Law firm diversity gains mainly confined to junior ranks, survey finds

Pedestrians walk through an office building in Tokyo
REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao
  • Survey finds 'disappointing' progress on equity and inclusion
  • Numbers of diverse summer associates growing, but attrition remains high

(Reuters) - Large law firms collectively increased their hiring of diverse summer associates in recent years but struggled to retain those lawyers over time, according to a new report by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

Based on lawyer demographic data submitted by 225 large law firms, it found that 36% of 2020’s summer associates - law students who spend a summer working at a firm and typically receive job offers afterward - were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, up from 28% a decade ago. But that percentage decreased as seniority level increased: Minorities accounted for nearly 28% of all associates; 12.5% of non-equity partners; and just over 10% of equity partners in 2020.

The survey, released Wednesday, found the inverse was true for white attorneys at large firms. They accounted for about 64% of summer associate hires in 2020 and represented 90% of all equity partners, according to the report.

Reducing attrition rates among minority attorneys is essential to increasing their numbers among equity partners, the report said, as is increasing their hiring in the early stages of their legal careers.

“Law firms have an opportunity to do more,” the authors wrote.

While there has been modest growth in the number of attorneys from some minority groups—including Asians, Hispanics, and multiracial people—that has not been true for African American lawyers, the survey shows.

The percentage of African American associates and equity partners remained unchanged between 2010 and 2020, at 5% and 2% respectively. Firms increased their hiring of African American summer associates slightly during that decade, from nearly 8% in 2010 to 9% in 2020.

The survey found that women accounted for nearly 54% of 2020 summer associate hires at large firms, yet made up 48% of associates and fewer than a quarter of equity partners last year.

“A decade of slow progress towards equity and inclusion in law is disappointing,” the report said. “But it also underscores how critical it is to be proactive towards progress—because we have seen that little will change if we are not.”

Read more:

New lawyer demographics show modest growth in minority attorneys

Is Big Law's addiction to elite schools hobbling diversity efforts?

'Exclusionary and classist': Why the legal profession is getting whiter

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at