Slow Progress for Woman and Minorities in Law Firms

By Elsie Holzwarth

Each year the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) issues a Report on Diversity in U.S. law firms. The recently issued report for 2016 is based on information received from law firms for 112,000 partners, associates and other lawyers in 1,082 law offices, and for 7,000 summer associates in 804 offices. The report noted that there were widespread layoffs in 2009 due to the recession. It includes tables for each year since then.

“Overall, representation of women lawyers as a whole was up and remains higher than in 2009, despite losses in 2010, 2011, and 2015,” according to the report. But not by much. Of total lawyers in the 2009 figures, 32.97% were women; in 2016 it was 33.89%. This includes partners, associates and others such as “of counsel” and staff attorneys who, in 2016, accounted for 14% of attorneys in the reporting firms. Women partners increased from 19.21% in 2009 to 22.13% in 2016.  Although 48.71% of 2017 summer associates were women, (up from 46.62% in 2009), when considering all associates the percentage fell to 45%, (down from 45.66% in 2009).

Minority representation also increased by only small amounts since 2009. The report noted that the increase in minority representation was primarily due to the increase of Asian and Hispanic male lawyers. In 2016, minorities were 14.62% of total lawyers, 8.05% of partners, and 22.72% of all associates.  This was a noticeable drop-off from the 32.33% minority representation for summer associates.  In 2016, total minority women lawyers were at 7.23%, minority women partners were at 2.76%, and minority women associates at 12.42%, a decrease from 18.05% for summer associates.  The representation in 2016 of Black/African-American women partners was 0.64%, (up from 0.57% in 2009 ), and of associates was 2.32%, (down from 2.93% in 2009). For openly LGBT lawyers the 2016 representation was 2.48% of total lawyers, the highest number being associates; 56% of LGBT lawyers were located in New York City, Washington, DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

NALP Executive Director James Leipold noted that, “the largest firms hav[e] achieved much greater diversity than smaller firms. And while it is encouraging to see small gains in most areas this year, the incredibly slow pace of change continues to be discouraging…Minority women and Black/African-American men and women continue to be the least well represented in law firms, at every level, and law firms must double down to make more dramatic headway among these groups most of all. And, while the relatively high levels of diversity among the summer associate classes is always encouraging, the fact that representation falls off so dramatically for associates, and then again for partners, underscores that retention and promotion remain the primary challenges that law firms face with respect to diversity.”

This article first appeared in the WBAI Winter 2017 Newsletter.

Elsie Holzwarth was a sole practitioner for many years before retiring. She is a member of the Newsletter Committee.