Although more than 80 New York law firms pledged to promote and track diversity a decade ago, a new report reveals disappointing results on key issues such as retaining minority and women attorneys and elevating them to senior leadership.
Over the past 10 years, firms have made progress diversifying the associate pipeline and increasing LGBT representation. But nearly 70 percent of about 60 firms surveyed did not have one attorney of color on their management committees last year. And minorities and women are leaving firms at higher rates than white male attorneys, according to the New York City Bar Association’s law firm diversity report, which will be released Wednesday at its diversity dinner event.
In 2003, the firms signed a statement of diversity principles, agreeing to promote diversity in hiring, retention and promotion and participate in regular city bar surveys.
“If you look at the numbers, they haven’t changed much, and that to me is a disappointment,” said Sheila Boston, a Kaye Scholer partner who chairs the city bar’s diversity committee. The author of the report, consultant Lisa D’Annolfo Levey, has led the diversity benchmark research for the bar since 2008.
Boston attributed the slow progress to unconscious bias and the lack of broad support within firms for diversity initiatives. “Still today, there is lip service” on the issue, she said, adding that firms may be well intentioned but they still don’t devote enough resources to improving diversity.
Most of the firms that provided 2013 workforce data to the city bar about their New York City offices have more than 100 attorneys in New York.
The latest report provides a comprehensive look at diversity gains and challenges within New York City law offices in the past decade. The city bar interviewed law firm leaders, partners, diversity officers and senior in–house lawyers and included their anonymous comments in the report.
The slow progress of diversifying law firms is well documented by other studies, but the city bar’s survey captures demographics and turnover at each stage, especially in New York offices.
The report does show some progress. For example, the associate pipeline all along the way is more racially and ethnically diverse compared to a decade ago. Attorneys of color made up about one third of first-year associate classes in 2013, compared with 26.9 percent in 2004. Minorities comprised 30 percent of the fourth-year associate class in 2013, up from 23.8 percent in 2004.
Minority special counsel lawyers rose to 12 percent from 5.5 percent, while the representation of minority partners increased to 8.4 percent from 4.7 percent a decade ago.
Meanwhile, women partners among surveyed firms rose to 18.8 percent from 15.6 percent of partners in 2004.
The report noted the rising importance of the special counsel role as a high-quality alternative to the partnership track for career path flexibility. In 2013, one in five special counsel worked on a reduced schedule, the highest amount recorded by the bar.
Meanwhile, LGBT representation within firms has risen, the report found, signaling better reporting and workplace acceptance. Firms reported 4.2 percent of their attorneys were LGBT in 2013, compared with 1.6 percent in 2004.
But other statistics show little or no advancement. For example, representation of women and minorities on management committees and as practice group leaders has changed little over time.
Minorities comprised 5.2 percent of management committee members in late 2013, up from 4.7 percent in 2007. More than a third of firms surveyed had no minority practice group heads, the report said.
In the latest results, one in four firms did not have a single woman on its management committee. And since 2011, the percent of surveyed firms with no women or attorneys of color on these committees has increased, the report said.
Boston said she was surprised that the rise in female and minority attorneys hasn’t translated to a proportionate representation in senior leadership roles.
In other concerning news, women and minority attorneys are often nonequity partners. By late 2013, women made up 27.9 percent of nonequity partners, up sharply from 19.7 in 2007. The increase was slower in the equity ranks: women made up 16.8 percent in 2013, compared with 15.1 percent in 2007.
Minorities comprised 9.8 percent of nonequity partners in 2013 compared with 6 percent in 2007.
Overall, firms with multiple partner tiers reported a lower percent of both women and minority equity partners than firms with a single equity-only partnership, the report said. “The emergence of alternative partner tracks has increased the options for diverse attorneys to become partners while simultaneously concentrating white men in equity partnership positions,” the report said.
“If you’re not making diverse attorneys equity partners, that’s very problematic. You end up with a caste system,” one lawyer told the bar in its interviews.
“It seems to be a dead end. It’s not like they [non-equity partners] work less hard but they are paid less,” another told the city bar.
Among all demographic groups, including white men, nonequity partners are more likely to leave firms than equity partners, the report said.
And while the associate pipeline is more diverse, women and minority associates continue to turn over at higher rates than white men, eroding some of the diversity gains. In 2013, women in mid-level and senior associate ranks voluntarily left firms at slightly higher rates than white men, while minority attorneys left at substantially higher rates.
People leave when they don’t feel valued, one lawyer told the city bar. “Attorneys don’t get asked to join important cases. They are not getting enough billable hours.”
Still, Joseph Drayton, a Cooley partner and another member of the city bar’s diversity committee, said it’s not clear whether diverse attorneys are leaving firms because of unsatisfactory environments or due to better opportunities elsewhere or career choices.
He said the results showed overall progress. “We’re talking about generational progress, not instantaneous progress,” he said.
The report also said that while the first year associate class was half female in 2004, that number has declined to just over 46 percent in 2013, which could foreshadow declining gender diversity later on.
Unintentional bias is not well understood, the report said.
“There’s an unconscious thought, this woman is a parent so she probably does not want this deal taking her away (from home),” one attorney told the city bar. “You make that assumption without ever asking directly. In the past, I would make those assumptions myself. Now if ever a thought creeps into my head, I double check myself.”
“In people’s minds diversity means lowering or changing the standards to achieve diversity,” another attorney told the bar. “The stereotype is that blacks don’t have the same intellectual fire power. This has plagued black people forever, but in a profession where intellectual firepower is what you are selling, that stereotype is deadly.”
In interviews with the city bar, law firm and in-house leaders described white male attorneys as “reluctant to interfere, unsure how to help and coming from a place of assumed privilege, perceiving diversity as diminishing their opportunities,” and failing to see how diversity relates to them, the report found.
The leaders emphasized the importance of having white men participate in diversity efforts.
Among the most effective strategies, according to the report, have included linking diversity efforts to business value; making sure to involve assignment attorneys, supervisors, associate development committees and others in positions of some power; sponsoring women and minority attorneys, supporting them through transitions and moving them into top leadership roles.
Some of the measures that have proven less successful include centralized diversity committees without local connections and broad programs with poor links to day-to-day experiences of women and minorities, the report said.
The report did not break down minorities by racial or ethnic groups. Loretta Shaw-Lorello, a Covington & Burling partner who is co-chair of her firm’s diversity committee, pointed out that while the number of minorities have grown in firms, the gains are increasingly attributed to Asian American and Indian American attorneys. The gains have been more modest in the number of black and Latino attorneys.
“The [legal] profession in general, despite all the advances and gains we’ve made, isn’t doing particularly well” compared with other industries, she said, but “we can’t allow ourselves to stop trying.”