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Number of women, minority partners at law firms still far lower than counterparts

In 2014, minorities were 7.33 percent of partners at major U.S. law firms, and women were 21.05 percent of the partners in these firms

There has been some slight improvement for women and minorities in terms of their representation at law firms.

Recently released numbers from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) showed that women and minorities continued to make “small gains” as partners at law firms during 2014.

Last year, minorities were 7.33 percent of partners at major U.S. law firms, and women were 21.05 percent of the partners in these firms. In contrast, the percentages in 2013 were 7.10 percent for minorities and 20.22 percent for women.

In addition, the percentage of minority associates has gone up for the fourth year in a row after falling in 2010 during the recession. Also, the percentage of women associates increased “a bit” following a drop during the recession, but it is still below the 45 percent level seen between 2009 and 2012.

In-house legal departments that are concerned about such numbers at law firms need to speak up.

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“For general counsel and in-house legal departments, I would say that on the diversity front, the client should be more vigilant than ever,” NALP executive director James G. Leipold told InsideCounsel in a statement. “Law firms still need to have their feet held to the fire.  Some law firms are making great strides, but others are not.”

“I would encourage law departments to make sure there are real consequences for those law firm offices that are not making measurable strides in the representation of women and minority lawyers in their ranks,” he added. “It is not a new challenge, but as this report makes clear, the progress the industry has seen has been incrementally slow, almost painfully so, and all gains are subject to reversals without continued pressure from the outside and commitment on the inside to making lasting change.”

Leopold said the “biggest hurdle” is to ensure the leadership at law firms “actually reflects the diversity of the incoming associate classes over time.”

“We are a long way off from that goal yet,” he added.

In addition, the NALP study also shows that there is geographic variation when it comes to the numbers of women and minorities partners at law firms. The range of women partners goes from 12 percent in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Northern Virginia to 28 percent in Denver and over 25 percent in Detroit, San Francisco and Seattle.

On the other hand, percentages for minority partners range from less than 0.5 percent in the Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina region to a high of 29.48 percent in Miami.

Specifically, minority women were most often seen as law firm partners in Miami, where the percentage was 7.84.

Jeffrey Lowe, a managing partner at the Washington, D.C., office of Major, Lindsey, & Africa, a legal recruiting firm, noted that there are now more women than men entering law school. In addition, the United States is becoming increasingly diverse. These changes will allow law firms to have a “much more diverse pool of people to choose from,” Lowe told InsideCounsel, adding that retaining women and minority attorneys has been a problem for many law firms.

One of the other challenges faced by law firms is the “self-perpetuating problem” that women and minority lawyers at firms often do not have “mentors” or champions” who are like themselves, Lowe said.

On the other hand, many business clients want to see diversity in the law firm they use which is similar to the diversity found in their company. That is giving a practical reason for many firms to increase the number of women and minority attorneys, beyond it just being the right thing to do.

Contributing Author

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Ed Silverstein

Ed Silverstein is a veteran writer and editor for magazines, websites and newspapers. A graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he has won several...

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