If medicine looked like Big Law, you’d likely never encounter a black doctor in your life. If academia resembled Big Law, you’d find a few black nontenured professors, but virtually no black tenured professors. And if the cover of a magazine tried to capture the complexion of Big Law, you’d get this month’s issue of The American Lawyer.
Who are all those folks on our cover? They’re every lawyer whose photo we featured in a year’s time, from May 2013 to April 2014, in our monthly Big Deals and Big Suits columns. That is, they led the hottest, most significant and most lucrative work in the nation’s top law firms. (We ask firms to send us photos of the movers and shakers in those deals—often telling them to bias their photo selections toward key women and minority players.) The photo tally: 112 men, 19 women. (Some lucky lawyers appear more than once if they led multiple deals or suits.) And just three are black—or a little more than 2 percent.
That ratio roughly reflects the percentage of blacks in Big Law, which stands at 3 percent, according to our recent survey of more than 200 firms. (Black partners represent a mere 1.9 percent of all partners and black equity partners, those rarest of lawyers, even less than that.) The percentage of black lawyers at large firms has slipped every year for the past five, even as the African-American population in the United States stands at 13 percent.
Furthermore, the steady decline of African-American lawyers in Big Law and the stagnant percentage of black partners come at a time when Asian-American and Hispanic lawyers, including partners, are making gains. The percentages of Asian-American lawyers and partners eclipsed those of black lawyers long ago. In 2014, for the first time, the percentage of Hispanic lawyers also exceeds the percentage of blacks. Our Diversity Scorecard shows the sobering details.
What happened? Several things: the lack of a pipeline from law schools; middling retention efforts; recessionary pressures that kept nervous partners hoarding work; and the general clubby culture of law, as Julie Triedman notes.
Vivia Chen, our longtime culture-of-law blogger, says plain old racism is at work too. In The Careerist, her new column for this magazine, she observes that a recurring reason that partners have told her they don’t hire more African-American lawyers is that “we can’t compromise on our standards.” How about partnering with law schools to make sure those standards are met? Speaking of law schools, they’ve made only modest gains in the past decade in graduating minority students, according to Karen Sloan’s report.
Together, the news is especially wrenching for the African-American pioneers of Big Law. Michael D. Goldhaber spoke with those who our sibling publication The National Law Journal featured 35 years ago, in a story titled “3,700 Partners. 12 Are Black.” In a nation where minority groups are growing, Big Law had better wake up. Vaughn Williams, one of those standard bearers, told us: “We will either see highly diversified institutions or law firms will be dead.”
P.S.: For those of us who cover Big Law, we must do better too. ALM has no blacks among the senior leaders of its national publications, including The American Lawyer. And less than 1 percent of our reporters are black.