Law firm diversity took a hit in 2010, but the picture improved somewhat this year — at least when it came to ethnic minorities.

The percentage of minority lawyers at major U.S. law firms ticked up slightly this year, from 12.4 percent to 12.7 percent, according to the latest edition of the NALP Directory of Legal Employers, released on Nov. 3.

That means there were about 372 more minority attorneys this year.

But the percentage of women attorneys at law firms continued a slide that began in 2010. Women accounted for 32.6 percent of law firm lawyers this year, compared to 32.7 in 2010, according to the NALP survey. That represented a decline of about 123 female attorneys among the 123,012-attorney sample.

“Last year, on the heels of the recession, we saw the figures for women and minority associates dip for the first time since NALP began tracking lawyer demographics at law firms,” said NALP Executive Director James Leipold. “The 2011 figures reveal that a year later, while the figures for minority associates have bounced back, the overall number of women associates actually declined further. This is a significant finding.”

Law firms had been expected to increase their diversity efforts following industry-wide layoffs during 2008 and 2009, Leipold said, but that push did little overall for women. The number of female partners at major firms increased slightly, to 19.5 percent from 19.4 percent last year. However, that small gain was offset by the decline in women associates, who went from 45.5 percent in 2010 to 45.4 percent in 2011.

In addition to increasing their overall representation at law firm, minorities saw a small boost among the partnership ranks. They now account for nearly 6.7 percent of law firm partners, up from 6.2 percent last year, according to the survey.

As in years past, minority women remained significantly underrepresented at large firms. They accounted for 6.2 percent of firm attorneys, 2 percent of partners, and nearly 11 percent of associates. Minority men fared better, accounting for 4.5 percent of law firm partners and nearly 20 percent of associates in 2011.

The survey included demographic information about nearly 124,000 attorneys in 1,349 law offices. It also included diversity figures in the 44 U.S. cities with the largest attorney populations. Los Angeles and San Francisco reported the highest percentage of women and minority partners and associates.

Still, the 2011 numbers were cause for concern, Leipold said.

“The loss of women has slowed, but at a time when far too few women make up the
partnership ranks of U.S. law firms, this is not a trend that can be ignored,” he said.

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