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Law schools are very diverse, so why aren’t law firms?

Some of the U.S.’s most prestigious law schools are enrolling more diverse students, but only 15% of attorneys at law firms surveyed identified as minorities.

Law schools are very diverse, so why aren’t law firms?
[Photo: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images]

While the proportion of minority law school students is on the rise, especially at top-tier law schools, diversity numbers at major law firms have barely budged in recent years.

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According to the American Bar Association, approximately 20% of those who attended law school over the past two decades identified as minorities, and that proportion has recently increased to 30%. The 2018 Law360 Diversity Snapshot, however, recently found that only 15.8% of attorneys and 9.2% of partners at the more than 300 law firms surveyed identified as minorities. Since the 2017 edition of the study, the proportion of diverse attorneys has only increased by 0.4%, while the proportion of minority partners has only increased by 0.3%.

“The numbers seem to stagnate more as you go up the rungs of law firms,” says Natalie Rodriguez, a feature reporter for Law360 and coauthor of the report. “It’s taken about four years for the proportion of minority equity partners to grow by a single percentage point.”

Meanwhile, some of the country’s most prestigious law schools are enrolling higher rates of diverse students than the 30% average. Many, including Harvard Law School, report minority students making up over 40% of their incoming classes.


Related: Diversity in business really does boost innovation, according to a new study


Why minorities don’t end up at private practices

“If you look at the differences between the law student population and the law firm population, there is a discrepancy,” says Rodriguez. “What the data seems to say, and from what I personally heard anecdotally from speaking with a lot of attorneys of color, is a lot of minority attorneys just opt out of going the private practice or the ‘big law’ route.”

Rodriguez explained that the widespread aversion to private practice and major law firms by minority attorneys has a number of root causes. One could be the lack of minority representation they see within the country’s top firms, which might suggest a more difficult path to advancement. Another is the high-pressure environment, which is a deterrent to many that choose not to go into private practice or work for major firms, in spite of the higher-than-average pay.

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“A lot of times, what’s inspired them to go to law school is a local attorney who’s helped them with a family matter or an immigration case, or they know someone in the criminal justice system, so they’re being inspired to go into roles in government or nonprofit or perhaps civil practitioners,” adds Rodriguez.

Attempts to address the problem

The industry isn’t blind to its diversity problem and has made concerted efforts to address the issue, though the results of those efforts are often difficult to find. The Law360 Diversity Snapshot found that more than 85% of firms surveyed have established a diversity committee that includes senior partners, and more than 30% employ a dedicated diversity professional. That number increases to 70% at the country’s top firms.

“In speaking with law firm leaders that are engaged on this issue, several express their frustration with the fact that the numbers haven’t been budging,” says Rodriguez.

She adds that many are trying to broaden their recruiting efforts, institute unconscious bias training, create mentoring networks for minority attorneys, and some have even instituted the Mansfield Rule, which requires 30% of the candidates they consider for new positions to be from minority communities.

“One thing that some of the firms I spoke with seem to be doing is really trying to zero in and focus on the young talent that they do have that’s diverse, and figure out what they need in order to make it up the ranks, and give them the right resources and training and mentorship,” says Rodriguez.


Related: Top companies are missing talent from historically black colleges

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While each of these tactics can be effective, Rodriguez has found that the firms that are making the most progress are taking a multi-pronged approach. The most successful are also often more analytical when tracking the success of those initiatives, taking regular stock of what’s working and pivoting their strategies accordingly.

“There’s no one, clear, specific answer in terms of the profession as a whole; it’s a very complex issue with lots of different layers that impact the profession at various segments along the pipeline,” explains Patricia Lee, the chair of the American Bar Association’s Diversity and Inclusion Center.

Lee explains that each step in the attorney’s career journey—from high school to the LSAT exam to law school to the bar exam and up the ladder within the legal profession—has unique challenges when it comes to recruiting and retaining diverse students and employees.

“There are a lot of factors that come into play, and those who have been working in this area for a number of years realize that all of those factors and challenges need to be addressed at each stage, so the pipeline from education to the legal profession and the judiciary continues to run smoothly and allows for the greatest possible participation by students and attorneys from diverse backgrounds,” she says.

Complex as the problem may be, Lee believes it’s vital that the industry continues to strive for racial and gender equality at each stage and within each legal institution.

“Attorneys have a greater impact even beyond the legal profession, because they’re looked to for their expertise in other areas of society in terms of elected officials, judges and so forth,” she says. “The more diverse attorneys you have, the more you ensure you have the widest possible viewpoint and cultural sensitivity when you try to implement policies in the public.”

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Not only is a more diverse legal profession of benefit to society as a whole, but it can also provide a competitive advantage to the firms that are able to effectively hire, retain, and nurture diverse talent.

“There are numerous studies out there that show that a more diverse trial team is going to be more successful than a less diverse trial team,” says Rodriguez. “In-house council and general counsel are also really taking a firmer stance on diversity—they’re demanding more diversity within their outside council teams—so opting to remain less diverse could ultimately impact their bottom line.”

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About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised and residing in Toronto, covering technology, entrepreneurship, entertainment and more for a wide variety of publications in Canada, the United States and around the world. When he's not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs or traveling to music festivals and tech conferences you can usually find him diligently practicing his third-person bio writing skills.

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