Recession’s Impact on Minorities at Law Firms: Anomaly or Trend?

Whether you’re considering law school, you’re already there, or you’ll be graduating soon, the legal job market is probably on your mind. A recent survey sheds more light on how things are breaking down in terms of law firm populations.

While it’s no surprise that the economic crisis has affected law firm hiring, promotion and retention as a whole, data collected by Vault.com and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, earlier this year highlights its impact on attorneys of color. Notably, while many in the legal profession felt the recession, the Vault/MCCA survey data suggests that minorities were disproportionately affected. At the same time, the results show slow, but steady progress for women as law firm partners and leaders.

According to Veta Richardson, MCCA’s Executive Director, “The study is encouraging for women lawyers. Despite the recession, they continue to advance in leadership roles in their firms. However, the data is more troubling for minority attorneys. The recession has hit them harder, especially law students, and the decline in their ranks may linger for years.”

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The Vault.com/MCCA data is the result of a survey in spring 2010 of more than 260 law firms around the country, including most of the largest and most prestigious national law firms, as well as many smaller, regional firms, on their diversity initiatives, programs and demographics. The results, which include statistics for the 2009 calendar year, have been released in the new edition of the Law Firm Diversity Database.

Some notable findings:

Law firm hiring declined across-the-board

• The 2L summer associate class dropped by some 20 percent since 2008
• Lateral recruiting fell by more than 40 percent
• Less than 75 percent of 2Ls were offered permanent positions (compared to 87.83% in 2008 and 92.69% in 2007)

Numbers for minority attorneys fell

• For the first time in the survey’s seven-year history, the results showed virtually no increase in the percentage of minority equity partners, which remained nearly stagnant at 6.06%, a barely perceptible change from the 6.05% reported for 2008.
• Perhaps most striking of all: minority recruitment was down at all levels. Of all attorneys hired in 2009 (including starting associates as well as laterals), less than 20 percent (19.09%) were minorities, a notable drop from 2008 (21.77%) and 2007 (21.46%). The 2009 2L summer class had the lowest percentage of minority students of the last three years: 25.19% (compared to 25.66% in 2008 and 25.91% in 2007).
• Meanwhile, the percentages of minority associates who left their firms (especially at junior and midlevel) has continued to climb since 2007. This is especially striking with respect to minority women. For example, of third-year associates who left their firms in 2009, 16.64% were minority women (compared to 13.98% in 2008 and 14.36% in 2007).
• Overall, minority men and women represented 20.79% of attorneys who left their firms in 2009 – even though minority lawyers represent just 13.44% of the overall attorney population at these same firms. While it is unclear how many of the departures were the result of layoffs, the fact that firms lost a higher percentage of minority lawyers than they brought in is of real concern.

Some gains for women

• Women’s representation at both the equity and non-equity partner levels grew last year. Women made up 16.84% of all equity partners in 2009, compared to 16.43% in 2008 and 16.06% in 2007. Among non-equity partners, women’s representation grew from 26.39% in 2008 to 27.25% in 2009.
• Women’s representation on executive/management committees has also increased steadily over the last few years, from 14.78% in 2007 to 15.31% in 2008 to 16.13% in 2009.
• Similar gains were made by female attorneys serving as heads of office and sitting on hiring committees, partner and associate review committees.

According to Vera Djordjevich, Vault’ssenior law editor “It remains to be seen whether these numbers reflect a recessionary anomaly or the start of a trend. Nonetheless, given the slow rate at which law firms have been diversifying their ranks and the likelihood that recruiting will not return to pre-recession levels any time soon, there’s a danger that even a one-time drop in minority recruitment could have a long-term impact on overall law firm populations.”

You can check out the survey results for yourself. Access to the Law Firm Diversity Database is free, and just requires registration to set up a password. In addition, you’ll find descriptions of law firms’ recruitment efforts and retention initiatives, pipeline programs and ways in which they hold leadership accountable for diversity progress.

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