Looking at diversity statistics is always a good test of whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, and the 2013 Diversity Scorecard is no exception. In our latest survey of the largest law firms in the country, we found that last year minority lawyers made up 13.9 percent of all lawyers at the 228 firms that responded to our survey. While that’s up slightly from the previous year, it’s exactly the same percentage as in 2008, before the recession took hold and the overall minority percentage began to dip. If you’re an optimist, you’ll say that our newest survey shows that minorities have recovered the ground they lost in the economic downturn. If you’re a pessimist, you’ll point out that there’s been no real increase in diversity in five years. You might also note that the percentage of African American attorneys remains markedly lower than it was in 2008.

To understand the significance of what’s happened in our survey over the past five years, it’s useful to go back to the beginning of the Diversity Scorecard. In 2000 we found that minorities constituted 9.7 percent of all attorneys at the biggest firms. That figure rose most years—albeit sometimes very slightly—until reaching a high of 13.9 percent in 2008. Then the recession hit. Firms started letting go of attorneys, and minority lawyers were disproportionately affected by those layoffs. Though the percentage of minority lawyers has risen since then, it only means that firms have regained the ground they lost. "When we’re talking about going back to 2008 levels, we shouldn’t be doing it in a celebratory mode," says Laurel Bellows, the current president of the American Bar Association and a principal at The Bellows Law Group P.C. in Chicago. She adds, "We have clearly not found the key to diversifying our profession."

The different racial and ethnic groups covered in our survey have fared differently over the past five years. Asian American lawyers have held steady: They constituted 6.2 percent of all attorneys last year, the same as in 2008. Hispanics also held their own, accounting for 3.1 percent of all attorneys last year, the same as five years ago. The one group to show an increase has been multiracial/other attorneys, who went from 1 percent in 2008 to 1.5 percent last year. By contrast, African American lawyers dropped from 3.6 percent five years ago to 3.1 percent last year.

In addition, we always take note of the percentage of minority partners, because it’s often harder for firms to retain and promote minority associates than it is to hire them in the first place. Our survey shows a sharp drop in minority lateral hires, and a smaller decline in minority partner promotions. Minority attorneys accounted for 10.1 percent of all lateral partners last year, down from 16.4 percent the year before—a decrease from 348 minority laterals to 211. Some 12.9 percent of newly promoted partners last year were minority lawyers, dipping from 14.7 percent the year before—a decrease from 259 to 246.

Still, the percentage of all partners who are minorities rose from 6.9 percent in 2011 to 7.3 percent in 2012. That jump is a result of both an increase in the overall number of minority partners, from 3,130 to 3,286, and a drop in the number of nonminority partners, from 41,961 to 41,654. One possible explanation for the shift is that the senior ranks of law firm partnerships tend to have fewer minority lawyers than the rest of the firm, so partners who retire are more likely to be white.

Top Law Firms for DiversityAll of the top 10 firms in our rankings last year have returned to the head of the class this year. For the second year in a row, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith is our number one firm, with minority lawyers making up 27.5 percent of its 867 lawyers. Interestingly, the Los Angeles–based firm managed to stay on top despite a slight decline in its minority percentage, from 27.9 percent in 2011. Although Lewis Brisbois added a net 14 minority attorneys, it also added a net 49 nonminority attorneys, meaning that minorities are a smaller percentage of the firm’s new head count.

Still, Lewis Brisbois is unlikely to be dislodged from the top of our survey anytime soon. Some 25.7 percent of the firm’s partners are minority lawyers—almost four points higher than any other firm in our survey. Remarkably, more of its minority attorneys are partners (127) than nonpartners (111). According to marketing director Jody Jackson, one reason for the firm’s diversity is that most of its offices are located on the coasts. "There’s a more diverse population in California, New York, and Florida," says Jackson. "Our diversity matches the regions where we have offices." Founding partner Robert Lewis has also made diversity a priority for the firm, says Jackson. "[Lewis] still pays attention to all of the hiring," Jackson says. "We do not target minority firms, but he does look at the diversity of the firms we’re acquiring."

White & Case was the biggest gainer in our top 10, rising from number six to number two. Its minority percentage increased from 23.1 percent in 2011 to 24.6 percent in 2012, even though the number of minority attorneys at the firm actually dropped. Overall, the firm’s U.S.–based head count shrank from 736 in 2011 to 654 in 2012. While the firm lost a net nine minority attorneys, it also lost a net 73 nonminority attorneys—meaning that minorities made up a higher proportion of the firm’s reduced head count. "We do carefully look at our minority lawyers to make sure they’re getting the training and mentoring that they need," says Rudolph Aragon, a Miami-based partner who chairs White & Case’s diversity initiative. "And I think that’s a big part of why we’ve been able to retain, percentage-wise, minority lawyers over and above some of our competitors."

Still, Aragon adds, "it’s always a challenge to recruit minorities. In today’s market, you’ve got heavy competition because there are fewer positions." That dilemma points to the difficulty of increasing diversity during a slow economy. It’s harder to hire new minority associates or create new minority partners when firms don’t feel confident enough to increase their head counts. Clearly, a growing economy is not just good for business, but good for diversity, too.