Minority representation in law firms still below pre-recession levels

By Tyler Roberts

Minority groups may have continued to see increased representation in law firms across the nation since major layoffs in 2009, but the overall representation of women and African-American associates remain below pre-recession levels.

According to a recent report by National Association for Law Placement, women and minority groups made small gains in representation at major U.S. law firms in 2016, although the “incredibly slow pace of change continues to be discouraging,” NALP Executive Director James Leipold said in a press release.

“These national benchmark data are helpful in highlighting the overall progress, or lack thereof, in achieving greater diversity among the lawyers working in U.S. law firms,” Leipold said. “But the national figures mask many significant differences by law firm size and geography. In many ways these stories tell a narrative of difference, with the largest law firms having achieved much greater diversity than smaller law firms.”

The representation of women lawyers as a whole is on the rise and remains higher than pre-recession levels. However, the representation of women at the associate level has seen a net decrease. 

Likewise, the representation of African-American associates remains below 2009 levels. The encouraging increase in minority representation in law firms since 2011 is augmented in part by the increased representation of male Asian and Hispanic associates and partners, NALP reported. 

And even though the representation of minority women has improved at the associate level, this demographic continues to be tragically underrepresented at the partner level at just 2.76 percent.

"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,” Leipold said.

Despite the sluggish growth rates of diversity among the ranks of major law firms, there is reason to be optimistic. NALP found that representation of women and minorities in summer associate positions “compared much more favorably” to the overall population of recent graduates.

Still, the fact remains that representation of women and minorities drops dramatically at the associate and partner levels, highlighting that promotion and retention of women and minority lawyers remains a challenge for law firms nationwide.