For years, firm leaders in Washington have struggled to increase diversity among their lawyer ranks — and with headcounts down across the region, the effort has only become more difficult, they say.

This year’s Legal Times 150, our annual survey of headcount at Washington-area law offices, showed that, of the 702 area lawyers who lost their jobs during the past year, almost half were women. And minority lawyers accounted for 101 of the slots. Overall, women accounted for about one-third of the lawyers at the 150 largest law offices and minorities 13%.

Those figures are down slightly from 2009 — and don’t expect them to rise dramatically anytime soon. Most of the cuts came at the associate and counsel level, and the moribund economy means fewer first-year and summer associates to refill those positions.

“It has become more challenging to bring in women and minority attorneys,” said Claudette Christian, co-chairwoman of Hogan Lovells and the firm’s chief diversity officer. “Because of the decline in client demand caused by the recession, we’re interviewing for fewer slots than in past years, and we’re competing for the same talent pool that other firms are.” Hogan, the region’s largest firm with 481 lawyers in its D.C. office, lost 24 women and 18 minorities from its ranks. It was just one of 102 firms on the Legal Times 150 to report a decline in women, minorities or both during the past year.

Of D.C. offices with more than 75 lawyers, the five that reported the highest percentage of women lawyers were Fulbright & Jaworski at 48.4%; BuckleySandler at 46%; O’Melveny & Myers at 44%; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr at 43.4%; and Willkie Farr & Gallagher at 42.2%. On the minority side, Morrison & Foerster reported the highest percentage of minority attorneys at 25.8%. Fulbright & Jaworski; Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox; Goodwin Procter; and Arnold & Porter rounded out the top five.

At the partner level, the picture was slightly brighter: Washington firms reported a net loss of just nine women and a gain of nine minorities in their partnership ranks. Weil, Gotshal & Manges reported the highest percentage of women partners, with 33%. Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox posted the highest percentage of minority partners with 26.7%.

Sterne Kessler managing partner Michael Ray said that, as a boutique that focuses on patent law, 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. He said the firm has implemented a program that recruits people out of academia or who have worked in technical fields and then helps them pay to go to law school while they work at the firm as a technical adviser. “That way, by the time they are a first-year associate, they have between five and six years of experience at the firm,” he said.

Although the pool of applicants who have those advanced degrees is smaller, Ray said those who do have them tend to be more ethnically diverse. “We find that to be especially true in the engineering and technical science areas,” Ray said, adding that he has also seen an increasing number of women coming out of the life sciences than in the past.

STEPPING UP OUTREACH

Other firm leaders said they have stepped up their outreach and mentoring programs for women and minority lawyers in light of the recession, a move that they said only makes sense as more clients request that a diverse team of lawyers handle their matters.

Microsoft Corp., for example, pays outside counsel a premium if they meet certain diversity benchmarks. Pamela Passman, a Microsoft vice president and deputy general counsel for global corporate affairs, said that the company has tied a portion of bonuses for top in-house lawyers to whether the outside firms they hire are meeting diversity benchmarks. “We look at it as putting our money where our mouth is,” Passman said.

Although Microsoft’s bonus approach is still somewhat unusual, managing partners said that they are seeing diversity increasingly mentioned in requests for proposals. “Many of our clients mention diversity in the RFPs they send us and ask that we send bios of the lawyers who would be working on their projects,” said Christine Kearns, managing partner of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman’s Washington office. She said that, despite “enhancing” its diversity programs during the past year, Pillsbury lost nine women and two minorities as a result of “natural attrition.”

To meet clients’ demands, firm leaders said they have increased their efforts to reach out to younger lawyers to make sure they are on track to make partner.

Hogan’s Christian said the firm has made reaching out to young lawyers earlier in the process part of its diversity efforts. She said the firm began adding first-year law students to its summer associate program several years ago. “We found that, even though those 1Ls were being treated and graded the same as second-year law students, they performed just as well and in some cases better than the 2Ls,” Christian said. She said that the 2011 year’s summer associate class is expected to be 25% minority and 50% women.

FEWER SLOTS

That said, with associate classes remaining much smaller than before the recession, there are fewer slots to go around. Christian said Hogan has not set the size of its 2011 summer associate class, but she said it will be “much smaller” than the 39 summers it had in 2010.

Ronald Jordan, a recruiter at Carter-White & Shaw who focuses on placing minority attorneys, said the recession has “unfairly” affected women and minorities, and especially minority women. “It has always been more challenging for female minorities, and the recession hasn’t helped because law firm jobs are much more competitive,” Jordan said. “I have never seen it this bad before.”

Benjamin Wilson, managing partner of Beveridge & Diamond, said that, while he thinks mentoring and outreach programs should be part of every firm’s effort to increase diversity, more is needed to ensure that those increases happen. Wilson said he would like to see law firms implement a rule similar to the National Football League’s so-called Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when hiring a new head coach.

“The Rooney Rule fundamentally changed the NFL for the better because it ensures that minority candidates are given a shot to succeed,” Wilson said. “If that were adopted by law firms in a corporate context, it could help to improve the diversity of top management positions at every firm.”

Jeff Jeffrey can be contacted at jjeffrey@alm.com. Read the full report of the 2010 Legal Times 150 survey.