The rarity of African-American partners in the Am Law 100 law firms is such that they can be counted on one hand and the crisis of diversity in the white, male dominated law business raises its ugly head yet again. For lawyers like Grace Speights at Morgan Lewis & Bockius, a labor and litigation partner, it takes “a certain toughness” to make partner. You also need sponsors, she says.
“All along the way,” she says, “I had people in power—all but one white and male—who said, ‘You are going to succeed. I think that’s key. If you’re going to be successful as an African-American lawyer, somebody has to be invested in you.”
Notwithstanding that the average firm in the Am Law top firm list has more than doubled its size, the diversity issue has remained steadfast and stuck in a deep rut.
American Lawyer report that in 2013, only 1.9 percent of partners—one in 54 at the 223 firms that submitted data for our Diversity Scorecard—were black, a percentage that hasn’t changed in five years. For black women partners, the numbers are even worse: They average just one in every 170 partners in our surveyed firms, half the number of black male partners, according to data collected by the National Association for Law Placement.
For black associates, the situation is not much better. The recession was a disaster for lawyers of all minorities at large firms; they were almost twice as likely to be laid off as their white peers. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of minority lawyers at the nation’s largest firms dropped by 9 percent, mostly associates. But while the numbers of Asian-American and Hispanic lawyers have since rebounded past prerecession levels, black lawyer head count has continued to slide. The percentage of black lawyers at the largest firms is now at a level not seen since 2000: 3 percent of all lawyers, down from 3.1 percent in 2012.
The law continues to fall further behind other professions in the inclusion of black professionals, according to a recent study by Microsoft Corporation. And within the legal profession, large law firms’ record on diversity is the worst, well behind that of government or corporate legal departments.
What has gone so wrong? Interviews with two dozen black lawyers, in-house counsel, diversity experts and academics, plus our exclusive law firm surveys, suggest a variety of causes.
Pressure at Work
Most agreed that pressures within law firms that began during the recession have made partnership both a more difficult and less attractive proposition for black lawyers. Meanwhile, the pipeline has narrowed.
As firms keep associate classes smaller, fewer black lawyers are moving into firms; the black law graduates who are tapped by elite firms continue to be a small group of high-ranking students from first- or second-tier law schools. Finally, a mid-2000s push by corporations to compel their outside counsel to diversify has receded, displaced by concerns over law firm pricing.
At a time when minorities in the United States will soon be the majority, the business case for increasing the number of black lawyers and partners is clear.
“The regulatory sector is one of the growth areas of major firms,” says Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison litigation partner Theodore Wells Jr. “You have African-Americans who sit at the very apex of our government and our regulatory agencies. To the extent that your firm is out of step, it’s going to be a competitive disadvantage.”
See the LawFuel interview with top lawyer Mary Cranston on achieving gender diversity: