The first black attorney general: Eric Holder Jr. The first Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court justice: Sonia Sotomayor. The end of the decade saw women and minority lawyers filling some of the highest-profile jobs in the country, including the presidency.

But the decade didn’t bring as much progress for women and minorities at big law firms. Diversity numbers show they still make up a fraction of partnerships, despite client pressure and a slew of programs meant to increase diversity.

“People of good faith have worked really hard on this and, I think, have been disappointed in the results,” said James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), which tracks diversity at law firms. “The question of why it’s been particularly hard in this industry, harder than others, is actually really hard to answer. Some of it does have to do with the uniqueness of the structure of law firms. I think there are just some structural barriers and cultural barriers that we haven’t managed to overcome.”

In 2004, in-house counsel at some of the country’s largest corporations, including Roderick Palmore, then of Sara Lee Corp. and now of General Mills Inc., banded together in “A Call to Action,” telling law firms that diversity would be a factor in hiring outside counsel. They’ve focused on it internally, as well. In 1999, only 54 general counsel at Fortune 500 companies were women or minorities. By 2009, that number had more than doubled to 119, according to the Annual Minority Corporate Counsel Association Survey of Fortune 500 General Counsel.

NALP’s latest figures show that 6.04% of partners at major law firms are minorities, and 19.21% are women. That’s more than in 2000, when partnerships consisted of 3.35% minorities and 15.63% women. But a decade of diversity programs was supposed to produce bigger gains.

Robert Grey Jr., a Hunton & Williams partner serving as interim executive director of the newly formed Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, whose members include large law firms and corporations, said the new group was formed because companies and firms have decided to “work on these issues themselves, as opposed to working on these issues through other organizations.”

— Carrie Levine