New Diversity Crowbar in the Door of Big Law Firms

The door to a legal career for minorities is opening wider.


According to the American Bar Association, the number of women and minorities graduating from law school has increased steadily since 1995, with the number of women rising from 43% to 49%, and the number of minorities rising from 15% to approximately 20%. Yet women and minorities continue to be significantly underrepresented in the nation’s law firms (especially at the partnership level). For example, according to the National Association for Law Placement, out of 55,000 partners and more than 60,000 associates, senior attorneys, and staff attorneys reported by the nation’s top law firms in 2005, attorneys of color accounted for only 4.63% of partners and 15.62% of associates. Women fared better with 17.29% of partners and 44.12% of associates. According to this survey, 40% of law firms had no partners of color and 12% had no female partners. Of course, these numbers varied according to location (with Los Angeles, San Jose, Austin and Miami reporting higher percentages). Nevertheless, the percentages of female partners and partners of color lag far behind relative to the overall population and the number of law school graduates.

Much has been written about the reasons for the low representation of attorneys of color and women in the partnership ranks, including a belief that low numbers reflect the personal choice of entering into government and public sector jobs and pursuing family-friendlier schedules and positions, as well as reflecting law firms’ inability (or unwillingness) to properly mentor and retain attorneys of color and women. However, a new twist has been added to this debate: more and more general and in-house counsel are demanding that their outside counsel meet their diversity standards and numbers. Indeed, in February 2005, the chief legal officers of numerous Fortune 500 companies renewed their commitment to diversity in the legal profession and pronounced a “Call to Action” for their outside counsel to promote diversity in their law firms.

Now more than ever, law firms have an even greater incentive to diversify their partnership and associate ranks. Here are only a few reasons why these demands for diversity from general and in-house counsel should be followed.

Corporations themselves are becoming more diverse. According to a survey by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, 14% of general counsels are women and 5% are people of color, while in-house counsel are 20% women and 10% people of color. In addition, 25% of business owners are women and 15% are minorities. Such increases in diversity reflect the dramatic shift from a national economy to a global one. Accordingly, it is not surprising that corporations who are committed to diversity (for altruistic or business reasons) will insist that their outside counsel share that commitment.

Diversity makes financial sense. A law firm’s commitment to diversity can ensure that female and attorneys of color will stay with the firm. That, in turn, will save the firm money. Specifically, firms pay high costs up front to recruit and train young attorneys. If those attorneys leave within four years for more attractive positions at other law firms or in-house departments, the firm not only loses its investment, but also jeopardizes client relationships and disrupts the firm environment, leading to decreased productivity.

Having female and attorneys of color in front of judges and juries may be strategic lawyering. The number of women and people of color in the jury and judicial pool has increased dramatically over the years (especially in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York). Corporations may choose, therefore, to seek representation by diverse attorneys who may better connect with the judges and juries. Although some may see this as cynical, others see this as good strategy.

Diversifying is the right thing to do. It is simply imperative to maintain the integrity and morality of our American society. Although diversity has not necessarily been viewed by law firms as a social or moral imperative in the past (compared to the urgent calling of the bottom line), now that diversity is making financial sense, law firms are feeling the one-two punch for diversity. Of course, making a commitment to diversity is the easy part. Addressing the myriad of reasons why female and associates of color are not making it into the partnership ranks (including the absence of mentors and role models, unfounded stereotypes about abilities, the sense of isolation, and the inflexible work/family schedules) is where the real work begins.



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