Vault, together with the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, has worked with more than 200 law firms, including most of the Vault 100 and the Am Law 200, for the last 10 years to collect demographic data about law firm populations, recruiting practices, retention efforts and attrition rates in order to track diversity trends. Despite a recessionary blip, for the most part we have seen steady – albeit slow – progress for minority lawyers over the years.
That said, not all minority groups are faring equally well. While the number of Asian Americans and Hispanics among summer associates, for example, is increasing, the percentage of African-American law students hired has declined—even as the number of black students enrolled in law school has grown. In the five years that we have collected race-specific data from law firms, we’ve seen the percentage of black 2L summer associates fall, from 7.3% in 2007 to 6.4% in 2011. The percentage of African-American attorneys hired as laterals and first-years also fell over that same period, from 5.6% to 4.6%.
Meanwhile, law firms report an increase in departures by black junior associates. More than 8% of the first-, second- and third-year associates who left their firms in 2011 were African-Americans, as were 4.7% of senior associates. In 2010, 6.4% of junior associates and 4.3% of senior associates who left were African-American. The end result is a declining black associate population: African-Americans made up 5.1% of law firm associates in 2007; in 2011, that number fell to 4.4%.
Why are young African-American lawyers leaving firms at a disproportionate rate? Perhaps one reason is that, while the chances of making partner at a BigLaw firm are slim for everyone these days, the possibilities seem even more remote for African-Americans. In 2011, law firms reported that less than 3% of attorneys promoted to partnership were African-American.
According to Vault’s annual Associate Survey, in which thousands of law firm associates assess their employers on various workplace issues, African-Americans consistently report the lowest levels of overall job satisfaction among racial/ethnic groups.
Feedback from African-American associates reveals certain common threads:
While some firms do well at the ground level, the lack of color among the upper echelons is discouraging:
The firm brings in diverse attorneys, but then does little to engage or help them develop:
Retention is stronger when mentoring is not simply a pro-forma activity but an organic aspect of the culture:
Affinity groups and other gatherings for attorneys of similar backgrounds can provide valuable opportunities to share experiences and build relationships:
Interestingly, we also see a strong correlation between firmwide ratings for Overall Satisfaction and Diversity, suggesting that the benefits of an inclusive environment, in which lawyers feel they have opportunities to thrive and grow, are shared by all associates, regardless of race.
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