.

In addition, the percentage of minority equity partners increased to just over 6 percent—the highest rate since 2003, when the Vault/MCCA survey was launched. And minority representation on executive/management committees inched up to nearly 6 percent in 2010.

“We’re happy to see an upturn in minority recruitment and retention after the disturbing results from [the 2010] survey,” said Vera Djordjevich, Vault’s managing editor for research and consulting, in a statement. “The most encouraging news may be the advances made by minority lawyers within the top tiers of law firm hierarchies. On the other hand, smaller summer class sizes mean a narrower recruiting pipeline, while a relatively stagnant partnership leaves fewer opportunities for diverse attorneys to climb the partnership ladder.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.