First the good news: The percentage of women and minority partners at law firms continued to inch up during 2013, according to the latest figures from the National Association for Law Placement.

Now the bad: The percentage of women associates at law firms fell for the fourth straight year, even as the percentage of minority associates continued to rise.

“Since the recession, we have seen the figures for women associates drop each of the four successive years,” NALP executive director James Leipold said. “While minority associate numbers also dipped immediately after the recession, they quickly rebounded, while the numbers of women have not. This is a significant historical shift, and represents a divergence in the previously parallel stories of women and minorities in large law firms.”

This year, women accounted for 44.79 percent of associates, down from 45.66 percent at their peak in 2009. By contrast, the percentage of minority associates rose from 8.36 percent in 2009 to 20.93 percent in 2013.

NALP hasn’t researched why the ranks of women associates are thinning while those of minority associates are increasing, although Leipold said it could be because some women are deciding not to pursue law firm careers, given increased attention to how demanding those jobs are and because the path to partnership has narrowed.

“You only have to have women opting out in the margins to see the total percentage go down,” he said. “We may see a plateau—a leveling out of what had been a consistently upward curve until 2009. That’s one interpretation.”

Enrollment in law school also could be a factor, as the percentage of women in law school has fallen slightly since 2009, according to the American Bar Association.

Meanwhile, this year’s rise in minority associates has helped to make up ground lost in 2009 and 2010, when widespread law firm layoffs hurt overall associate diversity.

Among law firm partners, minorities accounted for 7.1 percent this year, up from 6.71 percent last year. Similarly, the percentage of women partners rose to 20.22, up from 19.91 last year. Minority women partners continue to be vastly underrepresented, at just 2.26 percent.

The total percentage of women at law firms grew slightly in 2013—the second consecutive year of gains following a two-year decline, but all of that growth was among partners. Minorities now comprise 13.36 percent of all law firm attorneys, according to NALP, up from 12.91 in 2012.

However, the percentage of women and minority summer associates from the most recent class both fell slightly this year compared to 2012, although their percentages were higher than in the years before 2012.

“While the percentage of women partners, small as it is, has continued to grow each year, sustained incremental growth in the future is at risk if the percentage of women associates continues to inch downwards,” Leipold said. “This should be a red flag for everyone in legal education and the law firm world.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.