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New lawyer demographics show modest growth in minority attorneys

4 minute read

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

(Reuters) - The size of the U.S. legal profession has increased more than 8% over the past decade with the addition of 100,000 lawyers, new data from the American Bar Association show.

There are now more than 1.3 million attorneys in the country, though that figure dipped slightly in the past year—a decline the ABA attributed to Vermont starting to count only lawyers who reside in the state and not those who practice there. The ABA on Thursday released its annual Profile of the Legal Profession, with updated data on lawyer demographics broken down by gender, race, geography and age. While the ABA issues new figures each year, it compares that data to the previous decade to highlight trends and changes over time.

The percentage of women attorneys increased to 37% from 33% in 2011, according to the report, and racial diversity in the profession has also made slow but steady progress. Lawyers of color made up 11.2% of all attorneys in 2011, and now comprise 14.6%. But those gains were not seen across all minority groups.

The percentage of Black attorneys decreased slightly from 4.8% in 2011 to 4.7% this year—far lower than the more than 13% of Americans who are Black. The percentage of Native Americans also declined, from 1% in 2011 to less than half a percent this year. The report does not offer commentary on these demographic trends or seek to explain them.

But the percentage of both Asian and Hispanic attorneys increased. Hispanics now account for nearly 5% of attorneys, up from 3.9% in 2011, while the percentage of Asian lawyers grew from 1.7% to 2.5% during the last 10 years.

Those small diversity gains were also reflected in the latest data on lawyers who work for law firms. More than a quarter of current law firm associates—26.5%—are minorities, up from 19.5% in 2011, the ABA data show. By contrast, minorities comprise 40% of the U.S. population, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Just 10.2% of law firm partners are minorities, reflecting a 4-percentage point increase over the past decade.

The new report also highlights the result of an earlier ABA survey of attorney experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, conducted in the fall of 2020, in which women and minority lawyers reported higher rates of stress and work-life balance challenges. ABA President Patricia Lee "Trish" Refo called those findings “a mixed bag” during an online presentation Thursday.

“Women lawyers reported experiencing much higher stress during the pandemic, and big firm lawyers reported fears of furloughs, pay cuts, and layoffs,” she said. “The survey showed many big firm lawyers were concerned about returning to the office and were also worried about having those conversations about their concerns with law firm leaders. That is troubling.”

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