NALP finds slight improvement in law firm diversity, but pockets of decline

October 26, 2009 by  
Filed under Articles

Karen Sloan
October 21, 2009

Diversity advocates have voiced concern about the toll recent law firm layoffs have taken on women and minority attorneys, and it appears that their fears were not entirely unfounded.

The latest attorney demographic survey from the National Association of Law Placement (NALP) indicates that law firm diversity ticked up slightly overall during the past year, but declined in several markets.

“It is likely that layoffs and reduced hiring during the past year have contributed to the small declines we have been able to measure,” NALP Executive Director James Leipold said in a written statement released on Oct. 21.

In Houston and New Orleans, the percentage of female and minority attorneys at law firms dropped among both associates and partners. The decline was steepest in New Orleans, where the reported percentage of minority associates dropped from more than 15% in 2008 to slightly more than 10% in 2009. The percentage of women associates fell by nearly 2% during that time.

Cincinnati; Detroit; Milwaukee, Wis.; Northern New Jersey; and Orange County, Calif., saw declines in the percentage of women associates, minority associates or both, according NALP.

NALP noted that exact year-to-year comparisons are difficult, but that the data generally reflect demographic trends. In fact, NALP said, the latest numbers may well understate the damage layoffs have done to law firm diversity.

“These data were gathered early in 2009, and therefore do not reflect all the layoffs that have occurred, and in fact continue to occur, as a result of the economic slowdown,” Leipold said.

“I think law firms are working very hard to maintain a diverse workforce, even as they experience overall reductions in headcount, but I am fearful that we may see further erosion of some of these numbers when we look at the data for 2010,” he added. “The good news is that the 2009 data do not reflect more widespread decreases, and in fact in most markets diversity levels rose in spite of the tough economic times.”

The five largest legal markets in the United States – New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington – saw their percentages of women and minority partners and associates hold steady or increase slightly compared to 2008.

The overall national percentage of minority partners inched up from 5.92% in 2008 to 6.05% in 2009. Female partners increased to 19.21% compared to 18.74% last year. Women made up 45.66% of associates compared to 45.34% in 2008, while minority representation increased from 19.08% to 19.67%. These small increases did little to boost overall diversity, as the percentage of total minority attorneys held steady at slightly more than 12% and women continued to represent slightly fewer than one third of attorneys.

Bucking the national trend, Austin, Texas; Wilmington, Del.; and Portland, Ore., saw the percentage of their women or minority associates increase compared to 2008.

The representation of female minorities at law firms continued to lag, however. They make up a mere 1.88% of partners and 11.02% of associates, showing virtually no change compared to the previous year.

Although scant data existed previously to gauge the demographics of lawyers laid off by firms, diversity advocates reported anecdotal evidence that minorities and women were hit hard by the job losses – in part because they tend to be younger and may not have as many close client relationships as their white male counterparts.

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