Are African-American Attorneys Losing Ground?

Published: Feb 28, 2013

 Black Lives Matter       Law       Workplace Issues       
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Vault, together with the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, has worked with more than 200 law firms, including most of the Vault 100 and the Am Law 200, for the last 10 years to collect demographic data about law firm populations, recruiting practices, retention efforts and attrition rates in order to track diversity trends. Despite a recessionary blip, for the most part we have seen steady – albeit slow – progress for minority lawyers over the years.

That said, not all minority groups are faring equally well. While the number of Asian Americans and Hispanics among summer associates, for example, is increasing, the percentage of African-American law students hired has declined—even as the number of black students enrolled in law school has grown. In the five years that we have collected race-specific data from law firms, we’ve seen the percentage of black 2L summer associates fall, from 7.3% in 2007 to 6.4% in 2011. The percentage of African-American attorneys hired as laterals and first-years also fell over that same period, from 5.6% to 4.6%. 

Meanwhile, law firms report an increase in departures by black junior associates. More than 8% of the first-, second- and third-year associates who left their firms in 2011 were African-Americans, as were 4.7% of senior associates. In 2010, 6.4% of junior associates and 4.3% of senior associates who left were African-American. The end result is a declining black associate population: African-Americans made up 5.1% of law firm associates in 2007; in 2011, that number fell to 4.4%. 

Law Demographics

Why are young African-American lawyers leaving firms at a disproportionate rate? Perhaps one reason is that, while the chances of making partner at a BigLaw firm are slim for everyone these days, the possibilities seem even more remote for African-Americans. In 2011, law firms reported that less than 3% of attorneys promoted to partnership were African-American.

According to Vault’s annual Associate Survey, in which thousands of law firm associates assess their employers on various workplace issues, African-Americans consistently report the lowest levels of overall job satisfaction among racial/ethnic groups.

Associate satisfaction

Feedback from African-American associates reveals certain common threads:

While some firms do well at the ground level, the lack of color among the upper echelons is discouraging:

  • “There are not many minorities, especially African-Americans and Latinos, in the partnership.”
  • “It is discouraging for ethnically diverse young associates to not see or have an impressionable number of ethnically diverse partners at the firm.”

The firm brings in diverse attorneys, but then does little to engage or help them develop:

  • “They are having a difficult time keeping minorities—specifically people of color. We don’t feel like there is anyone here that is really trying to retain us and to help us grow as attorneys, which means it’s time to go.”
  • “With a couple of exceptions, minority associates seem to get ignored a bit when it comes to work. Minorities do not seem to have the same opportunity to bill as many hours as white attorneys do.”
  • “In my experience, few lawyers of color have mentors or sponsors in their corner or really meaningful opportunities to connect with influential lawyers at the firm.”
  • “Diversity is deeper than having a Howard University book scholarship and hiring a few more minority associates. Having an associates-of-color gathering is great but fails to address the circumstances that actually affect how welcome a person of color feels in this environment.”

Retention is stronger when mentoring is not simply a pro-forma activity but an organic aspect of the culture:

  • “The firm’s Chief Diversity Officer and lead hiring partner have worked very hard to ensure that we have a diverse group of associates; having and being a mentor is a natural part of working here (not something that feels artificial or contrived). As a diverse associate, I can say that the mentorship I have received here has been a significant factor in my development as an attorney and in my choice to stay at the firm; the culture here is open and I have no hesitation about knocking on a variety of partners’ doors to ask questions about workflow or other issues.”
  • “The chair of our diversity committee is really committed to these issues. Minorities and women really mentor each other and make an effort to retain those individuals in the firm. I can say that from personal experience, falling into both categories.”

Affinity groups and other gatherings for attorneys of similar backgrounds can provide valuable opportunities to share experiences and build relationships:

  • “One thing I do like is that the African-American community at the firm gets together once a month to discuss any issues that have arisen and to support one another.”
  • “As a minority associate, I was initially hesitant about working in [a geographic area that] lacks a great deal of diversity. However, I've found [the firm] and the community to be extremely welcoming and engaging. [The firm] works with minority professional networking groups to help young associates ease their way into the community.”

Interestingly, we also see a strong correlation between firmwide ratings for Overall Satisfaction and Diversity, suggesting that the benefits of an inclusive environment, in which lawyers feel they have opportunities to thrive and grow, are shared by all associates, regardless of race.

Diversity vs satisfaction