The nation’s biggest law firms had been making impressive strides in hiring women, people of color and those with disabilities — until the recession dried up legal spending and wiped out more than 5,800 lawyers’ jobs.
After two years of layoffs and hiring deferrals, the proportions of women and minorities at major law firms dropped in 2010 for the first time since industry analysts began collecting demographic hiring data in the 1990s.
The statistical setbacks have been marginal — less than one percentage point in each group — but they concern affirmative action advocates and law firm recruiters who fear long-term damage to the quest for lawyers who reflect the clientele and communities they serve.
The National Assn. for Law Placement last month reported that it had recorded the first diversity reversals in the 17 years the organization has compiled statistics on firms with 700 or more lawyers.
“I do not think that layoffs or reductions in force were done in a race-conscious way or a biased way. But we know from the data that junior and associate ranks are the most diverse parts of law firms, and that’s where the layoffs hit most,” said James Leipold, executive director of the Washington-based association.
Hiring flat-lined in 2009 and has been as slow to resume in the legal profession as elsewhere in the still-reeling economy, industry researchers report.
Leipold said he expects to see the consequences of the diversity setbacks in seven years or so, when firms are reviewing candidates for partnership and will be seeing fewer minorities and women in the pool of contenders.
Association figures showing slight drops in women and minority representation mirrored the results of other recent studies by the American Lawyer magazine, the Minority Corporate Counsel Assn. and the American Bar Assn.'s Commission on Women in the Profession.
“Hispanics, the country’s fastest-growing minority group, already make up more than 15% of the U.S. population, but less than 5% of all lawyers are Hispanic. That’s a big disparity,” said Stephen N. Zack, American Bar Association president.
Women have accounted for at least half of law school graduates and new hires at big firms for at least 20 years. But only 19% of equity partners are women. The advancement statistics for racial minorities are even more dire, with people of color accounting for only about 6% of those sharing in their firm’s profits. Minority women are 2% of partners nationwide, consistently the most under-represented demographic, according to the studies.
“We are forecasting there will be fewer hiring opportunities for a more diverse set of attorneys to get a foot in the door,” said Veta Richardson, executive director of the Minority Corporate Counsel Assn. “With hiring as low as it is for the short term at least, for the next year to two years, we project that law firms will not be replacing many of the people who were lost in the downsizing during the recession.”
Entry-level lawyer jobs are picking up after two years of contraction, Richardson said. “But we’re far from anything that could be called a correction at this point.”