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Law Firms Struggle to Hire and Keep Black Women

Jan. 6, 2017, 8:11 PM

During the past decade, law firms have struggled to make even incremental gains in the numbers of minorities and women lawyers in their ranks.

But one group has been particularly elusive: women of color — specifically black women.

That’s according to a report published earlier this week by the National Association for Law Placement that found the number of black women lawyers at law firms essentially remains unchanged even as other groups showed modest gains.

NALP’s data comes from its law firm directory, which currently tracks over 112,000 lawyers from 1,082 law offices at approximately 700 firms, according to the organization’s executive director James Leipold.

From 2009 to 2016, the number of women lawyers at law firms in the NALP database increased from 32.97 percent to 33.89 percent — a gain of less than one percent.

Meanwhile, the number of minority lawyers at law firms in the NALP database increased from 12.59 percent to 14.62 percent — about 2 percent.

The number of minority women grew from 6.33 percent in 2009 to 7.23 percent in 2016 — also less than one percent.

“Minority women in general are the least well represented, that’s always been the case,” said Leipold.

Meanwhile, among associates specifically, the number of minority women did grow steadily during the past seven years, from 11.02 percent to 12.42 percent. Within that group, Asian women grew from 5.12 percent in 2009 to 6.35 percent in 2016.

But that masks a steep drop off in the number of black women associates at law firms: Their representation fell in every year between 2010 and 2015, according to NALP.

In 2016, black women made up 0.64 percent of law firm partners and 2.32 percent of law firm associates. At the associate level, the number of black women lawyers at law firms peaked in 2008, just before the financial crisis, at 2.97 percent, according to NALP.

Women of color also have among the highest rates of attrition in the legal industry. According toa survey conducted by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, black lawyers leave firms at a higher rate than members of other minority groups, with black women leaving even more frequently than black men.

In 2015, 15 percent of black men left their law firms, while 17 percent of black women did so, according to the MCCA. Black lawyers are also being hired by law firms at a lower rate than members of other groups, the MCCA said in its report.

Once they are in the door, many black women leave because they simply see no place for themselves in Big Law.

“They leave because the firm culture is not conducive to success for people of color or people of color who are women,” said Paula T. Edgar, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, a New York City-based association of African-American and other minority lawyers.

Trina Moore, secretary of the Association of Black Women Attorneys, said she left private practice to work in government for precisely that reason.

“I was in four law firms in New York City and stayed maybe less than two years at all of them because of, among other things, lack of support and the foreseeability of making partner at that particular firm,” said Moore, who now works as a litigator for a government agency in New York.

Edgar said law firms need to pay more attention to the ways race and gender overlap, rather than treating gender and diversity as two distinct categories of experience.

“When somebody says, ‘Oh I’m talking about women in the law,’ you immediately think of white women,” she said. “There are things that are specific to the black female lawyer experience that are not interchangeable with the white female lawyer experience, but there’s a lot of lumping together.”