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Courts & Practice

City Bar Releases Diversity Benchmarking Report

In a 'jobless recovery,' it is often those at the bottom of the power pyramid who are hurt first – through cut hours, cut paychecks, and layoffs. In New York City law firms, that bottom rung is the most diverse, with greater representation of women and minorities than at the top levels of legal practice.

So this year, when economy fell flat, were these groups hurt more than the rest?

The answer, surprisingly, is 'no.' Diversity within New York City law firms has not declined during the economic downturn, concludes a new report released by the City Bar. While still underrepresented, the numbers of women, minorities, openly gay, and disabled attorneys practicing in New York have continued to grow. Though not increasing dramatically, gains have "stayed the course" and did not diminish or reverse.

The 2009 Diversity Benchmark Report, published in December, notes that "while areas of concern remain—that law firm leadership remains a steep pyramid in which diversity by both gender and race/ethnicity declines substantially as rank increases—we can also feel encouraged by the power of momentum."

Diversity in a Time of Hardship

Five years ago, over 100 law firms and corporate legal departments signed the City Bar’s Statement of Diversity Principles, a declaration of the importance and value of diversity within law firms and a commitment to support diversity in law firm hiring, retention, promotion, and leadership. The new Diversity Benchmarking Report tracks data from 94 participating signatory firms, and measures the progress of their diversity.

“We are happy to see that our signatory firms are making a clear effort to increase their diversity despite the difficult economic situation,” said New York City Bar President Patricia M. Hynes. “That the numbers are still growing, despite all the layoffs and contractions, is cause for some optimism in our profession.”

Overall Gains for Diverse Attorney Groups

Continuing the last five years’ trend, the City Bar’s data show that the representation of minority groups as a percentage of lawyers in signatory firms has not once dropped, but instead has consistently grown with every group and at every level of power.

While the overall number of women attorneys at the NYC firms has risen only one percent since 2004--from 35% to 36%--there has been a sharp increase in promotions of women to partner. The incoming class of partners in 2009 was 33% female, compared to 21% in 2004. Interestingly, lateral promotions have proven to be a strong source of new partners overall, but those lateral hires are less diverse than other new partner hires.

Attorneys of color within signatory firms this year was 18.1%, up from 16.5% in 2007. The number of minority partners rose from 4.7% to 6.6%, and the number of minority special counsels nearly doubled, rising from 5.5 to 9.5%.

Additionally, the percentage of openly gay attorneys has trended upward, hitting 3% this year. This increase reflects better data collection and greater openness to reporting of sexual orientation, as well as growth of representation.

Challenges Remain for Upward Mobility, Flexible Hours, Voluntary Attrition, and Women of Color

Women and minority attorneys face an uphill climb to partner, with more representation at the entry level and sharp declines in the numbers advancing to the top. Minority attorneys represent 25% of associates, but only 6.6% of partners. Women attorneys represent 45.2% of associates, and only 17.8% of partners. Despite efforts to hire and retain diverse staff, from entry level to partner, high turnover rates and the increased importance of lateral hires prove to be setbacks.

When it comes to reducing or adjusting hours--whether to take on other projects or to handle family obligations--women were found to use part-time flexibility more than men at every level. Men, especially at the partner level, were far more likely to adjust their hours while still clocking in full-time. There was an across-the-board increase in full-time flexibility usage relative to part-time flexibility, indicating the importance still placed on full-time work for career advancement and potential concern for job security for part-time attorneys.

Women and minorities also continue to have higher voluntary attrition rates than male and white attorneys, respectively, with minorities consistently having the highest rates of voluntary turnover compared to other groups. For 2008, the overall voluntary turnover rate was 37% higher for women than men, and 34% higher for minorities than Caucasians.

The report also found that in the subset of minority attorneys, Asian attorneys decline in representation as they move up the law-firm hierarchy. The percentage of Asian attorneys among all minority attorneys drops from 56% of minority associates to 47% of minority partners and 35% of minority management committee members.

Finally, women of color continue to find themselves at an intersection of disadvantages, losing substantial ground as they move upward in their careers. They comprise only 2.1% of partnerships in the participating firms, less than half the number of minority male partners, and a mere fraction of women partners overall.

Commitment to Progress

The Statement of Diversity Principles, adopted in 2004, stresses the importance of increased diversity in law firms, not to be merely a numerical score or a quota, but a strategy for "be[ing] more creative, effective and just, bringing more varied perspectives, experiences, backgrounds, talents, and interests to the practice of law and the administration of justice." The 130 signatories of the Statement remain committed to working toward this goal.

"It is reassuring to see these firms making concerted efforts to improve their diversity, despite economic troubles. The fear was that diversity gains of recent years would evaporate with the economy, but they didn’t,” said Lisa Levey, researcher and author of the report. “Dramatic headlines about law firm layoffs do not tell the whole story. Progress continues while significant challenges remain. So, there is a lot to celebrate, and lot of work left to do."

The 2009 Diversity Benchmarking Report is available here.
Learn more about the City Bar’s Office for Diversity here.