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Diversity ‘bottleneck’ and minority attrition keep firm leadership ranks white and male, new ABA survey says

Law Firms

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More minorities are getting hired as associates, but law firm leadership is mostly white and male because of a diversity “bottleneck” and higher rates of minority attrition, according to an ABA survey report released Tuesday.

The 2020 Model Diversity Survey Report, released by the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, is the first ABA report on diversity, equity and inclusion in law firm practice, according to an ABA press release. The survey is based on three years of data.

At the associate level, white lawyers constitute 70% to 92% of associates, depending on firm size and year, according to the survey report. White lawyers constitute 84% to 93% of equity partners and 84% to 90% of nonequity partners.

At the associate level, male and female representation is about even. But men make up 70% of the ranks of nonequity partners and 80% of equity partners, the survey said.

White lawyers are more likely to be promoted to equity than nonequity partnership. But minority, LGBTQ and disabled lawyers are more likely to be promoted to nonequity than equity partnership. And racial minorities that are promoted to partnership are leaving law firms at a disproportionately higher rate, the report said.

The attrition rate for minority racial groups was two to three times higher than that of white lawyers. The attrition rate for female lawyers was consistent with demographics—except in larger firms, in which female lawyers left at slightly higher rates than men.

Other findings include:

• Approximately 70% of law firm leadership consisted of white men; 20% consisted of white women, 7% of minority men and 3% of minority women.

• White male lawyers represent 80% of the top 10% of highest compensated attorneys in law firms. White female lawyers represent 13% of that group.

• Law firms were asked whether they had 19 different policies related to diversity, equity and inclusion. A majority reported having each policy. But the survey found no correlation between having a policy and other measures, such as hiring, attrition and leadership. “This might suggest that merely having a policy in place does not, by itself, result in actions that reduce inequity in outcomes,” the survey report said.

The number of firms responding to the survey ranged from nearly 200 firms in 2017 to more than 370 firms in 2018 and more than 270 firms in 2019.

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