The American Lawyer's 2010 Diversity Scorecard revealed sobering news for diversity advocates. For the first time in the nine years that the publication has been keeping tabs, the overall percentage of minority attorneys at 202 of the nation's largest and highest grossing firms went down instead of up. Just as real estate prices were once thought to have the magical ability to rise consistently over the years, so were diversity numbers thought to be on an unobstructed upward march towards parity. Not so says Am Law. Reporting on the survey's findings, Emily Barker noted that a disproportionate nine percent of minority attorneys were fired last year compared with 6 percent of attorneys overall-this is as clear evidence as any that the old boy's network is still alive and kicking.
Black attorneys were hit especially hard by layoffs. The number of African-American associates in law firms suffered a decline of sixteen percentage points; in other words, one out of every six black associates was fired and not replaced. Sidley Austin, the firm where the historic relationship between Michelle and Barack Obama was forged, made history again by dropping 47 percent of its black lawyers in one year. Twenty-three of the 191 firms for which The American Lawyer has longitudinal data had 40 percent or more decreases in black associates from 2008 to 2009. Arin Reeves, a Chicago-based diversity consultant, posits that "a lack of mentors and challenging work make [black associates] especially vulnerable in tight times." One black partner said that law firms have "trouble bringing African American lawyers into the 'heart and soul' of firms where they can build the internal relationships and land the key assignments that breed job security."
Some observers say that last years numbers simply reveal the bleak but longstanding minority retention rates that most firms have hidden behind diverse recruiting figures. Venu Gupta, executive director of the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms said that "for a long time, the way that law firms beefed up their diversity numbers was really to have a lot of diverse associates in the first-and second-year classes." When underlying issues with the culture or structure of the law firm led to attrition, the departing lawyers were replaced with new ones that would hold the firm's diversity numbers in place. When hiring budgets froze and firms were unable to recruit new minority lawyers, the lie was revealed.
Many diversity-watchers believe these discrepancies hint at troubling times to come. One diversity consultant stated that over the next two years, the trend away from diversity will continue. Many are concerned that minority students will be discouraged from pursuing legal careers. And obviously, with fewer minority associates, the pool for minority partners has shrunken significantly.
Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School. BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.