More women and minority lawyers are sitting on management committees at the largest law firms, but diversity progress remains frustratingly slow in the path to partnership and among the lawyers who earn the most at their firms.
The New York City Bar Association’s latest diversity benchmarking report, which surveyed 88 large law firms about their New York City offices in 2016, tracked the ranks of minority and women lawyers from first-year associates to firm leaders.
The report showed consistently sluggish progress from the prior 2015 study, with a few notable gains, including women and minorities in leadership positions. The percentage of women serving on management committees increased to 23.6 percent, from 20.3 percent in 2015, and the percentage of minorities serving on these committees increased to 9.4 percent from 7.1 percent in 2015.
Meanwhile, the overall representation of minority attorneys increased slightly to 20.6 percent in 2016 from 18.8 percent in 2015, and self-identified LGBT partners have doubled from 1.4 percent in 2004 to 2.8 percent in 2016.
The report said that overall, firms are showing more commitment to diversity. For instance, about 44 percent of firms reported that a management committee member serves as chair of the diversity committee, an increase of 17 percentage points from 2015.
Other signs are less encouraging. Nearly half of participating firms have no minorities on their management committees, and more than one-third have no minority practice group heads.
Among the reported top 10 percent of highest-compensated partners at firms, white men make up 83 percent. White and minority women make up only 11 percent, and minority men make up 6 percent
Also, of the participating firms, more than three-quarters of the equity partner ranks were white men, while minorities and women are more concentrated at the nonequity partner level, where turnover is higher.
And as in previous years, the representation of women and minorities erodes as lawyers travel farther along the pipeline to the brass ring of partnership. For instance, about 28 percent of associates are minorities, compared with 9 percent of partners, and 45 percent of associates are women, compared with 19 percent of partners. Only 7 percent of equity partners are minorities.
The city bar data shows how at each step of the promotion ladder, diversity erodes: In 2016, 36 percent of first-year associates were minorities, dropping to 26 percent of midlevel associates. By the eighth year, only 20.5 percent of associates were minorities, the city bar said.
While many firms trumpet flexible work arrangements to market their attractiveness for work-life balance, the data suggests such programs are used sparingly in practice. Four percent of all attorneys used flexible work arrangements in 2016. Flexible work arrangements are used most frequently by special counsel attorneys, and 13 percent are minorities, the city bar said
John Kiernan, city bar president and a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, said the higher attrition rate for diverse attorneys may be a combination of women choosing not to pursue partnership and heavy recruitment of diverse attorneys for positions in academia, the government and in-house counsel positions, among other factors.
However, “I don’t think that 100 percent of what appears to be a greater attrition rate is that they’re all getting fantastic opportunities,” Kiernan said, adding it’s hard to rule out the possibility that unintended bias is a factor in the experience of minority attorneys.
Gabrielle Lyse Brown, director of the city bar’s diversity and inclusion who wrote the report, said she was “very happy to see movement in the leadership bodies of law firms,” because “if more women and minorities attorneys are serving on management bodies, we’re going to disrupt that affinity bias.”
“But let’s not lose sight that there are really sobering data points in these surveys,” she said. “These data points are moving very, very slowly. We have to align our desire to see change with a more realistic notion that it will take a long time to happen.”
The city bar has been tracking the diversity of dozens of New York law firms since 2004. Almost every year, the city bar has surveyed a large group of firms that signed onto its statement of diversity principles, in which they agreed to promote diversity in hiring, retention and promotion. Most respondents to the survey are Am Law 200 firms.
While law firm diversity is lacking in the highest echelons and most well-paid roles, firms are spending time and money to focus on diversity. The study found that most firms have diversity council, diversity budget and affinity groups and more than 75 percent of responding firms required diversity training, mentoring of diverse attorneys and have dedicated diversity professional.
That training may increase further after New York’s mandatory “diversity, inclusion and the elimination of bias” CLE requirement is effective next year.
After gathering data, the city bar interviewed associates, partners, firm leaders, clients, bar leaders and diversity experts, and for the first time in its diversity report outlined best practices, modeled after law firm approaches, that firms can use to retain and promote diverse lawyers.
For instance, about 56 percent provide associates with executive coaches, and nearly half have sponsorship programs, which pair partners and associates, and where the partner is responsible for the associate’s development.
At one firm with the initiative, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, nine participating lawyers have been promoted to partner and nine have been promoted to special counsel since the program launched in 2013. In the firm’s most recent partner promotions class, 40 percent were members of the sponsorship initiative.
Oftentimes, in-house legal departments are ahead of firms on diversity representation and are pushing firms to keep pace. For instance, the city bar report said MetLife earlier this year hosted a meeting for more than 70 law firms at its New York headquarters for discussions on initiatives to retain and promote diverse talent. Following the meeting, MetLife issued a June 2018 timeline for law firms to present the company with a talent development plan that demonstrates how they will promote and retain diverse lawyers, according to the report.