Why Law Firms Fail At Diversity
Diversity in law schools is growing, but that hasn’t translated to equal representation at the law firm level.
Jared Lindzon, a contributor for Fast Company, recently reported on why law firms haven’t been able to grow their diversity numbers in recent years.
Only 15% Of Attorneys Identify As Minorities
When compared to how fast diversity is growing at law schools, the growth of law firms hasn’t budged much in recent years.
Numbers released by the American Bar Association found that 20% of law school students over the past two decades identified as minorities. Recently, that’s increased to 30%. At many prestigious schools, like Harvard, that number is 40%.
Yet, at the law firm level, the growth has been slow. According to the 2018 Law360 Diversity Snapshot, only 15.8% of attorneys and 9.2% of partners surveyed amongst 300 law firms identified themselves as minorities. And since last year, the number of minorities has only increased 0.4% for attorneys and 0.4% of partners.
At a more granular level, the National Association for Law Placement’s numbers show that from 2009 to 2017, Asian partners increased slightly from 2.2% to 3.31%. For Latino partners, the number only increased 1.65% to 2.4%. Black partners saw the lowest increase from 1.71% to 1.83%. Amongst all these groups, women only represent 2.9%. NALP numbers show that over 90% of partners are white, while 80% of men.
“The numbers seem to stagnate more as you go up the rungs of law firms,” Natalie Rodriguez, a feature reporter for Law360 and coauthor of the report, tells The Fast Company. “It’s taken about four years for the proportion of minority equity partners to grow by a single percentage point.”
Who You Know Matters More Than What You Know
It’s a well-known fact that who you know can help you advance up the career ladder greatly. And that’s what Adina Sterling, assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says is one of the main reasons minorities aren’t represented equally amongst law firms.
“Thirty years ago, law firms grew their talent in-house,” Sterling says in an interview with Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “They’d bring in a crop of associates and then, after seven or eight years, promote the top performers and dismiss the rest. Today, as in many other industries, they’re more likely to hire senior talent away from competing firms. For lawyers, that means the ability to move between employers is key to getting ahead.”
In a study completed with Christopher Rider of Georgetown University and David Tan of the University of Washington, Sterling followed the experience of 1,400 lawyers who recently became unemployed to see how likely they were to be rehired.
The findings? White lawyers were significantly more likely than non-whites to find a new job. Black lawyers had the least likely chances to be rehired. And amongst those numbers, whites saw the highest possibility of joining prestigious companies.
“Race is associated with where people ended up,” Sterling says. “We can’t say for certain what caused that, but it’s consistent with there being a race-based difference in lateral mobility.”
Minorites Opting Out
It seems minorities are giving up when it comes to pursuing private law firm careers. And that, in itself, has also contributed to the lack of minority representation amongst firms.
According to Rodriguez, the co-author of the Law360 report, minorities tend to “opt-out” when it comes to private practice law.
“If you look at the differences between the law student population and the law firm population, there is a discrepancy,” Rodriguez tells The Fast Company. “What the data seems to say, and from what I personally heard anecdotally from speaking with a lot of attorneys of color, is a lot of minority attorneys just opt out of going the private practice or the ‘big law’ route.”
The mere fact that there is so little minority representation amongst top firms, Rodriguez says, may suggest a difficult path to advancement and, in turn, deter minorities from pursuing private practice law. On top of that, Rodriguez says, the high-pressure environment of top law firms may also contribute as a deterrent for many to pursue such career paths.
“A lot of times, what’s inspired them to go to law school is a local attorney who’s helped them with a family matter or an immigration case, or they know someone in the criminal justice system, so they’re being inspired to go into roles in government or nonprofit or perhaps civil practitioners,” Rodriguez tells The Fast Company.
Sources: The Fast Company, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Law.com, NALP, American Bar Association, 2018 Law360 Diversity Snapshot
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