The annual Law360 Pulse Diversity Snapshot was recently released, and the numbers are once again depressing. The fact is that the practice of law remains the province of white people. (The Survey did not look at how women are faring, although a coming Law360 Survey will. But I would guess it would be accurate to say the profession still belongs primarily, if not exclusive, to old white guys). I had a chance recently to talk to Kerry Benn, Director of Series, Surveys & Data at Law360, about the Survey.
Benn told me Law 360 has been doing the Survey annually for seven years. For 2020, the Survey was completed by some 276 law firms of various sizes, so it’s pretty representative.
Some critical numbers from the most recent Survey:
- In 2014 (the first year of the Survey), the percentage of people of color in surveyed firms was a paltry 14%. In 2020, it was a paltry 18%. Some improvement. But the law firm percentages are nothing like the general population, which is some 40% non-white, according to recent estimates.
- Even worse, in 2014, the percentage of minority partners was 8%. In 2020 it was still under 11%.
- At every level, the representation of minority attorneys increased by less than one percentage point from the year before.
- Black attorneys make up 3.6% of all attorneys, while those identifying as Hispanic make up 4.5%. Asian attorneys are the best-represented minority group, making up 7.5% of all attorneys.
- Attorneys of color represent 16% of all partner promotions. Black attorneys made up nearly 3% of those promotions, while Hispanic and Latino attorneys were more than 4% and Asian attorneys were 6%.
The numbers are depressing. The diversity of the profession is not representative of many of those it is supposed to serve. New estimates show that nearly four of 10 Americans identify with a race or ethnic group other than white. Recent data shows that the share of the white population declined almost nine percentage points, to 60.1%
The low percentage of diverse partners means that people of color still lack clout in law firms and are unable to be the needed change agents. And the percentage gets worse the further up the progression ladder you go. And by the way, Benn tells me the Survey did not distinguish between equity and non-equity (as previously discussed non equity partners like associates are employees) partners. I would guess the number of equity partners remains low, further reducing the power of diverse lawyers in law firms.
And this power vacuum may explain why there is so little real progress when so many law firms profess diversity values. And are doing things like appointing diversity officers. Looks good on paper. But programs designed by old white guys may look good but fail to take into account the real issues. Like the lack of diverse equity partners who would be role models to younger lawyers. As it is, Benn told me it’s just hard for younger, diverse lawyers to see a path to success.
And as I have discussed before, origination credit rules and the evaluation tools used in many firms favor the status quo. And the status quo rewards and perpetuates the existing power structure. Without access to origination credits, many diverse lawyers have difficulty advancing and obtaining leadership positions. Access to work and clients often goes to younger lawyers who look like the partner: white.
Interestingly, Benn also told me that smaller firms seem to be doing better at hitting various diversity benchmarks Law 360 had set up. While that seemed counterintuitive on first blush, perhaps lawyers in smaller firms forge closer relationships that help them listen more and talk less.
What does all this mean? The profession is not representative of the population as a whole. Far from it. And many lawyers don’t have the same background, culture, or even language that those who they represent. Not to mention the potential disconnect between white trial lawyers trying to persuade more and more diverse juries.
And when 40% of the population looks at law as a profession, they don’t see many practitioners that look like them. The result: less interest by people of color in the practice of law and less respect for lawyers and perhaps even the rule of law. That should be an alarm bell. Diversity: there are real, practical reasons to want to do better as a profession.
Oh, and by the way, it’s the right thing to do.