The percentage of minority lawyers in U.S. law firms crept up in 2016, but that progress was not across the board.
New data from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) shows that Asians and Hispanic men accounted for nearly all of the minority gains among the associate ranks over the last five years, while the percentage of black associates actually fell over that period. The story is similar for black partners—their percentage barely budged from 1.71 of all partners in 2009 to 1.81 percent in 2016.
Overall, minority women are the most underrepresented group in law firms, accounting for just 2.76 percent of partners and 12.48 percent of associates.
“Minority women and black/African-American men and women continue to be the least well represented in law firms, at every level, and law firms must double down to make more dramatic headway among these groups most of all,” wrote NALP executive director James Leipold in the new diversity report. “And, while the relatively high levels of diversity among the summer associate classes is always encouraging, the fact that representation falls off so dramatically for associates, and then again for partners, underscores that retention and promotion remain the primary challenges that law firms face with respect to diversity.”
NALP’s figures are based on an analysis of gender and diversity data for more than 112,000 individual attorneys in 1,082 law offices across the country, as well as information on an additional 7,000 summer associates.
Larger firms in general fared better in attorney diversity than their smaller counterparts, NALP found. For example, minorities accounted for less than 7 percent of partners at firms with 100 or fewer attorneys, while they were more than 9 percent at firms of 700 or more layers. That difference was even greater among associates, with minorities comprising 17 percent at small firms, and nearly 25 percent at the largest.
The report notes that the summer associate ranks continue to be the most diverse. Women made up nearly 49 percent of 2016′s summer associate classes, while minorities accounted for more than 32 percent. But the report notes that summer associate classes remain about 25 percent smaller than their pre-recession levels, which limits their ability to rapidly diversify the associate ranks and later the partner ranks.
Indeed, the associate and partnership ranks lag significantly behind the 2016 summer associate class when it comes to diversity.
Minorities made up nearly 23 percent of all associates in 2016, with Asians accounting for nearly 11 percent of those. Minorities were 8 percent of partners in 2016, up about a half of a percent from 2015.
The picture is slightly better for women, though the NALP figures show mixed results. The overall percentage of women at U.S. firms was nearly 34 percent last year, which is higher than their 33 percent pre-recession figure from 2009. But a closer analysis reveals that women are more likely to fall into the associate and “other” categories of lawyers, which includes staff attorneys and of counsel. Women accounted for 45 percent of associates in 2016 and nearly 40 percent of staff attorneys and of counsel. Meanwhile, women made up just 22 percent of partners.
“These national benchmark data are helpful in highlighting the overall progress, or lack thereof, in achieving greater diversity among the lawyers working in U.S. law firms, but the national figures mask many significant differences by law firm size and geography,” Leipold wrote. “In many ways these stories tell a narrative of difference, with the largest law firms having achieved much greater diversity than smaller law firms. And while it is encouraging to see small gains in most areas this year, the incredibly slow pace of change continues to be discouraging.”