Black law firm partners made paltry gains in 2021

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Judging by the headlines on the National Association for Law Placement’s Diversity Report, you’d think all is well in Big Law’s Diversityland. “Biglaw’s most recent summer associate class was the “most diverse ever,“,” gushed Above the Law. Other publications, including Reuters and Law360 made similar headlines, suggesting that the latest summer associate class was a game-changer.

The reason for all the buzz is that there was an almost 5% spike in the number of Summer Miscellaneous Associates last year. As the NALP described, “this summer associate class was the most diverse ever measured in every way, and it delivers on the promise of a truly more diverse, equitable, and inclusive law firm world.”

A bold statement. And an even bolder aspiration. But here’s the catch: While this 5% jump is indeed dramatic, the gains black lawyers have made over the past year have been modest, if not paltry. In each key category – associates, associates and summer associates – the rate of increase for black lawyers and future lawyers has not reached the 1% mark.

In this case, the bold proclamations about various lawyers reflected the progress made largely by Latino and Asian lawyers.

Consider these findings from this NALP report:

  • Black associates rose 0.1% to 5.22% overall, well behind Latino (6.1%) and Asian (12.5%) associates.
  • Black partners rose 0.5% to 2.22% overall, crossing the 2% mark for only the first time in 2020. Latinx partners accounted for 2.86%, while Asians accounted for 4 .3%.
  • Black female associates (3.17%) fell behind Latina female associates (3.25%) for the first time this year, while Asian females made up 7.39% of all associates.
  • Black and Latina women each made up less than 1% of all partners, while Asian women made up 1.73% in US law firms. (Only 4% of all partners are women of color.)

And what was the number of black law students in that vaunted 2021 summer associate class? Although black law students made up 11.14% of summer associates (compared to 8.81% for Latinx students and 16.08% for Asian students), their rate of increase was only 0. 69% from 2020 to 2021, below the increase of 1.08% for Latinx students and 2.22%. % increase for Asian students.

Given all the soul-searching about race and Big Law’s impassioned pronouncements about social justice over the past two years, expectations were high that these numbers would show greater improvement. I don’t think anyone expected instant parity, but a 0.5% increase in black partners, 0.1% in black associates, and 0.69% in black summer associates seems incredibly meager. So, what is the lesson to be learned from this report: hope or dejection?

The short answer is probably both.

“I’m often accused of negativity, but this is an exceptional summer course,” says James Leipold, executive director of NALP. “I think 2020 has changed things – that 5% jump is extraordinary. This shows Big Law’s efforts in recruiting. Although Leipold generally says he is “optimistic” about the report, he adds that he feels “mixed emotions” as the statistics remain “appalling for black lawyers and minority women.”

Among some black lawyers, even those who call themselves optimistic, there is a sense of weariness and deja vu.

“I am naturally optimistic but I am also realistic. When it comes to crises, DEI efforts take a back seat and the group that loses are black lawyers,” says Robert Simpson, litigation partner at Carlton Fields in Hartford, who is active in the National Bar Association, the oldest national organization of black lawyers. lawyers. “We’ve seen it during the recession and the pandemic.” But Simpson adds that he hoped this moment would be different. “In light of George Floyd, one would expect to see larger increases across the board.”

Arguably, we had too much hope that the last two years would radically alter the course of black lawyers.

“Did you really think seeing George Floyd murdered before our eyes would change 400 years of racial discrimination? asks Scott Bolden, a white-collar partner and former DC office managing partner for Reed Smith, who emphasized that he was speaking for himself, not the company. “I am not surprised by the gradual progress. Whether it’s law, accounting or Wall Street, we make it hard for black and brown people to succeed.

Grace Speights, the global labor and employment practice leader for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, says she feels there is momentum for change. “I believe the experience of black and diverse lawyers is different. And with George Floyd, it was the first time people were starting to look at race and understand the difference.

Speights says she’s “optimistic” about the future of black lawyers because of the progress she’s seen at her firm. “In 2019, we had 17% black summer associates; in 2020, it was 25%; in 2021 it was 19%,” which she notes “exceeds all NALP figures [for Black summer associates]. And when you consider that we have big acceptance rates, it makes me optimistic and optimistic that the pipeline should produce results. Hopefully we will see a difference in seven to eight years.

Wait another seven to eight years to see significant results? As someone who has covered race in Big Law for two decades and seen little progress, especially for black attorneys, my patience is extremely low.

Another concern: if there is no sense of urgency now, what hope is there that Big Law will ever solve the problem?

“It’s a golden age for increasing diversity,” Simpson says, noting the confluence of remote work and a robust legal marketplace. “Law firms now have the ability to recruit lawyers from anywhere. They can’t say there aren’t black lawyers in their area because they can recruit from anywhere in the United States. He adds a caveat: “There is interest in DEI and black lawyers but that window is closing. The moment has not passed but it passes.

Bolden says he doesn’t believe in the concept of the closing window. “I don’t expect these incremental improvements in diversity numbers to change overnight.” Despite the slow pace of change in Big Law, he says the social justice movement has made clear progress: “Giving to historically black colleges has never been higher, and there are more black people serving on college boards than ever before. ‘administration. It’s a good time to be Black, but this present moment was in the making 400 years ago.

And yes, Bolden says he believes George Floyd made a difference. “It enlightened a lot of my colleagues,” he says. “For people who don’t look like me, welcome to the fight!” He adds, “I celebrate all the increases in diversity, but it’s still a struggle.” His message: “We must continue to work on the issue.”

Indeed, there is no choice but to grind. But it’s exhausting.

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