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If you keep your expectations low, you'll be pleasantly surprised. That essentially describes my approach whenever I get a report about how women and minorities are faring in law firms. With that in mind, here's my verdict on this year's survey on law firm diversity by The Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) and Vault.com: Better than I expected.
Here are some notable findings in the report, which surveyed 250 of the nation's largest firms and is based on 2014 statistics:
- Minority lawyers represent 15.0 percent of attorneys at surveyed firms, compared to 13.8 percent in 2007.
- The rate of minority equity partners is at an all-time high: 7.53 percent of all equity partners. (In 2007, it was 5.62 percent.)
- One-third of all new equity partners in 2014 were either female or member of a minority.
- Minorities now make up 7.05 percent of members on executive/management committees. (In 2007, it was 5.42 percent.)
- Almost 23 percent of associates are minorities. (In 2007, it was 20.78 percent.)
- Among summer associates, minorities represent almost 29 percent. (That's actually a drop from 29.43 percent the previous year, but still a three point increase from 2007.)
And here's the trend I find especially striking: Female minority lawyers are gaining parity with their male counterparts in overall numbers, and, in some cases, surpassing men. Here are some notable statistics about minority women:
- Minority women are outnumbering minority men in partner promotions. "Of the 1,849 lawyers who were made partner in 2014, 238 were attorneys of color, including 120 women and 118 men. In fact, the percentage of male minority partners promoted is the lowest in the last eight years. Meanwhile, the percentage of women of color promoted to partner has grown."
- Minority women associate numbers exceeds that of male associates (5,483 to 4,642).
- Minority women outnumber minority men among summer associates (16.54 percent women v. 12.43 percent for men).
- Minority female law students are accepting more job offers from major firms than men (16.45 percent women v. 12.37 percent for men).
All great news for women of color, right? Not so fast, says Aracely Muñoz Petrich, a vice president at MCCA. "Minority women are making gains but minority men are not," warns Petrich. "It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul." The gender imbalance is troubling, she adds, because "the data for minority men, particularly African Americans, is jarring."
Though the partnership rates for blacks have increased a bit since 2007 (1.74 percent for equity partners—a measly 0.14 percent higher than eight years ago), the gains are coming largely from black women. Moreover, while other minority groups (Asian and Hispanics) have increased their numbers in Big Law, African American numbers are declining. In 2014, African Americans made up 3.05 percent of all law firm attorneys, while in 2007, it was 3.62 percent.
Despite the overall gains for minority women, Petrich says the verdict is out about what it means in the long run. "I'm unsure if they can sustain the momentum at the law school and associate level through the partnership level." She adds, "Minority women still can't break through the 3 percent rate for partners, and they're only 2.29 percent of equity."
Which means we probably shouldn't get too excited that women of color are on the road to success. So is there anything in the report that might have a more lasting impact? Yes, says Petrich. What's significant is that more women of color are elbowing into the management and executive committees. Holding those positions could make a difference, she says: "Those are big stepping stones to change."