Although women and minorities continue to make incremental gains in their representation at law firms, there’s still plenty of ground to make up.

A new report on diversity in U.S. law firms published Friday by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) found that despite slight increases in their ranks in 2017, the number of women and African-Americans at the associate level is still below pre-recession figures.  

“It’s no surprise,” said NALP executive director James Leipold about his organization’s findings. “We collect this data every year and it’s good news, bad news.”

NALP’s figures are based on an analysis of gender and diversity data on more than 112,000 lawyers in 1,064 law offices throughout the country, as well as information on an additional 7,000 summer associates.

The good news, said Leipold, is that women and minorities were better represented as a whole among the partnership and associate ranks than in 2016. But the bad news is that over the longer arc, the number of women and minorities in law firms has only incrementally increased, and in some cases, actually decreased from pre-recession numbers, he added.

In 2009, women accounted for 45.99 percent of associates at major law firms in the United States, but in 2017 that number had fallen slightly to 45.48 percent.

Minorities made up 23.32 percent of associates in 2017, but NALP’s study found that this figure was bolstered by an increase in Asian associates, who made up 11.4 percent of young lawyers last year. By contrast, African-Americans only accounted for 4.28 percent of associates in 2016, down from 4.66 percent in 2009.

The NALP study found that women comprised 22.7 percent of partners in law firms across the country in 2017, up from 22.13 percent a year ago. Minorities made up 8.42 percent of partners, up from 8.05 percent in 2016.

But like the gains at the associate level, these numbers are primarily attributable to the increase of Asian and Hispanic male partners. The number of African-American partners has barely increased since the recession, according to NALP, with individuals in that cohort making up only 1.83 percent of partners in 2017.

James Leipold

Minority women continued to be the most dramatically underrepresented group at the partnership level, accounting for only 2.9 percent of partners nationwide. But Leipold said that these national aggregate numbers tell only part of the story. Jurisdictions across the country, he noted, have really disparate numbers.

For example, in Miami, minorities made up 33 percent of partners. In Boston, only 5 percent of partners were minorities, according to NALP. In New York City, minorities made up 27 percent of associates, although that number fell to 14 percent in Charlotte, North Carolina. And in Northern Virginia, there were no minority men in the entire summer associate class of 2017.

“The truth is [diversity] is a very hard problem to solve,” said Leipold, who has led NALP for nearly 14 years.

And while law firms have tried to fix the issue, there are still things that need to change in order for the diversity issue to be effectively tackled throughout in Big Law.

“The reality is law firms are still managed and owned by a group of largely white male partners,” Leipold said.

As long as that’s the case, Leipold believes that firms will have a hard time creating a culture that’s truly inclusive.