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There’s no getting around it: Law firm diversity took a hit during the past year after a long period of steady, if small, gains. The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) released its latest diversity statistics on Thursday, concluding that the percentage of both minority attorneys and women attorneys declined slightly at firms during 2010. NALP’s findings mirror similar conclusions released in recent months by both the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) and National Law Journal affiliate The American Lawyer. All three surveys found small pockets of improvement, either at individual firms or among subsets of the attorney population, but the larger conclusions were that diversity suffered. It was the first time in the 17 years that NALP has collected demographic data that diversity actually declined. The latest NALP figures show that minorities accounted for 12.4% of firm attorneys, down from 12.59% in 2009. Women represented 32.69% of firm attorneys, down from 32.97% in 2009. Minority associates dropped slightly to 19.53% in 2010 from 19.67% 2009. On a more positive note, the percentage of minority partners rose a bit from 6.05% in 2009 to 6.16% this year. Like the authors of the two previous surveys, NALP pointed to layoffs and a slowdown in associate hiring as the most likely culprits for the trend. “The NALP data did not reveal the reasons that the overall representation of women and minorities among law firm attorneys went down in 2010, but it is likely that the recession, and the many lawyer layoffs that accompanied it, can be identified as at least one significant reason for this historic decrease,” said NALP Executive Director James Leipold. A drop in the overall number of associates at firms was another likely factor, since associates are a significantly more diverse group than partners. The latest NLJ 250 survey — which counts heads at the largest 250 firms in the United States and will be published on Monday — shows a steep decline in the number of associates during the past year. The poor showing on law firm diversity was not unexpected, but the legal industry should not use the recession as an excuse to delay diversity initiatives, said Robert Grey, a partner at Hunton & Williams and the executive director of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity — a group of law firm management partners and corporate general counsel formed in 2009 to improve diversity throughout the legal industry. “We were aware when the downturn started that there was probably going to be a result on diversity,” Grey said. “They question becomes, ‘What do we do? Do we wait for awhile to allow firms to get back on their feet, or do we act aggressively and say that this is the best time to move?’ The feeling is that we need to go forward.” Grey said that there is some denial within the legal industry about the long-term consequences of this year’s diversity declines. “I don’t know that there is a deep appreciation of how long it’s going to take to get back to where we were,” he said. It’s clear that law firms are still making diversity a priority in their summer classes, however. Women accounted for 47.35% of the year’s summer class, up from 46.62% in 2009. Minorities represented 26.99%, up from 24.04% the year before. “While the actual drop in the representation of women and minorities is quite small, the significance of the drop is of enormous importance because it represents a reversal of what had been, up until now, a constant upward trend,” Leipold said. “Prior to the recession, law firms had struggled to recruit and retain a diverse workforce of attorneys, but there were small gains year after year which, over time, had begun to make a significant change in law firm workplaces.” All the bad news on law firm diversity has been a bitter pill for advocates to swallow, said Sylvia James, diversity counsel at Baker Botts and president of the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals. “Most of us were disheartened to see some of the diversity that we worked so hard to recruit and retain walk out the door — especially those who walked out the door involuntarily,” she said. “There was disappointment and frustration among many of us.” The past year has highlighted just how vulnerable women and minority attorneys are in law firms, and made clear that recruiting alone won’t alter the picture, James said. As firms have cut down significantly on hiring, they are looking at ways to improve the retention of women and minority attorneys. The MCCA’s diversity study found that minorities represented 13.4% of the attorneys at the surveyed firms in 2009 but accounted for 21% of the attorneys who left those firms that year. Diversity advocates within firms are now more focused on finding ways to keep the women and minorities they have, James said. Retention and professional development is also issues they are zeroing in on. “We’ve done a better job of recruiting, but we haven’t been able to sustain those efforts on retention,” Grey said. “The revolving door is spinning faster for minorities.” Karen Sloan can be contacted at [email protected].

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