Law360's Diversity Snapshot: What You Need To Know

By Jacqueline Bell | August 16, 2021, 3:02 PM EDT

Law firms have faced renewed pressure over the past year to face and fix a long-standing lack of diversity in the profession.

Amid a national reckoning on racial injustice and a pandemic that has shifted work dynamics for more than a year, firms face a push to implement more vigorous reforms, and to find lasting ways to support and include all attorneys.

Firms have largely answered those calls with renewed pledges to devote themselves to improving diversity and inclusion. They have launched new initiatives, invested in boosting the pipeline for attorneys of color, and stepped up the hiring and promotion of diversity professionals to steer long-term diversity goals.

How those plans and promises will fare remains to be seen. But a data-driven look at law firms at the end of 2020 provides a stark perspective on where firms stand and the distance they have to travel to make good on their renewed diversity commitments.

For now, Law360's annual headcount survey still reflects the realities of an industry that has long struggled to support a diverse attorney workforce and continues to report, at best, only modest progress from year to year.

Law360's annual Diversity Snapshot reveals just over 18% of attorneys and about 10% of all partners at surveyed law firms are racial or ethnic minorities — similar results to last year's report.

The nearly 280 firms that responded to our diversity survey include 83 of the 100 largest U.S.-based firms, as ranked by the Law360 400. Three-quarters of the top 200 largest law firms by headcount participated. This year for the first time, law firms based abroad were allowed to participate as well, as long as they had at least 50 attorneys in the U.S.

The survey results showed only incremental differences from the previous year. At every level of a typical law firm, the representation of minority attorneys increased by less than one percentage point.

The levels of minority representation reported by law firms with a substantial U.S. presence stands in stark contrast to the diversity of the student body at U.S. law schools. Students of color have made up more than 20% of law students for almost two decades. Some top-tier law schools are now reporting incoming classes with more than 40% of students identifying as a person of color.

While law firms have had significant time to ensure their attorney workforce reflects the real world, their ranks, particularly among law firm partners, still lack significant diversity.

At the firms Law360 surveyed, 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.

But in the partnership ranks, diversity fades significantly.

Among nonpartners, nearly 24% of attorneys identify as minorities. The number drops to about 10% for all partners and under 10% for equity partners.

Asian American attorneys are the largest minority group working at law firms, yet they are less likely than either Black or Hispanic attorneys to be partners — either nonequity or equity — according to data reported by law firms in this year's Law360 headcount survey. Twenty-four percent of Asian lawyers are partners, as compared with 27% of Black attorneys and 30% of Hispanic attorneys.

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Pathways to Partner

Ensuring a diverse slate of legal talent has the support necessary to step into leadership roles is a vital part of any firm's diversity strategy.

Law firm leaders and diversity professionals are working on attorney development programs, stepping up mentorship programs and making sure all attorneys have opportunities to build their professional skills, connect with mentors and sponsors, network and generate business, even as a global pandemic has kept many attorneys out of the office since early 2020.

Those efforts will take time to bear fruit, however. Law360's survey suggests that minorities were underrepresented in the most recent round of partner promotions.

Attorneys of color represent 16% of all partner promotions — equity and nonequity — reported by law firms in our annual survey.

Black attorneys made up nearly 3% of those promotions, while Hispanic and Latino attorneys were more than 4% and Asian attorneys were 6%.

Losing Talent

If law firms are ever able to make good on their diversity and inclusion efforts, it will be because they are able to not only hire, but also retain a diverse attorney workforce.

For the firms that reported data to Law360, 24% of attorneys who left their firms in 2020 were attorneys of color, even as attorneys of color make up just 18% of attorneys at law firms.

Looking at the attrition of Hispanic, Black and Asian attorneys as a percentage of the total number of attorneys in those groups, about 10% of Hispanic attorneys departed law firms last year, while nearly 14% of Black attorneys did. More than 10% of Asian attorneys left their law firms. About 8% of white attorneys went elsewhere.

Retention has long been a barrier to firms' diversity efforts. Talented attorneys who feel they have few avenues for advancement don't stay. Initiatives and efforts launched amid the pandemic and a renewed push for equitable representation have focused on making sure that any attorneys with their eyes on a partnership have a clearly defined path.

The Full Measure of Diversity

In order to achieve a more diverse, equitable and inclusive profession, law firms are increasingly collecting data on the attorneys that work for them, particularly as clients increasingly demand teams that reflect the diversity of the world, their companies, and the clients they in turn serve.

Many of those corporations want to open up discussions with the law firms they tap for their most pressing legal quandaries on the gender, race and ethnicity of attorneys who might be working for them, as well as attorneys who might identify as LGBTQ or who have self-reported a disability to their law firms.

But when it comes to LGBTQ or disability representation, some firms say they are still not collecting that data. Traditionally, many attorneys have been leery of disclosing this type of information to their employers.

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Most of the law firms that participated in our survey reported that they collect information on attorneys that self-identify LGBTQ. But only 57% said they compile similar data on attorneys with disabilities.

But as more top corporations join efforts to push firms and the broader industry to include a diverse range of people and perspectives, law firms will have to find new ways to reach out to their attorneys, and encourage and support disclosure.

Advancing Progress

With a renewed focus on stepping up diversity and inclusion, firms are increasingly on the hook to provide details to their clients and their own attorneys about how they plan to remake the profession and change things from within.

For many firms, those efforts will start with public commitments and a new plan of attack.

In our survey, nearly three-quarters of firms were able to affirm that they currently had a written diversity action plan. Close to one-fifth said such a plan was in the works.

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While setting goals and plotting out a new course of action are important steps, firms will ultimately have to show demonstrable progress.

Law firms have set expectations high, and now will face the challenge of meeting those expectations. For now, there are signs that they are serious about this work. They are launching new initiatives, setting goals and forging new alliances with law schools and corporations, as they challenge themselves to clear away long-standing barriers to progress and use data to hold themselves accountable.

The bar has been set. Only time will tell if these commitments will yield demonstrable results.

--Editing by Pamela Wilkinson, John Campbell, Kerry Benn and Rachel Reimer. Graphics by Chris Yates.

Methodology: Law360 collected demographic data from 276 U.S. firms, vereins with a U.S. component, or law firms with a substantial U.S. presence of at least 50 attorneys, on their attorneys by headcount as of Dec. 31, 2020, representing about 110,000 attorneys, including about 49,000 partners. Only U.S.-based attorneys were included in the survey, and firms had to have at least 20 U.S.-based attorneys to participate. Some attorneys declined to self-identify a race/ethnicity.

75% of the top 200 firms in the Law360 400 submitted data to our survey. Of the top 100 firms in the Law360 400, 83 submitted data.

Law360's data gathering methodology changed in 2017 slightly from previous years.

Law360 now collects data from law firms using the race, gender and ethnicity categories used by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its annual Employer Information EEO-1 survey. We also have added an option for attorneys who decline to identify a race or ethnicity. This did not result in a significant impact to results for overall diversity levels at law firms.

In our analyses, the terms "minority" and "person of color" are defined as those who identify with one of any of these racial or ethnic groups: Hispanic/Latino, African American/Black, Asian American, Native American or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and two or more races.

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