Women, African-American associates lose ground at major U.S. law firms

Women and African-Americans show declines in representation at major U.S. law firms, according to the latest law firm demographic findings from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). NALP's recent analyses of the 2015-2016 NALP Directory of Legal Employers (NDLE) — the annual compendium of legal employer data published by NALP — shows that although women and minorities continue to make small gains in their representation among law firm partners in 2015, the overall percentage of women associates has decreased over the majority of the last five years, and the percentage of African-American associates has declined each year since 2009.

Significant Findings

NALP’s analysis found that although representation of minority associates has increased since 2010 (from 19.53 percent to 22 percent) following widespread layoffs in 2009, after the small uptick in 2014 representation of women edged down again resulting in representation of women among associates essentially remaining flat since 2013. The representation of women increased steadily from 38.99 percent in 1993 to its peak of 45.66 percent in 2009. In 2015, the percentage of representation sits at 44.68 percent — the lowest point since 2006, before the recession.

In contrast to the pattern for women as a whole, representation of minority women among associates has increased from about 11 percent (2009-2012) to 11.78 percent in 2015.

Much of the increase in minority representation since 2011 can be attributed to increased representation of Asians among associates. While overall minority representation fell in 2010, this was not the case for Asian associates in particular. Asian associates now make up nearly 11 percent of all associates, with representation having risen 1.6 percentage points from 9.28 percent in 2009 to 10.93 percent in 2015. Hispanic associate representation has risen. After fluctuating between 3.81 percent and 3.90 percent of associates between 2009 and 2013, Hispanics now slightly outnumber African-Americans among associates at 4.28 percent. In contrast to trends among Asian associates and even Hispanic associates, representation of African-Americans among associates has fallen every year since 2009 from 4.66 percent to 3.95 percent.


In 2015, representation of both women and minority partners in law firms across the nation increased a small amount over 2014, with representation of minority women, specifically, up by a small amount, as was representation of minorities as a whole. During most of the 23 years that NALP has been compiling this information, law firms had made steady, though very slow, incremental progress in increasing the presence of women and minorities in both the partner and associate ranks. In 2015, that slow upward trend continued for partners, with minorities accounting for 7.52 percent of partners in the nation’s major firms, and women accounting for 21.46 percent of the partners in these firms, up from 7.33 percent and 21.05 percent, respectively in 2014.

Nonetheless, over a period of over twenty years — NALP first compiled this information in 1993 — the total change has been marginal at best. In 1993 minorities accounted for 2.55 percent of partners and women accounted for 12.27 percent of partners. At just 2.55 percent of partners in 2015, minority women continue to be the most dramatically underrepresented group at the partnership level, a pattern that holds across all firm sizes and most jurisdictions. The representation of minority women partners is somewhat higher (3.12 percent), at the largest firms with more than 700 lawyers. Minority men, meanwhile, account for just 4.97 percent of partners this year, compared with 4.88 percent in 2014. This means that the increase in minorities among partners was about one-tenth of one percent for both men and women.

But, as is the case with associates as well, most of the increase in minority representation among partners since 2009 can be attributed to an increase of Asian and Hispanic partners. Representation of African-Americans among partners has barely budged over the period and was 1.77 percent in 2015.

Lawyers Overall:

Overall, representation of women lawyers (both minority and non-minority) was down slightly, but remains higher than in 2009, after being below that level from 2010-2013. This decrease reflects both the decline among associates noted above and also among lawyers other than partners and associates such as “of counsel” and staff attorneys who, in 2015, accounted for 13 percent of attorneys at these firms. For example, women accounted for 39.5  percent of these other attorneys in 2015, compared with 40 percent in 2014. Since the overall figure for women fell in both 2010 and 2011, changes in the four most recent years mean that the overall percentage for women (33.38 percent), remains just four-tenths of one percentage point higher than in 2009, when the figure was 32.97 percent.

The representation of minorities among lawyers as a whole rose a bit in 2015, to 13.97 percent. Consistent with findings for minority women among partners and associates, representation of minority women as a whole also increased slightly from 6.74 percent in 2014 and now make up 6.81 percent of lawyers at these law firms.

Summer Associates:

The representation of women and minorities in the summer associate ranks compares much more favorably to the population of recent law school graduates. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), since 2000, the percentage of minority law school graduates has ranged from 20 percent to over 26 percent, while women have accounted for 46 percent to 49 percent of graduates with the high point coming in the mid-2000s. In 2015, women comprised 47.78 percent of summer associates, minorities accounted for 31.16 percent, and 16.99 percent of summer associates were minority women. All of these measures have improved in the two years since 2013, when representation of women edged down and minority presence was virtually flat. In addition, the overall number of summer associates remains off by about 30 percent compared with 2009, despite increases in the numbers after they bottomed out in 2010 and 2011.

NALP Executive Director James Leipold commented on the declines noting, “It is troubling to see the numbers for women and African-American associates seemingly reversing course. 2015 marks the sixth year of decline in the representation of Black associates, and while the percentage decrease is small, the overall number itself was small to begin with, so any decline is significant, and the trend is distressing. For women, too, after years of small gains, the pattern of flat to declining representation among associates in law firms is disturbing.”

Leipold continued, “Representation for women and minorities at the partnership level remains small, but at least the trends remain positive, with firms continuing to make small annual incremental gains. Nonetheless, future gains are jeopardized by the shrinking pool at the associate level, and it is clear that measuring overall levels of diversity within law firms is inadequate without also looking at representation by specific race and ethnicity.

“It is also important to remember that the story varies tremendously firm by firm and city by city, and while there are a small number of jurisdictions where overall levels of law firm lawyer diversity exceed the national figures, there are far more where diversity continues to lag considerably, and where little progress has been seen year to year,” Leipold concluded.