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The ranks of women and minority attorneys at U.S. law firms declined last year, according to a number of recent surveys, but the numbers don’t tell the full story. Data compiled by Building a Better Legal Profession — a student group based at Stanford Law School that advocates for lawyer diversity — indicate that most law firms protected their women and minority associates during the past year. Much of the national decline can be attributed to about a quarter of firms that lost minorities in much higher percentages than they did whites, the organization said. “It’s true that minorities did poorly industry-wide, but it looks to me like there are some bad actors in every market that dragged things down,” said Stanford law professor Michele Dauber. “There are many, many firms that clearly worked to protect their minority associates. The amount of variation between firms surprised me.” The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) last week reported that the percentage of minority attorneys at firms dropped from 12.59% in 2009 to 12.4% in 2010, down from 12.59% in 2009. Women represented 32.69% of firm attorneys in 2010, down from 32.97% in 2009. Those statistics corroborated earlier findings by NLJ affiliate The American Lawyer and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and Vault of declining diversity. The losses largely were attributed to lawyer layoffs and a slowdown in associate hiring. Building a Better Legal Profession compared attrition rates at individual law firm offices of 100 or more attorneys in 11 cities and regions. The organization used the latest office and demographic data from NALP to calculate minority associate attrition rates compared to white associate attrition rates. It also looked at attrition rates for men and women in those individual offices. “When things get really hard, how law firms behave can be the most telling,” said Robert Orlando Lopez, a Stanford 3L who is the group’s director of statistics and data. “In this economy, you can see that there are firms that really tried to retain women and minorities.” The results varied greatly among firms, and even among different offices within the same firm. For example, the attrition rate among white associates in DLA Piper’s New York office was higher than the attrition rate among minority associates, putting it near the top of the list of New York offices that retained minority associates. However, the minority attrition rate in the firm’s Washington office was higher than the white attrition rate during the same period. Similarly, Kirkland & Ellis’ Washington office had a 0% attrition rate for male associates, but 25% of women associates in that office left between 2009 and 2010. The same office scored higher when it came to minority attrition, with more white associates leaving than minority associates. In a formal statement provided by a spokeswoman, Kirkland & Ellis said its Washington office has a good track record in recruiting and retaining women. “Our attrition is low and small movements can look significant, but the data fails to reflect that several women associates left the firm for very prestigious positions,” the firm said. “For example, in 2009 four female associates left for judicial clerkships with the courts of appeal (two returned already). Three others left for opportunities with clients or prestigious nonprofits.” Few obvious trends emerged from the data. In New York, prestigious firms had very different results with minority attrition. Weil, Gotshal & Manges and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton had relatively low minority attrition compared to whites, while Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison had higher minority attrition than white attrition. Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz landed near the bottom of the list with a minority attrition rate in its New York office more than three times as high as attrition among white associates. Wachtell partner Meyer Koplow disputed the numbers and methodology, saying that 14 white associates left the firm in 2009, compared to four minority associates. “If we had an associate attrition rate that was three times higher than non-white associates, I would be going mad,” he said. “That’s not what’s going on.” Dauber said the group checked its data numerous times. The numbers were based entirely on numbers reported to NALP by the firms. Overall, attrition rates among minorities and women in California were lower than for many locations on East Coast and in the South. The organization is presenting its findings in a searchable online database, which Dauber said would be useful for law students researching firm jobs and for clients looking for firms committed to diversity. Information reflecting “attrition by gender and minority status has always been something people who are interested in diversity wanted to get,” Dauber said. “Now, students want to know who got fired and where. That gave us a real incentive to figure it out.” Karen Sloan can be contacted at [email protected].

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