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November 4, 2010 7:55 PM

Law Firms + Recession = Declines in Diversity?

Posted by Ed Shanahan

So, what impact did the recession have on diversity at law firms?

The latest statistics, released Thursday by the National Association for Law Placement, reconfirm findings from the The American Lawyer and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association that diversity at law firms fell over the past year. And, yet again, the numbers suggest that one likely culprit for the decline is the recession.

This year was the first time in the 17 years that NALP has compiled demographic data from law firms* that diversity among associates fell, according to NALP. "The net effect was that, for lawyers as a whole, representation of both women and minorities declined slightly," NALP said. Minorities account for 12.4 percent of law firm attorneys in 2010, down from 12.59 percent last year. The number of women attorneys has dipped to 32.69 percent from 32.9 percent in 2009. And there are now fewer minority women practicing in law firms--6.20 percent compared to 6.33 percent in 2009.

The factors leading to these declines aren't covered by the report. "The NALP data did not reveal the reasons that the overall representation of women and minorities among law firm attorneys went down in 2010," NALP executive director James Leipold told The National Law Journal, a sibling publication. But, Leipold noted, the recession is likely a culprit, as are the lawyer layoffs enacted in response to the downturn. Also, the paper reports, "a drop in the overall number of associates at firms was another likely factor, since associates are a significantly more diverse group than partners." The NLJ is looking to the data it compiles annually for The NLJ 250, which ranks law firms by lawyer headcount. The 2010 list, to be published next week, "shows a steep decline in the number of associates during the past year," the NLJ reports.

The numbers aren't surprising and are consistent with findings released by other organizations and publications this year, as the NLJ reports. The 2010 edition of The American Lawyer's annual Diversity Scorecard found that for the first time since the survey was launched in 2000, the percentage of minority attorneys at all participating law firms dropped, from 13.9 percent in 2008 to 13.4 percent last year. (The Scorecard counted attorneys of color in the U.S. offices of some 200 large law firms.) The percentage was on a slow, steady rise until that point, starting at 10 percent in 2000.

In late September, Vault.com and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association released the latest Law Firm Diversity Database, which, for the first time in its seven-year history, showed virtually no increase in the percentage of minority equity partners at law firms. That survey also found that of all attorneys hired in 2009, only about 19 percent were minorities, compared to nearly 22 percent in 2008.

Reflecting on the NALP data, Leipold told the NLJ the drop is significant, "because it represents a reversal of what had been, up until now, a constant upward trend. Prior to the recession, law firms had struggled to recruit and retain a diverse workforce of attorneys, but there were small gains year after year which, over time, had begun to make a significant change in law firm workplaces."

As Robert Grey, a partner at Hunton & Williams and the executive director of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, said, "The question becomes, 'What do we do? Do we wait for a while to allow firms to get back on their feet, or do we act aggressively and say that this is the best time to move?'," the NLJ reported.

Click here to read more from the NLJ on NALP's findings.

 

*NOTE: NALP compiles the demographic data for its annual directory of legal employers. This 2010-11 volume includes attorney race/ethnicity and gender information for just over 129,000 partners, associates, and other lawyers in 1,400 offices, and for over 5,400 summer associates in over 785 offices nationwide.

 

RELATED STORIES 

2010 Minority Experience Study: Lost in the Shuffle
The American Lawyer Student Edition-Fall 2010

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The Am Law Daily



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