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Diversity Scorecard 2011: Back on Track? | Claire Zillman |

It’s not much, but it’s enough to make diversity advocates in the legal profession let out a collective “phew!” According to our latest Diversity Scorecard, in 2010 big firms increased their percentage of minority attorneys by 0.2 percent, to 13.9 percent. This small jump is noteworthy because it halts the dip seen last year, when law firm diversity dropped for the first time in the decade that we’ve collected these numbers [See One Step Back, March 2010].
“My first thought is relief,” says Fred Alvarez, an employment law partner at the top firm in the Scorecard, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. He is also the chair of the American Bar Association’s commission on racial and ethnic diversity. “It was significant to me that what had been a long, steady progress was reversing in 2009. I was hoping that [decrease] would just be a blip,” he says.
The fall in diversity seen in last year’s Scorecard came after large law firms shed 6 percent of their lawyers in the depths of the recession, including 9 percent of their minority lawyers. This year, even though overall attorney head count continued to drop–slightly–the number of minority lawyers rose. Cumulatively, the firms that responded to our survey this year saw their collective U.S. head count fall by 359; yet they increased their minority head count in U.S. offices by 136.
“The addition of those new minority lawyers is an extremely positive indicator of the effort by The Am Law 200 to recognize the importance of diversity in building their organizations,” says Hunton & Williams’s Robert Grey, Jr., who serves as executive director of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, an organization formed in 2009 to advance diversity in the legal profession. “I think the drop in diversity was just a one-year phenomenon.”
We hope so. Still, it’s difficult to say conclusively that 2009’s drop in diversity is a onetime anomaly. The increase in 2010 stops the prior year’s decline, but it is relatively small. Another year’s worth of data will be needed to establish a trend.
As always, we compiled the Diversity Scorecard by sending our survey to firms in The Am Law 200 and The NLJ 250. Some 194 firms responded. This year’s survey has a small shift in methodology. In years past, we asked firms for minority head counts in U.S. offices as of September 30, but this year we pushed that date back to December 31, 2010, to include entering classes of first-year associates. In order to have two years of comparable data, we also asked firms to give us head counts for December 31, 2009. Using those numbers, we recalculated the percentage of minority lawyers for 2009: 13.7 percent. That number is higher than the 13.4 percent we published last year, but still shows a drop in diversity from 2008.
Diversity consultant Arin Reeves of Nextions LLC argues that the slight upward tick in diversity in this year’s Scorecard might simply reflect a more accurate count of minority lawyers. The bad press generated by the drop in diversity in 2009, she says, encouraged some firms to improve their record-keeping. LCLD’s Grey isn’t so sure. “We’ve been keeping these numbers for a while now,” he says. “I think firms have developed some notion of what it means to count minority lawyers.”

Click here for this year’s ranking.

Last year’s results may have shocked Big Law into taking more drastic steps, says E. Christopher Johnson, Jr., a Thomas M. Cooley Law School professor and chair of the ABA’s council for racial and ethnic diversity in the education pipeline. The loss of minority attorneys during the recession set in motion industrywide initiatives to reemphasize diversity, Johnson says. His home state of Michigan created a diversity pledge in 2010 to be signed by law firms and corporations. On a national scale, Johnson points to LCLD’s founding and an ABA study on the business rationale of diversity. “With these sorts of initiatives in place,” Johnson says, “I was expecting a slight uptick.”
The recession also forced firms to alter the way in which they bring in minority attorneys. Large entering classes used to be a good source for minority lawyers, but those classes are smaller than they used to be, and firms have turned to lateral hiring to boost their minority ranks instead, says Reeves. Kelley Drye & Warren, which jumped 37 spots on our ranking, added 15 lateral asso ciates in 2010; five were minorities, according to the firm’s head of diversity, Sarah Reid. Overall, the firm saw a 1.5 percent increase in the number of minority lawyers in 2010. At topranked Wilson Sonsini, 11 of the firm’s 40 lateral associate hires in 2010 were minority lawyers; two of six partner hires were of color.
The slight improvement in diversity this year did little to reshuffle the Scorecard’s top rankings. With Wilson Sonsini holding steady at number one, White & Case took over at number two. Munger, Tolles & Olson, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, and Lewis Brisbois Brisgaard & Smith rounded out the top five. There was only one new entrant to our top ten, Townsend and Townsend and Crew (now Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton).
Yet some firms made gains in diversity that far outpaced the overall trend. Hughes Hubbard & Reed; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; and Dewey & LeBoeuf saw the most relative growth in diversity in 2010, with their minority numbers increasing 3.6 percent, 3.2 percent, and 3 percent, respectively. In 2010 Hughes Hubbard added 16 minority lawyers, and about 40 percent of its entering asso ciate class were minority lawyers, according to Beatrice Hamza Bassey, chair of the firm’s diversity task force. Milbank diversity chair Errol Taylor says that more than 40 percent of his firm’s incoming asso ciates were of color, while Dewey’s percentage of minority lawyers reached nearly 20 percent as the firm added 23 new minority attorneys in 2010.
However, one disturbing trend continued from last year’s survey: a decrease in the percentage of African American lawyers, from 3.3 percent in 2009 to 3.2 percent in 2010. Grey says this small dip could be a case of more lawyers checking the multiracial box–a reflection of the changing racial makeup of our country. (The percentage of multiracial or other minority lawyers in the survey rose from 1.1 percent in 2009 to 1.2 percent in 2010.) But Nextions’s Reeves says the problem is more significant than that. The decrease makes it hard to be entirely optimistic about the overall increase in minority lawyers, she says.
“We’ve stopped the hemorrhaging,” Reeves says, “but now we have to figure out what caused the bleeding.”

Claire Zillman,

Copyright (c) 2011

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