How many ethnic minority partners are there in your law firm?

How many ethnic minority partners are there in your law firm?

Every summer, the American Lawyer publishes a Diversity Scorecard “to provide a snapshot of where the industry is headed.” It records the number of full-time minority attorneys—Asian-American, African- American, Latino or Hispanic, Native American and self-described multiracial attorneys—at Am Law 200 and National Law Journal 250 law firms.

These rankings used to be based on the minority percentage of all US attorneys, but a decade ago Am Law revised its ranking criteria to recognise the importance of hiring and promoting minority attorneys to partnership. Each firm’s diversity score is calculated by adding the minority percentage of all US attorneys at the firms surveyed to the minority percentage of all US partners at those firms. More than 80% of the top 250 firms provide data for the rankings to be compiled. Among the larger firms, some score remarkably well: White & Case, for example, has topped the rankings for the past five years.

In 2018, Paul Weiss came 16th in the Diversity Scorecard – the 15th consecutive year that it has been ranked as one of the top 25 most diverse firms. It also fared very well in other Am Law rankings for 2018, being placed 2nd for average partner compensation and 4th for profits per partner, which averaged $4,653,000 for its 144 partners. Paul Weiss clients include Citigroup and JPMorgan.

With about 1,000 lawyers, the firm is generally more diverse than its peers: women comprise 23% of partners compared with 18% across the top 200 firms while it has more African-American partners than most – and far more than its elite New York competitors such as Cravath, Davis Polk and Sullivan & Cromwell.

But when a dozen new Paul Weiss partners were announced last December, a storm erupted, following the firm’s LinkedIn post carrying a photograph of the new appointees. These were not 12 Angry Men, but rather 11 smiling men and one woman – all of them white. It prompted what the New York Times labelled “a social media firestorm over its overwhelmingly white, male profile.”

In response, 170 general counsel – from companies such as Lyft, Heineken USA, Vox Media, S&P Global Ratings and Booz Allen Hamilton – published an open letter criticising new partner classes that “remain largely male and largely white” and calling on firms like Paul, Weiss “to reflect the diversity of the legal community”. Otherwise, they would send their business elsewhere.

Paul Weiss promptly removed the LinkedIn image and said that it regretted the “gender and racial imbalance” of its 2019 partner appointments, and that this was an outlier. “We have a very good track record in terms of diversity,” said Brad Karp, the firm’s chairman. “We’ve always been ranked at the very, very top of every survey.”

From the 1990s onwards, it became fashionable for some law firms to publish lawyer directories illustrated with photographs which were then strategically placed on coffee tables in reception areas. When visiting their offices in New York, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco and L.A, it was one of the benchmarks by which to compare firms. At some, like Morrison & Foerster, Cleary Gottlieb and Wilson Sonsini, the diversity was self-evident; at others, notably less so.

The Internet has since created greater transparency. But only to a degree. More probing is still needed to unravel the detail. In examining Am Law’s Diversity Scorecard over several years, a clear pattern emerges across big law: the share of female and ethnic minorities partners is much smaller than the number of associates. “I fear that African-American partners in big law are becoming an endangered species,” Theodore V. Wells Jr., a black partner at Paul Weiss recently told the New York Times.

Regrettably, there is no annual Diversity Scorecard for the Top 100 UK firms published by any of the legal media, even though one is long overdue. Diversity also has a slightly different interpretation for UK law firms, focussed most often on gender. Over the past decade, considerable effort has been made to increase the number of female partners. Given that the number of women entering the legal profession has exceeded men throughout this century, there is no longer any recruitment issue relating to gender at the junior end.

Indeed, women make up 48% of all lawyers in law firms, according to figures published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. In 2017, SRA data shows that women made up 59% of non-partner solicitors compared to just 33% of partners. However, pushing the number of women partners beyond the 30% mark is still a real struggle for many big law firms. Typically, the bigger the firm, the greater the problem.

Ethnic diversity is less often discussed by UK law firms. As an attendee of the British Legal Awards in December 2014, I was struck by an observation from the British comedian David Baddiel, who was presenting assorted gongs to high-flying City law firms. In his warm up speech to the 600 or so lawyers in attendance, he remarked that he had previously been to a Society of Black Lawyers’ dinner. But tonight, he added, I’m at the Society of White Lawyers.

Nervous laughter was the audience’s automatic response since Baddiel’s loaded observation contained more than a grain of truth: among those seated at their tables, were perhaps a dozen or so Asian lawyers, but only three black faces. But were these largely middle-aged, white, mostly male partners of City law firms representative of the wider profession?

According to SRA figures, things have improved since Baddiel made his remark.  There has been an increase in black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) lawyers working in UK law firms – up from 14% in 2014 to 21% in 2017. However, this is mostly due to the rise in Asian lawyers, who account for two thirds of all BAME lawyers, while black lawyers comprise only 3%. Again, size makes a difference. The largest firms (50+ partners) have the lowest proportion of BAME partners – only 8%, up by just 1% since 2014.

Nowhere in the UK is the visible contrast greater between lawyers and the city that they serve than in London. Travel from any suburb in to the City or the West End offices of leading international law firms and you will see at first hand, the rich diversity of London. According to the 2011 census, only 44.9% of Londoners classify themselves as White British – a figure that will drop below 40% by the time of the 2021 census. But once inside the offices of most big law firms, the overwhelming impression is one of predominantly white faces.

The contrast is even more dramatic in London schools. Figures published by the DfE in 2015 reveal that in Inner London, only 17.9% of pupils were White British while 28.4% were black, 19.9% were Asian and 10.9% were mixed race. Law firms in London are therefore a very long way off the mark in reflecting the city in which they operate.

It is unfashionable, or perhaps uncomfortable, for many of London’s big law firms to discuss diversity in the context of race. Senior lawyers I have interviewed have few answers, sometimes pointing to their firms’ engagement with schools in deprived areas. As one managing partner commented to me last year: “We used to have an issue with diversity, but that’s fixed now.” He was, of course, speaking only of women lawyers and female partners.

The firm in question – one of the top 20 by size – seems, like many of its counterparts, to be wilfully oblivious to the scale of the challenge facing them. The lesson from Paul Weiss is that for every firm, even those which have a better than average track record on diversity, that challenge has not yet been overcome. Far from it. Diversity needs to be front and centre of their recruitment and partner appointment strategy for many years to come.

Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.
www.dominiccarman.com