New Jersey firms made virtually no progress this past year in their efforts to improve gender and ethnic diversity, a Law Journal survey shows.

Women made up 28.78 percent of total lawyers at the firms studied, slightly less than 29.43 percent last year. And minorities also dropped a tad, to 8.05 percent from 8.42 percent.

In raw numbers, there were 2.91 percent fewer women and 5.08 percent fewer minorities in the lawyer ranks of the 20 firms that made up the sampling in this year’s and last year’s survey. SEE CHART.

Women advanced in partnership by 4.23 percent while minorities stayed flat. But nonpartner positions suffered declines: 5.83 percent for women and 6.63 percent for minorities.

By comparison, total partnerships at the studied firms increased by 4.6 percent and total nonpartner positions fell by 5.6 percent.

The nonpartner population was flat or in decline at 17 of the 20 firms. Only Archer & Greiner of Haddonfield, Lowenstein Sandler of Roseland and Reed Smith of Princeton saw increases. But 14 firms posted gains in the partner population, all but Day Pitney in Parsippany; Drinker, Biddle & Reath in Florham Park; Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus of Bridgewater; Reed Smith of Princeton; Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti in Morristown; and Sills, Cummis & Gross of Newark.

Reed Smith of Princeton had the highest percentage of women partners among the group of firms studied (29 percent) while Lerner, David, Littenberg, Krumholz & Mentlik of Westfield had the lowest, at 3 percent. Reed Smith also had the highest representation of minorities among its partnership (17 percent) while Day Pitney had none.

The highest concentration of women nonpartners was at Drinker Biddle (48 percent), while Lerner David was the lowest (17 percent).

Among minority nonpartners, the highest concentration was at DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole of Teaneck (25 percent) and Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis of Woodbridge had the lowest (5 percent).

This year’s results — with both minorities and women posting slight gains in partnership but losses in nonpartner jobs — contrasts with last year, when minorities increased in partnership and nonpartner jobs over 2010, while women showed losses in both categories.

The challenge to law firms in hiring and retaining a diverse team of lawyers will get harder in coming years, as law school enrollments are dropping and student bodies are becoming less diverse.

The American Bar Association reports that first-year law school enrollment in 2011 declined 7 percent from the previous year.

Meanwhile, a 2010 Columbia University study found a decline in representation of minorities in law schools. In 2008, 7.3 percent of law school matriculants were African American and 1.4 percent were Mexican American, while in 1993 the matriculants were 7.9 percent African American and 1.6 percent Mexican American.

The study, conducted in conjunction with the Society of American Law Teachers, did show a slight increase in Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics in law schools over the same period.

A study by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote advancement of women in the workplace, found enrollment of women in American law schools fell to 47.2 percent in 2010, from 50.4 percent in 1993.

“The pool of diverse future lawyers is growing smaller, not larger,” says Ronald Riccio, general counsel at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter in Morristown and the dean of Seton Hall University School of Law from 1988 to 1999.

“That’s going to create a challenge,” says Riccio. “It means you’ve got to work harder and you’ve got to recommit yourself to the goal.”

Riccio co-chairs McElroy Deutsch’s Diversity Initiative, formed four years ago to aid both recruitment and retention of women and minority lawyers. He says clients continue to put an emphasis on hiring firms whose lawyers come from diverse backgrounds. The initiative’s goals are “that diverse lawyers feel welcome at the firm” and “that they are part of the mainstream.”

The best predictor of minority associate recruitment at a law firm is the percentage of minority partners at that firm, wrote William Henderson, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, in an article in the July 2012 edition of the NALP Bulletin.

Henderson conducted an analysis of law firm demographic data collected by NALP (formerly the National Association for Law Placement).

Further, Henderson found no diversity cross-over effect: A large concentration of female or Asian partners, for example, does not help recruit African American associates.

“We would have more African American [or Hispanic or Asian or female or LGBT] associates if only we had more African American [or Hispanic or Asian or female or LGBT] partners. But getting more diverse partners will be slow going until we become better at retaining, rather than just recruiting, diverse associates,” Henderson wrote.

Even law firms that lack a diverse partnership can provide young minority lawyers with the same guidance that they seek from partners of the same racial group, Henderson says. Law firms improve the odds of minorities making partner when they focus on associate skill development and provide regular, ongoing formative feedback, he says. And so-called “free market” work allocation systems, which provide “uneven or disjointed work flow to junior lawyers,” do a disservice to associates and law firms alike, he says. •