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March 1, 2010 8:30 AM

Diversity Scorecard 2010: One Step Back

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Emily Barker

From the March 2010 Issue of The American Lawyer

Large U.S. law firms became less diverse last year. That's the key finding to emerge from the latest version of our annual Diversity Scorecard, which counts attorneys of color in the U.S. offices of some 200 big firms. In each of the previous nine years that we've compiled the Scorecard, the percentage of minority attorneys at all participating firms increased, rising from less than 10 percent in 2000 to 13.9 percent in 2008. In 2009, for the first time, that proportion dipped, to 13.4 percent.

The drop in law firm diversity may be small, but it's important. Overall, big firms shed 6 percent of their attorneys between 2008 and 2009--and, amid the bloodletting, lost 9 percent of their minority lawyers. (Here and elsewhere in this story, we've calculated such percentages only for the 191 firms that provided numbers in both years, in order to have a consistent basis for comparison.) Diversity advocates call the drop a warning sign that shouldn't be ignored. "I think [that] when you're looking at any numbers of a population you're trying to increase, and you see a decrease, that's significant," says Venu Gupta, executive director of the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms. "I guess I hoped we wouldn't be going backward," echoes Fred Alvarez, chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession and a Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati partner.

The decrease in minority head count confirms a concern voiced by many in the legal industry: that the massive law firm layoffs of 2008 and 2009 would hit minority lawyers especially hard. "There were fears when the recession began that these folks would be disproportionately impacted, and it appears to be the case," says Thomas Sager, general counsel of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company and a longtime diversity champion. Sager and other observers fear that this year's falloff could be the start of a new downward trend, given a climate of slower law firm hiring, fewer African American law school students, and so-called stealth layoffs.

This year's results have shaken up our Scorecard rankings, which are based on the firms' percentage of all minority lawyers as well as their percentage of minority partners. Alvarez's firm, Wilson Sonsini, held its number one spot, but some of last year's top-ranked firms didn't fare so well. Those firms include Townsend and Townsend and Crew (which dropped from second to fourteenth) and Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy (from tenth to seventeenth). Townsend says that it continues to keep a close eye on its diversity numbers; Milbank says that its percentage of minority attorneys has held steady at 23 percent, once its new entering class is taken into account.

Click here to continue reading.

THE CHART: Our annual ranking of large law firms according to their percentage of minority attorneys and their percentage of minority partners.  Click here.

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