“Incremental Progress” for Diversity in the Legal Industry

In February 2021, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) released its 2020 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms.  Unfortunately, the numbers on diversity and inclusion showed only a slight uptick, revealing “incremental progress.”  In a time when our focus is appropriately on diversity and even large corporations are demanding that a more diverse group of attorneys work on their matters, NALP’s annual report is a bit disappointing.

In this article, we are going to discuss the findings of NALP’s 2020 Diversity report and consider what is happening in the legal industry that has resulted in this lackluster result.

The 2020 Diversity Report’s Primary Findings

Overall, the report indicated that in 2020 women, people of color, and women of color all made small improvements in partnership representation.  Also, for the first time since NALP began collecting diversity and inclusion data, Black partners in U.S. law firms surpassed 2 percent.  With regard to lawyers at the associate level, Black associates surpassed 5 percent for the first time since NALP has been collecting data.  Yet, the representation of Black women at the associate level has increased by only a miniscule one-tenth of one percent over the last 11 years.

Those small gains compelled the Executive Director of NALP to note the following:

Despite enormous efforts by law firms to make progress, bias in the profession has maintained inequities long past when many other professions, most notably medicine, have become much more diverse.

. . . [L]ess than four percent of all partners are women of color – a figure that remains abysmally low due to the significant underrepresentation of both women and people of color at the partnership level and a pattern that holds true across all firm sizes and most jurisdictions.  Worse, Black women and Latinx women each continued to represent less than 1% of all partners in U.S. law firms.

The numbers related to lawyers who are part of the LBGTQ community are more promising.  The number of LBGTQ lawyers is three times as large as it was two decades ago.  For LGBTQ summer associates, the numbers are increasing at a faster pace, with 1 percent more LGBTQ summer associates joining the ranks in 2020 compared to a year earlier.

Geography Plays a Large Part in Diversity and Inclusion

While the NALP numbers are not cause for celebration, it is interesting to note that geography has a lot to do with the diversity numbers.  For example, in Atlanta, four percent of partners are Black, whereas in Boston that number is less than one percent.  In Miami, about 27 percent of partners are Latinx – the highest in the country – yet in Atlanta, Latinx attorneys make up only .74 percent of law firm partners.

Finally, in California’s major cities, more than 10 percent of partners are Asian, but there are only .72 percent Asian partners in Miami.  All of that is to say that there are some regions in which diversity and inclusion are moving faster than others.

What Do the Numbers Tell Us?

To echo the words of NALP’s Executive Director, the diversity numbers in the NALP report tell us that law firms in the United States have a long way to go.  Indeed, much work needs to be done to ensure that the makeup of those in the halls of a law firm reflect the makeup of those in the general community.

What is interesting about the numbers is that it invites the question:  Where do lawyers who are women and people of color go if they still cannot break into the ranks of partner?  According to one commentator interpreting NALP’s report, it appears that people of color enter law firms but then have difficulty gaining a mentor within the organization, gaining traction by working with good clients, or finding good opportunities for advancement.  Law firms focused on the bottom line seem to be missing the chance to keep associates interested in remaining with the organization.  Thus, many get off the partnership track, and many move to in-house positions.

Indeed, the turnover for diverse lawyers seems to be higher at the associate level, given that once a person makes partner, he or she is less likely to leave.

What Can Be Done in the Future?

First and foremost, giving up on diversity is not an option.  The legal industry should continue to focus on diversity and inclusion initiatives to attract the kind of diverse talent that will lead the legal industry into the next generation.

Interestingly, as noted above, some major clients are using their significant clout with their own outside law firms to make the change themselves.  There are General Counsel who require their outside law firms to include diverse lawyers on the teams that perform work for their companies. Moreover, the work performed by diverse lawyers needs to be meaningful and we know of General Counsel that will review billing statements from law firms to confirm that work is in fact being performed by diverse lawyers. As a condition for engaging a law firm on a specific matter, there are General Counsel that will insist that specific diverse attorneys at the firm work on that matter.

If law firm management pushes diversity initiatives and major clients do their part to ensure better diversity, there is a chance that the NALP report in years to come will reflect more than incremental progress in diversity.