Large Law’s Diversity Problem Gets Worse

June 2, 2014

Thomson Reuters LegalOnly 3 percent of lawyers and only 1.9 percent of partners at Large Law firms are black, according to a “Diversity Scorecard” published in the June issue of The American Lawyer. What’s more – that number has declined for each of the past five years.

For this report, The American Lawyer surveyed 223 of the country’s largest law firms. The respondents were either among the top 250 law firms in terms of lawyers or top 200 in terms of gross revenue.

(Asian-American and Hispanic lawyers are increasing in representation. The percentages of lawyers who identify themselves as having these ethnic backgrounds, 6.3 and 3.2, respectively, remain small, however.)

The American Lawyer pointed out that the recession of 2008 reduced the number of lawyers in general, but seemed to have a disproportionate effect on black lawyers. Black lawyers were almost twice as likely to be laid off as their white peers, and black lawyers laid off from top law firms were the least likely of all lawyers to be re-employed by a Large Law firm, it noted.

The magazine also faulted an “unconscious racial bias” that keeps black lawyers from getting the kind of assignments and forming the kinds of relationships needed to succeed in Large Law firms.

Lastly, The American Lawyer noted that corporate counsel once prioritized diversity at law firms it hired, but now emphasizes cost and so more likely to exert pressure on price, rather than the racial makeup of a firm.

It is difficult to find even a positive facet to focus on here. The legal profession ranks behind accountants, financial managers and doctors in terms of percentage of black employees, according to Microsoft’s “Raising the Bar” report on racial diversity. The fact that the needle has hardly budged in the past five years means whatever efforts Large Law is making to procure the talent, unique perspective and creativity of black lawyers are just not working.

As pervious posts on this blog have chronicle, the legal industry as a whole is in a period of great and transformative change. It would be a very real shame if black lawyers were left behind when all is said and done.