Washington-based managing partners say increasing diversity at their firms has been a top priority. Yet the percentage of minority lawyers at the city’s larger law offices isn’t rising. According to the Legal Times 150 survey, firms in the Washington area held their minority lawyer head count steady at 12.8% from 2008 to 2009.

The picture at the partnership level is essentially the same, with the numbers shifting only slightly — from 6.1% in 2008 to 6.6% in 2009. And with any and all hiring at law firms relatively flat these days, there seems little chance that the coming year’s numbers will improve much.

Among Washington-area law offices with at least 25 partners, Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox posted the highest percentage of minority partners with 21.43%. That figure is virtually unchanged from last year.

Managing partner Michael Ray noted that as an intellectual property boutique, Sterne Kessler works with a smaller recruitment pool than do firms with multiple practice areas. “It’s a challenge because we place a premium on lawyers with advanced degrees in technical fields,” Ray said.

Washington has 18 law offices with more than 100 partners, but only five have at least one-tenth of their partnership composed of minorities. Of those five, Howrey is ranked highest, at No. 8, among offices with 25 or more partners. Howrey’s Washington partnership is 11.61% minority.

Patricia Butler, who leads Howrey’s diversity efforts, attributed that success to a “proactive approach” that includes regular meetings and lunches for minority lawyers, biannual diversity summits and a mentoring program. A diverse partnership, Butler said, “allows us to attract the best talent among our recruits. It makes the firm stronger as a whole.”

The Washington offices of Holland & Knight, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, Venable, and Arnold & Porter also have minorities making up at least one-tenth of their partnerships.

William Perlstein, Wilmer’s co-managing partner, said that, in addition to mentoring and ensuring that minority associates have opportunities to work on complex, high-profile projects, it helps to have role models for younger lawyers. Perlstein pointed to partner Ronald Machen, who is African-American, as an example. Machen, who co-chairs Wilmer’s diversity effort in Washington, is reportedly a leading candidate to become the next U.S. attorney in Washington.

“Among the questions young lawyers have, particularly those who are minorities is, ‘Am I going to get a fair shot?’ Having someone like Ron…does say that the firm is willing to put forward diverse lawyers,” said Perlstein.

The list of the top 50 large partnerships in Washington in terms of minority representation has a few notable absences. Washington stalwarts Arent Fox; Covington & Burling; Hogan & Hartson; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; Sidley Austin; and Wiley Rein failed to make the cutoff. Covington did lose its most prominent minority partner this year when Eric Holder Jr. became the first African-American attorney general in U.S. history.

Grace Speights, the managing partner of Morgan Lewis’ Washington office who is herself African-American, said that, with only 5% of the firm’s Washington partnership composed of minorities, her firm has some work to do.

But “numbers don’t tell the whole story,” Speights said. “Firms have to incorporate diversity into everything that they do so that it becomes part of the fabric of the firm.”

Claudette Christian, who serves as Hogan’s chief diversity officer, agreed, saying firms need to ensure that minority lawyers have the chance to fill leadership positions. Christian, who sits on Hogan’s executive committee, said, “What matters is not just that you have minority partners, but that they also have meaningful roles in the firm’s partnership.”

CHARTS:

Minority Lawyers in D.C.
The top 50 law offices in Washington with the highest racial diversity in 2009.

Minority Partners in D.C.
The top 50 in diversity for 2009 among Washington’s large partnerships.

Jeff Jeffrey can be contacted at jjeffrey@alm.com.