Representation of minorities and women in law firms decreased nationwide last year, but members of Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP), a student-run campus organization that releases its own reports on women and minorities in law firms, says those nation-wide averages are not the most informative way to learn about a firm’s diversity.
The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) announced on Nov. 4 that the proportion of minorities in firms decreased to 12.4 percent from 12.59 percent last year; the proportion of women in firms decreased to 32.69 percent from 32.79 percent during the same period.
“It doesn’t really make sense to talk about the industry average,” said law professor and BBLP steering committee member Michele Dauber. “It’s not even a significant drop, industry-wide. The industry has generally been stagnant, and that’s bad, because we want to see growth.”
According to BBLP data, the majority of law firms actually retained a proportionate amount of minority and female associates, but the average across the profession was skewed by a small fraction of firms with particularly high attrition rates among these demographics.
“About half of the firms received A’s in terms of attrition,” Dauber said, adding that an A is given if women or minorities are retained at equal or higher rates than men. “But minorities and women have lost ground in key firms that have behaved appallingly badly. These bad actors drive down the average for everybody else.”
The figures that do indicate low retention rates have raised questions as to whether discrimination plays a role in legal employment practices.
“The numbers show wide variation in retention rates of women and minorities,” BBLP co-president Jamillah Bowman said. “In some firms, it appears that discrimination does exist, or at least that firms are being reckless about their employment practices and the types of environments they are creating.”
Dauber said that because all firms have historically had trouble retaining minority and female talent to begin with, BBLP aggregated the minority groups together, making attrition statistics less sensitive to small changes.
“I think we’ve been generous to the firms and given them quite a bit of leeway,” she said. “Most firms did a pretty good job of keeping women and minorities, and some firms threw their minorities under the bus. I don’t think they deserve a break there.”
The BBLP leadership hopes its reports can effect change throughout the field.
“I think that certainly the statistical disparities that we’ve put out show that there is something here that both law students and law firms should be conscious of,” said BBLP communications co-director Holly Ragan. “I would hope that in seeing these numbers, the companies with the lowest numbers will look at what they can do to remedy these problems.”
According to its mission statement, BBLP exists in part to provide students entering law school and the work force with critical information about the legal workplace.
“The groups that are reporting these numbers are either for-profit or receiving funding from for-profit groups,” Dauber said. “BBLP is nonprofit, founded and run by Stanford law students and faculty and receives no money from law firms. We are independent and free of law firm influence. It’s a very Stanford-y thing. We mash up data, political influence and technology and have an interdisciplinary mix of students working together for social change.”
Bowman said that this information can help minority students in light of the recent reports of declining diversity.
“The primary goal of BBLP is to promote transparency in the legal profession to help students around the country to make informed decisions, and at least know the proper questions to ask when they go to interview for firms,” Bowman said. “In this case, they can talk to female or minority associates [of the firms reporting lower retention rates of minorities and women] and ask about the workplace environment.”