I plowed into the 2018 Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey expecting the same old, same old. And, of course, much of it is depressingly predictable, such as the dominance of (what else?) white men in the ranks of equity partners at law firms.
But—brace yourself—there was some encouraging news too! (Conducted in the spring of 2018, the Vault/MCCA survey analyzed the responses from 232 law firms.) First, the happy stuff:
- Women now make up more than 46 percent of associates and over 20 percent of equity partners. (Although women’s representation remains higher at the non-equity level, breaking that 20 percent mark is a big deal.)
- More women are getting promoted to partnership. In 2017, women represented 38 percent of lawyers elevated to partnerships—a two percentage point gain over 2016 and a big gain from the 30 percent reported for 2007.
- More women than ever are getting recruited as lateral partners. In 2017, 28 percent of lateral partners hired were women, compared to 24 percent in 2016.
- More women than ever are represented among the ranks of new equity partners. It was 29 percent in 2017—a figure that’s higher than any previous year.
- Women have more leadership roles. (24 percent of management committee members are female, as are 24 percent of lawyers leading practice departments and 21 percent of U.S. office heads).
- Lawyers of color are gaining at all levels, from associates to partners to leaders. They represent nearly 17 percent of law firm attorneys, (up 1 percent from last year), and 9 percent of partners. (In 2007, it was 6 percent.) And women of color make up the majority of new hires.
Pretty encouraging news, right? Yes, except that women of color might not be benefiting from the gains made by women generally. Despite the stepped-up hiring of minority women, the report finds two troubling trends:
Progress on retention mainly applies to white women. Though the overall percentage of women leaving firms has been around 40-to-41 percent in the last 11 years, white women are increasingly opting to stay. In 2017, the rate of white women leaving firms dropped below 29 percent. But the report says, “the number of women of color leaving has increased over that same period. In 2010, 10 percent of lawyers who left their firms were minority women; in 2017, that number was closer to 12 percent.”
And it’s the same story for associate attrition. “In 2010, more than 34 percent of associates who left their firms were white women; that number dropped to 31 percent in 2017,” says the report. “Meanwhile, minority women represented 13 percent of associate departures in 2010 but more than 15 percent in 2017.”
So what’s going on? Why are minority women leaving firms while their white sisters are increasingly staying put? The most benevolent explanation is that minority women often get great offers to go in-house. “Companies are always swooping in to offer them opportunities that they can’t refuse,” says a former managing partner of an Am Law 100 firm. “They ruin our [diversity] numbers.”
The less charitable explanation is that minority women simply realize that “they face longer odds of making partner,’ says Vera Djordjevich, Vault’s managing director for research and consulting. She says Vault’s associate survey indicates that minority women are deeply unsatisfied with their work lives compared to their white counterparts or minority men: “If women of color don’t feel they are getting the same caliber of work or mentoring and career guidance, then it’s no wonder they feel less optimistic about their futures.”
Some female minority lawyers say they often face a toxic blend of racial stereotypes, sexism and disrespect from colleagues and even underlings that make firm life untenable. When I wrote about the plight of female black lawyers, I remember one woman telling me that the biases—subtle and otherwise—were “demoralizing,” and that’s “why so many of us drop out.”
So while we should celebrate the slow (very slow), hard-earned progress that white women are making, let’s not leave women of color behind.