Thankful for Diversity’s Progress, Hopeful for More

Topics: Client Relations, Data Analytics, Diversity, Law Firms, Peer Monitor, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

By now the bar exam season is ending and with that we welcome the holidays, kicked off by Thanksgiving — a holiday filled with turkey, football and plenty of reasons to be thankful. For those who have successfully achieved the magic passing score, a new endeavor will begin; finding a job as a lawyer at a law firm. But are law firms hiring?

Peer Monitor data shows that law firms are still increasing their capacity with lawyer growth of 1.6% year-over-year so far in 2016. In fact, the number of associates grew 0.5% year-to-date, despite the fact that the average law firm demand for legal services has declined 4.7% for the month and is down 0.7% for the year.

Nonetheless, there is still a positive sentiment shared by many law firm leaders that is evident when looking at their intentions to maintain or continue growth in their first-year associate classes. In the 2016 American Lawyer Survey, managing partners were fairly optimistic about their law firm’s performance and the majority did not anticipate decreasing the size of their first-year associate class. In fact, 30% of them were considering increasing it. But one question that ruminates in my mind is, how many of these new hires are going to be minorities?

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), about 25% of law degrees were awarded to minorities in 2013, compared to only 8.6% in 1984. That is an important improvement in diversity in law school enrollment, but that improvement does not seem to be translating to the employment of those minorities at the same pace. Back in May, Law360 released a report showing that law firms still lack in diversity. According to the report, only 15% of attorneys at more than 300 law firms surveyed are minorities, with Pacific Islander/Asian American attorneys representing 6.5%, Latino/Hispanic American attorneys 3.4% and Black/African American attorneys 2.9%. The report shows even more puzzling numbers at the partner level, with only 8.4% of both equity and non-equity partners being minorities.

The good news is that both corporations and law firms are working to become more diverse through a number of different measures. Recently, I have spoken with several general counsels of large corporations, and they are placing a heightened emphasis on their law firm counterparts to increase their diversity. In response, more firms are creating director of diversity and inclusion positions in order to promote equality and diversity.

The impact of this increased emphasis is demonstrated in a recent survey created by the DRI (Defense Research Institute — a leading organization of defense attorney and in-house counsel) where more than 70% of the managing partners answered that they have a diversity policy implemented in their respective firms. In addition, the ABA, in its annual meeting this year, discussed and adopted resolutions that will advance diversity in the legal industry. One such adoption was an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination provision brought into the black letter of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

I know that increasing diversity in the legal industry is a challenging task that will take time to reap the rewards of the efforts we are sowing now, but the recent efforts and progression give me reason to believe it is feasible. However, there is always more that can be done.

It would be encouraging to see more law firms implementing mentorships and/or affirmative action programs for minorities; programs in which firms could promote minorities, not in order to fill a quota, but rather to foster diversity in a way that is healthy and beneficial for the law firm and industry alike. If more law firms begin to join the path of modifying their traditional culture to be a more inclusive environment, we will continue to take steps forward towards a progressively diverse legal industry in the not-so-distant future.

This article originally appeared in Peer Monitor Client Report (Vol. 2, No. 10).