A growing percentage of women, minority and LGBT lawyers in law firms nudged legal industry diversity in a positive direction in 2018, but black lawyers and other demographic groups remain underrepresented, according to a new study released Wednesday by the National Association for Legal Placement.
In its annual report on U.S. law firm diversity, NALP found that the representation of minority partners increased by the largest amount in the 26 years the legal employment association has been compiling diversity information at law firms. The NALP study—which draws on race, ethnicity and gender data for more than 109,000 partners and associates, as well as 6,900 summer associates—also pointed to overall increases in the percentage of women among partners at U.S. firms.
Still, the report stressed that those partner level upticks shouldn’t be overstated and were “minimal at best.” In 2018, the percentage of minority partners grew 9.13 percent, about a 0.7 percent increase over the 2017 results. Meanwhile, women accounted for 23.36 percent of law firm partners in 2018, up less than a percentage point from 2017.
Diversity at the associate level was also marked by mixed results. NALP reported that women comprised 45.9 percent of law firm associates in 2018. That was less than half a percentage point higher than the 2017 results, but it also pushed women’s representation at the associate ranks above a recession-era high recorded in 2009’s NALP study.
Representation of minority and minority women lawyers also ticked up slightly in 2018, NALP said, but those gains don’t extend to all of the specific demographic groups included in the survey. Specifically, while the representation of Asian and Hispanic associates increased, the percentage of black and African-American associates remains lower than it was in 2009, a year that resulted in widespread layoffs across the law firm world. In 2018, black lawyers made up just 4.48 percent of law firm associates.
NALP’s executive director James Leipold described the report’s findings as a “good news/bad news story” that shows the law firm world is making small steps toward greater diversity. His comments echoed what he had said in late 2017, the last time NALP issued its diversity report.
“Representation of women associates has finally rebounded and surpassed pre-recession highs for the first time, the jump in the representation of minorities among partners is the largest since NALP began tracking this data, and the number and percentage of LGBT lawyers reached all-time highs,” he said in a statement.
Leipold continued, “On the bad news side, representation of black/African-American associates remains below its pre-recession level, the representation of black/African-American partners has barely changed since the recession, and minority women continue to be the most underrepresented group at the partnership level.”
NALP’s study comes on the heels of another recent report that looked at new partners as a gauge for gender diversity in law firms.
In December the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance, a diversity and inclusion think tank that partners with law firms and other employers, released an annual study showing that roughly 39 percent of lawyers promoted to partner in 2018 were women.
While men had a higher promotion rate of just higher than 61 percent, the alliance report also noted that, at 39 percent, the number of women promoted to partner in 2018 outpaces the total percentage of women partners in law firms, according to NALP’s latest diversity study results. The alliance’s report drew on a smaller sample than NALP’s, pulling from the survey responses of 134 law firms.
The diversity alliance also reported that less than one third of the firms surveyed in 2018, or 31.3 percent, had partnership classes that were at least half comprised of women lawyers. That figure is down about two percentage points compared with 2017, but the alliance said it’s still a significant increase over historical results.