A Shockingly High Number of Law Firms Have NO Associates of Color

In 2018, every law major law firm (and many of the minor ones) has a policy on diversity.  Firms tout their diversity initiatives to attract clients and new attorneys.  Despite these efforts, diversity continues to elude some firms.  In fact, at some law firms, diversity is so elusive that there are no associates of color to be found.

The National Association for Law Placement (“NALP”) regularly collects and publishes data on attorneys.   In its reports, NALP tracks the number of female attorneys and attorneys of color employed by law firms.  Recently, NALP surveyed over 1,000 law firms with at least one partner and one associate.  While there are a few bright spots in NALP’s May 2018 bulletin, overall, the report paints a bleak portrait of law firm diversity.

Associates have it Bad, but Partners have it Worse

The NALP report found that in 2017, nearly ten percent of firms included in its survey had no associates of color.  Not one.  Even worse, almost twenty percent of the firms that replied had no partners of color.   Here’s a table that shows the NALP data since 1997.

The silver lining in this cloud is that the number of firms with no partners of color has decreased steadily since 1997.  On the other hand, while the number of firms without a single associate of color also dropped quickly, there was no change in the number from 2016 to 2017.  This leveling-off could predict an even worse future for diversity at U.S. law firms.

Because of the way NALP asks this question, it’s difficult to know how many firms have no attorneys of color at all.  It’s entirely possible that some have no associates of color, but one partner of color. It’s also entirely possible that some firms have incredibly diverse associate classes, but these new attorneys have not yet made partner.  But sadly, it’s also entirely possible that some firms have no people of color as associates or partners.


Firm Size Doesn’t Seem to Matter

While lawyers tend to have varying opinions about whether larger or smaller firms are better for diversity, according to NALP’s numbers, the size of the firm doesn’t affect the number of attorneys of color. Here’s a table with the data:

associates of color

As the table shows, there isn’t a clear relationship between firm size and the failure to hire associates or partners of color.  While lawyers of color seem to be least likely to make partner in firms with 251-500 attorneys, firms with fewer than 100 attorneys had the least diverse associate ranks.  So, firm size doesn’t seem to provide any answers.


Firms are Not Hiring Women of Color

While the numbers for attorneys of color are dreadful, for women of color, they are far worse.  Women of color confront both racism and sexism in the workplace.  Here’s the NALP data on women of color at law firms:

In 2017, 45.5 percent of all law firms had no women of color in the partnership ranks.  This number is nearly three times larger than the number of firms that have no partners of color.   Moreover, while 9.8 percent of firms had no associates of color, nearly twice that number – 18.5 percent – have no women of color working as associates.

There is one piece of good news in these awful numbers.  Since NALP began tracking women of color separately in 2007, the number of firms with no women of color in their partnership ranks has dropped significantly.  While 63 percent of firms had no women of color as partners in 2007, that number has dropped nearly twenty percent in just ten years.  Similarly, the number of firms without female associates of color has dropped over ten percent.  On the other hand, the fact that 45.5 percent of firms still have no senior women of color is appalling.  Moreover, the number of firms without women of color in partnership positions increased from 2016 to 2017.  The fact that the numbers are heading in the wrong direction is far from encouraging.


What Next?

Some firms have figured out how to hire, retain, and promote talented attorneys of color.  Therefore, we know that creating a law firm that creates and respects diversity is possible.  However, firms must also recognize that diversity is not a “one size-fits-all” model.  Each firm must take stock of its own unique needs and honestly examine where its priorities lie.   A firm that commits to creating a space where all attorneys feel empowered will find a way to do it.

The African American Attorney Network is committed to helping law firms better serve their clients and their employees of color.   The Network regularly posts content designed to help law firms recruit and retain African American attorneys.  Follow The Network for more news and tips on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.