New Jersey's bellwether law firms made small progress increasing their gender and ethnic diversity in 2012, the Law Journal's annual survey shows.

The most optimistic take is that even though the attorney population at the 20 surveyed firms dropped a tad, to 2,998 from 3,019, minorities and women generally held their own.

Chart: Women & Minorities at Large N.J. Firms

Women represented about the same proportions of total attorneys as in 2012 — 17.8 percent of partners and 39.9 percent of others.

Minority partners grew to 4.5 percent this year, from 3.9 percent last year. But minority nonpartners constituted 12 percent, a slight decline from 12.2 percent last year.

Of the surveyed firms, Reed Smith of Princeton led in diversity in the upper echelons — 30.4 percent of its partners are women and 17.4 percent minorities.

As for nonpartners, Drinker, Biddle & Reath of Princeton and Florham Park had the highest representation of women, 54.4 percent, and DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole in Teaneck the highest percentage of minorities, 28.6 percent.

Lerner, David, Littenberg, Krumholz & Mentlik of Westfield had the smallest representation of women, partners and nonpartners, at 3.1 percent and 16.7 percent, respectively.

Day Pitney of Parsippany has no minority partners, and the firm with the lowest minority representation among nonpartners was Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti of Morristown, 4.4 percent.

Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard of Hackensack saw the biggest gain of women partners, from 14 last year to 18 in 2013. Gibbons had the second-highest numerical increase, with its women partners going from 23 to 25.

At McCarter & English, minority partners jumped from five to nine in 2013, the biggest increase of any firm. Minority partners at Lowenstein Sandler of Roseland grew from four to six and at Gibbons from six to eight.

Among women nonpartners, the biggest gains were at Drinker Biddle, which went from 26 to 31, and McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter of Morristown, from 58 to 63.

Among minority nonpartners, the greatest growth was at Fox Rothschild, from four to nine. Lowenstein Sandler was next, increasing from 22 to 26.

But firms that saw increases in the representation of women and minorities were outnumbered by firms with a decrease or no change.

For women partners, nine firms saw a gain, while another nine experienced a decline and two had no change.

For minority partners, 11 firms had an increase, five a decline and four no change. Among women nonpartners, nine firms saw an increase and 11 a drop. And as for minority nonpartners, nine firms had an increase, 10 a decline and one no change.

Put another way, the 20 firms had 268 women partners this year, compared with 271 last year; 67 minority partners, compared with 60 in 2012; 596 women nonpartners, down from 598; and 180 minority associates, down from 183.

NALP (the National Association of Law Placement) said in a bulletin issued in April that it found small gains nationally in the representation of women and minorities in the partner ranks, and that the percentage of minority attorneys was on the rebound after falling in the wake of the recession, but that total women associates continue to decline.

Law firms remain committed to having diverse ranks of attorneys, but their ability to focus on diversity initiatives has been seriously impacted by cuts in hiring, especially of entry-level candidates, says Daniel Mateo, a partner at Reed Smith and chairman of the New Jersey Law Firm Group, a coalition that promotes diversity.

Its annual job fair, held Aug. 7 at Rutgers Law School-Newark, attracted nine law firms to interview students for summer associate jobs, says Mateo. Last year ,there were 12 firms, and, until about five years ago, usually 25, he says.

Many firms that participated in the past have decided to eliminate or scale back their summer associate programs, he says.

But while job fair attendance has declined, dues-paying members of the Law Firm Group have remained at 25, he says.

Mateo says the underlying factors driving law firms' support for diversity, particularly pressure from corporate clients, remains steady.

"I do think that if hiring comes back that most firms would see an increase in the numbers of women and diverse lawyers. As long has hiring is limited, the gains that law firms can make in that regard are limited," he adds.

During annual roundtable discussions at the state's law schools, the Law Firm Group advises students to be creative in their job search, and not rely solely on on-campus interviewing, says Mateo.

Students are advised to consider unpaid internships as a way to gain legal experience and to begin networking activities early.

"In a much more competitive job market, you really have to distinguish yourself and be open to different career choices. Three or four years ago, they did think we were crazy, but today the reality has finally sunk in," he says.