Minority Leaders

From The Practice July/August 2017
Which kinds of law firms have the most minority lawyers?

Noticing a gap in research on the underrepresentation of minorities in law firms, Fiona Kay and Elizabeth Gorman set out to answer the eponymous question: Which kinds of law firms have the most minority lawyers? To find the answer, Kay and Gorman looked at how the percentages of minorities in law firms change depending on the size of the firm, the resources available to the firm (profits), and the structure of the firm. In addition, they also explore the relationship between law firms’ general professional-development efforts—formal and informal—and minority partnership numbers. Their complete article, “Which Kinds of Law Firms Have the Most Minority Lawyers? Organizational Context and the Representation of African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans,” appears in Diversity in Practice: Race, Gender, and Class in Legal and Professional Careers (see below for details).

The study looks at data from across more than 1,200 different law firms in 2005; however, rather than designating law firms as the units of analysis, the researchers focused on offices. That is, when a law firm had multiple offices, each individual office was measured as its own unit. In considering firm size, profitability, and structure, Kay and Gorman assessed their connection to the presence of African American, Latino, and Asian American lawyers, as well as all minority lawyers taken as a whole. They also looked at minority presence up and down the law firm hierarchy, from partner all the way down to summer associate, to see how these variables interacted with minority presence when it came to specific positions within law firms.

Five takeaways:

  1. Minority representation drops as you move further up the law firm hierarchy. In 2005, across all offices in the sample, minorities comprised 8.9% of all lawyers not including summer associates. When broken down by position, the majority of these lawyers are associates (13.7%) rather than partners (4.9%) or senior nonpartners (5.1%). In line with this trend, representation improves among summer associates (17.8%), suggesting minority lawyers at law firms are not advancing in their careers at the same pace as their peers.
  2. Minority representation is highest in the largest subset of law firms (13.2% at firms whose numbers range from 824 to 2,984 lawyers) and lowest in the two smallest subsets of law firms in the study (7.7% at firms whose numbers range from 333 to 505 and 7.9% at firms whose numbers range from 138 to 332). This trend supports the notion that larger law firms have greater percentages of minority attorneys than smaller firms.
  3. There was a clear connection between profits per partner (PPP) and minority representation—the greater the PPP, the more diverse the firms tended to be. The lowest subset of firms with PPP between $335,000 and $515,000 had the smallest percentage of minority lawyers (5.8%), and this figure increased with each consecutive subset, the highest being firms with PPP between $1,065,000 and $3,790,000 (13.3%).
  4. By focusing on law firm offices rather than law firms taken as a whole, the researchers found that minority representation at “principal” offices, or each firm’s flagship office, was lower (7.5%) than at “branch” offices (9.9%), or all other offices apart from a firm’s principal office. In fact, looking even closer, Kay and Gorman found that minority lawyers are more likely to be located in branch offices than principal offices at every level (summer associate through partner).
  5. Overall minority representation does not significantly change between single-tier and two-tier offices (the latter referring to offices with both equity and nonequity partners), holding steady at 9% in either case. It should be noted, however, that minority lawyers account for slightly greater percentages in two-tier offices at each individual level.

Beyond these five takeaways, many more questions are posed—and answered—in Kay and Gorman’s article. The full study goes into finer detail, exploring African American, Latino, and Asian American presence across all these measures, as well as how those groups are spread across different positions from summer associate to partner. The article also explores in depth the connection between professional development efforts and minority representation at law firms. Among the authors’ many thought-provoking conclusions, one thing is clear: the numbers are not where they should be.

Want to learn more?

Cover of the book "Diversity in Practice" from Cambridge University Press

Diversity in Practice: Race, Gender, and Class in Legal and Professional Careers, edited by Spencer Headworth, Robert L. Nelson, Ronit Dinovitzer, and David B. Wilkins

“Expressions of support for diversity are nearly ubiquitous among contemporary law firms and corporations. Organizations back these rhetorical commitments with dedicated diversity staff and various diversity and inclusion initiatives. Yet, the goal of proportionate representation for people of color and women remains unrealized. Members of historically underrepresented groups remain seriously disadvantaged in professional training and work environments that white, upper-class men continue to dominate. While many professional labor markets manifest patterns of demographic inequality, these patterns are particularly pronounced in the law and elite segments of many professions. Diversity in Practice analyzes the disconnect between expressed commitments to diversity and practical achievements, revealing the often obscure systemic causes that drive persistent professional inequalities. These original contributions build on existing literature and forge new paths in explaining enduring patterns of stratification in professional careers. These more realistic assessments provide opportunities to move beyond mere rhetoric to something approaching diversity in practice.”
Cambridge University Press