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White Men Land Firm Partnerships at Fastest Rates, ABA Finds

May 24, 2022, 9:30 AM

Law firms are still hiring and promoting far fewer minority and women lawyers into partnerships compared with White men, an American Bar Association report shows.

White attorneys were almost twice as likely to reach partnership ranks than members of other racial groups, according to the ABA’s third Model Diversity Survey, based on pre-pandemic data. Male lawyers were twice as likely to be become partners as women.

The disparities “cross firm sizes and regions,” said Michelle Behnke, chair of the ABA’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. Implicit bias is to blame rather than “malice aforethought,” she said.

The ABA report is the latest in a string of surveys that document the legal industry’s slow rate of change in diversifying its ranks. The ABA surveyed 287 law firms with a total of more than 100,000 attorneys in 2019. It will release its 2020 data in the coming year, Behnke said.

Other polls have reached conclusions similar to what the ABA found. People of color accounted for 10.2% of partners at large firms in 2020, up from 9.6% the year before, according to a report from the National Association for Law Placement.

Women comprised 25.1% of partners, up from 24.2% the previous year, that survey found. Black lawyers made up only just over 2% of partnership ranks in 2020, according to the survey.

“Most partners are men, and their propensity is to pick other men for meatier assignments,” Behnke said. That gives the male attorneys a better shot at making partner, she said. White partners also tend to dole out assignments to White associates, she said.

Women and minority lawyers fared better at the associate level, the ABA found. Large firms reported increases in the hiring of Asian, Black and Hispanic associates in the survey’s time frame. Women were “substantially” more likely to be hired as associates when compared with men, the ABA found.

Law firms reported a lack of diversity in other ways, with most not hiring a single attorney self-identified as Native American, Pacific Islander, LGBTQ+, or having a disability.

Concerns about legal industry diversity have led to a number of firms adopting the “Mansfield Rule,” which the non-profit Diversity Lab started in 2017.

The certification requires law operations that hire senior associates and partners to confirm they considered pools of candidates at least 30% diverse, including women and underrepresented groups of racial and ethnic lawyers.

Robert Grey, president of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, said some optimism is warranted when looking forward.

“We’re working with a new generation of law firm managing partners and corporate general counsel,” he said. “This generation has a better understanding of the importance of a diverse workforce.”

“Rather than make this a ‘gotcha’ moment,” Grey said, “we need to understand that collaboratively, we can do so much more.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com