Is the Legal Profession Going Backwards on Diversity?

Photo by W2 Beard & Shorty (Flickr/Creative Commons)

When it comes to law firm diversity, the standard narrative is that the pace of change is painfully slow. But according to a report from the National Association of Law Placement, even that narrative may be too rosy: in some respects, law firms are going backwards.

Released on Thursday, the NALP report found that, while women and minorities continue to make modest gains among the partnership ranks — often a focus of diversity discussions — the percentage of associates who are women has gone down over the last five years, and the number of African American associates has gone down every year since 2009.

“It is troubling to see the numbers for women and African-American associates seemingly reversing course,” NALP Executive Director James Leipold said in a statement. “2015 marks the sixth year of decline in the representation of Black associates, and while the percentage decrease is small, the overall number itself was small to begin with, so any decline is significant, and the trend is distressing. For women, too, after years of small gains, the pattern of flat to declining representation among associates in law firms is disturbing.”

Not all of the numbers were negative: in addition to modest gains at the partnership level, the report also found that the numbers of Asian and Hispanic associates rose modestly, and representation of women and minorities among all lawyers was also up.

The report pulled data from 113,000 partners, associates, and other lawyers in 1,081 offices, as well as 6,500 summer associates, in 775 offices nationwide.

On Friday, ABA President Paulette Brown spoke with Big Law Business about the report.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

Paulette Brown headshot 2015-16Big Law Business: When you see statistics like these, how do you feel?

Brown: I’m an eternal optimist. The first thing that comes to mind is the Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission, which I created as part of one of my initiatives this year. I think of the work they’re doing to make our profession a far more diverse and inclusive profession.

[Editor’s Note: Brown created the Commission on Diversity and Inclusion 360 to form policies, standards and practices to best advance diversity and inclusion over the next ten years.]

It’s not news that we’re the least diverse profession among major professions. One of the things that may contribute to that is implicit bias, which is one of the reasons why the commission is taking a look at how implicit bias in particular affects the profession.

Big Law Business: The report notes that, where African American lawyers have lost ground, numbers of Hispanic American and Asian American lawyers are up. What are the unique challenges with respect to the African American legal community, as far as diversity goes?

Brown: I think we have to look at some of it from a positive standpoint: you do have some minority numbers that are going up — and I put in quotes “minority”; I’m not a big fan of that word — but I think that, again, when we finish doing our work, we’ll have to consider what kinds of unconscious or implicit biases come into play.

We can do better and I know that we will do better. In the meantime, we do have some groups that are doing better. I think we need to look at that as well.

Big Law Business: What are some practical things you’d like to see law firms doing?

Brown: There are many, many law firms, and each law firm is unique. Most firms have some sort of individual who’s responsible specifically for diversity and inclusion efforts. I think firms need to continue what they’ve been doing: to educate people about the importance of diversity and inclusion and continue to make all efforts to ensure that everybody is made to feel they’re apart of the fabric of their law firm.

When our commission has finished its work, we hope to have some real sustainable recommendations as to what it is not just law firms but other people who employ attorneys can do to make our profession more inclusive.

Big Law Business: Are there reasons to be optimistic?

Percentages are going up in some categories. And I think that when [negative] numbers like this are shown, it causes people to become more intentional. When something is raised to consciousness level it generally causes people to act.

Even though the report doesn’t give the best news, I think that when people look at it, and see it in black and white, their response will be “There’s something we need to be doing better.” I think most people are very well intentioned, but sometimes, as with all of us, we may need some reminders.