New Jersey’s largest law firms this year made incremental improvements in ethnic and gender diversity among their partner and associate ranks, an annual Law Journal survey finds.

The growth rate was 1 percent to 2 percent across the board. At the 20 firms studied:

� Women comprise 17.1 percent of all partners, up from 16.2 percent in 2006.

� Women comprise 41.7 percent of associates, up from 39.6 percent.

� Minorities comprise 3.2 percent of partners, up from 2.6 percent.

� Minorities comprise 13.4 percent of associates, up from 12.3 percent.

Of the 20 firms, only one � Archer & Greiner of Haddonfield � had increases in all four categories. [ See chart.] Its women partners went from 11.1 percent last year to 13.4 percent in 2007; minority partners from 1.3 percent to 2.4 percent; women associates from 35.8 percent to 36 percent; and minority associates from 11.3 percent to 14 percent.

Robert Lehman, chairman of the firm’s diversity committee, says competition for minority candidates is tight because potential clients routinely ask for demographic data about firms’ lawyers. “I think it occurred a lot because of effort and a lot because we were fortunate,” he says.

But if corporate clients dedicated to diversity are growing more demanding that outside counsel show similar commitment, the pressure apparently has not been enough to impel most New Jersey firms to alter their hiring and promotion operations.

“It makes no difference to us in our hiring � we just hire the best people we can get,” says Paul Rowe, managing partner at Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis. With its mix of clients from Fortune 500 and small public and entrepreneurial companies, lawyers at the Woodbridge firm are asked about its lawyer demographics “not much, but occasionally,” Rowe says, adding that he expects such inquiries to become more common in the future.

The key to improving diversity is not so much in the hiring as in the retention of minority attorneys. A growing cadre of diversity consultants is advising law firms how to do that. Among the suggestions: Connect minority lawyers to important clients. Michael Rambert, immediate past president of the Garden State Bar Association, says minorities often struggle on the path to partnership because they are not given opportunities to cultivate relationships with high-revenue clients.

Consultants like Howard Ross of Cook Ross Inc. in Silver Spring, Md., suggest that firms carefully chart how associate work is assigned so that unconscious attitudes that may influence the assignment process can be spotted and counteracted when necessary.

Retaining women associates and moving them to partnerships presents a different challenge. For one thing, fewer women seem to be pursuing careers in law. Since 2002, the percentage of women in law schools has declined to 46.9 percent from 49 percent, according to the American Bar Association.

Many women lawyers have difficulty juggling a lawyer’s career and parenting, and firms are often less than accommodating of reduced-hour schedules. This leads many women to leave the profession or to take nonpartnership-track positions. And it forms a vicious cycle: As women are made partners at a lower rate, fewer young women are interested in law school.

The New Jersey firms most successful at improving gender diversity are Reed Smith in Princeton and Greenbaum Rowe.

At Reed Smith, nine of the 29 partners, or 31 percent, are women. Anne Devens, director of the firm’s Women’s Career Advancement Initiative, says credit goes in part to a policy that allows lawyers to work reduced-hour schedules for family reasons while staying on track for partnership. “There’s a lot of inherent flexibility,” she says.

Greenbaum, Rowe has the greatest proportion of female associates: 28 of 46, or 61 percent. Managing partner Rowe says the firm is sensitive to work-life balance issues. “I think we are less demanding of our associates in terms of hours than some of the other large firms,” he says.

Mergers and Diversity

When law firms merge, their gender and ethnic makeup changes. Among the firms that saw significant growth from mergers this year, results were mixed.

Newark’s McCarter & English became less diverse as a result of its merger with Boston’s Gadsby Hannah in the summer of 2006. The firm saw its proportion of women partners increase from 15 percent last year to 20 percent in 2007. But minority partners went from 3.4 percent last year to 2.7 percent in 2007. Women associates declined from 48 percent of the total in 2006 to 44 percent this year, while minority associates fell from 15 percent last year to 13 percent this year.

But at Day Pitney, formed when Pitney, Hardin, Kipp & Szuch of Morristown joined with Hartford, Conn.’s Day, Berry & Howard in November 2006, the resulting firm is more diverse than before.

Women partners at Day Pitney declined to 16 percent from 20 percent last year but minority partners rose grew to 5 percent from 1 percent, women associates increased to 43 percent from 36 percent last year and minority associates grew to 15 percent from 13 percent.

Overall, the totals in this year’s survey do show marked increases from 2000, when the survey found women made up 14.4 percent of partners and 38.4 percent of associates and minorities 1.3 percent of partners and 7.2 percent of associates.