New York Times Deal Book: Many Black Lawyers Navigate a Rocky, Lonely Road to Partner, by Elizabeth Olson:
Only 5.6 percent of lawyers who hold top leadership positions at law firms are anything other than white, according to a study by the National Association for Law Placement. ... Fewer than 2 percent of law firm partners are black, according to the study, based on data collected in 2014; black women are even more uncommon in that rarefied air.
Law firms maintain that, despite their best efforts to recruit black associates over the last two decades, large numbers leave for better-paying, more secure jobs or for less quantifiable reasons, like family responsibilities. Only a handful persevere on the yearslong path to joining a firm’s lucrative leadership circle. ...
According to data tracking African-American representation, the percentage of black partners doubled in the early 2000s, then began sinking in 2008 as law firms adjusted to the recession’s fallout on their business. Minority lawyers were hit particularly hard by layoffs. Like the low percentage of black law firm partners, black associates — who accounted for 4 percent of all firm associates last year — have seen their share of the law firm jobs stagnate in recent years. ...
The lack of cross-racial relationships that knit lawyers into teams to handle high-pressure client legal tasks is part of what knocks some blacks off the partnership track, said Deborah L. Rhode, a Stanford University Law School professor and director of its Center on the Legal Profession.
Black lawyers operate in a profession that is one of the country’s least racially diverse, she said. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, she said, shows that some 88 percent of lawyers are white, which is higher than most other professions, such as physicians and surgeons whose composition is 72 percent white.
As part of the research for her newly released book The Trouble With Lawyers (Oxford University Press), Professor Rhode surveyed the managing partners of the 100 largest law firms and the general counsels of Fortune 100 companies, most of which said they placed a high priority on diverse employment — but the numbers of nonwhite partners and associates remain stuck at the low levels. ...
Professor Rhode said that some law firm partners complained that an inadequate pool of candidates was responsible for the paucity of minorities, including women, in their workplaces. But Professor Rhode said she believed that unconscious biases too often lead law firm partners to assume that minority lawyers — including women — are less competent than their male counterparts.
And as law firms increasingly require each partner to be a profit center — engaged both in generating and maintaining client business — the highest-level lawyers often rely on colleagues who “look like them,” she said.
She cited 2014 research by Nextions, a Chicago business consulting firm, that found that a group of law firm partners gave a much higher grade to an associate’s written legal memorandum when they thought he was white. But the partners gave the same memo, when they believed it to have been written by a black associate, a lower evaluation and predictions of less potential as a lawyer.
“This underscores that unconscious bias and exclusion from networks of support and client development are still common,” Professor Rhode said.
The legal industry’s focus on attracting client business, or rainmaking, as a crucial qualification for partnership has left minority lawyers at a more subtle disadvantage, one minority lawyer noted, because they “do not typically have the contacts or the relationships with corporate executives. Their parents are not playing golf with a general counsel.”
But corporations are putting more pressure on law firms to make diversity a central factor in their hiring decisions.When corporations request formal bids from law firms to represent them in legal cases, they are asking for lawyers with more varied experience and backgrounds — and proof that firms have such people in place.
ABA Journal, Unconscious Bias, Exclusion From Networks Lead to Dearth of Minority Law Firm Partners, Prof Says