Rise in Diversity Among Law Firms

By Elizabeth Stern

Photo courtesy of unspalsh.com

2023 marked a historical shift in the legal field. For the first time, a majority of US law firm associates were women.[1] This record represents a growing trend of diversity in law firms for multiple demographics and indicates continued growth of representation in the legal field for the future.

Since 1991, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) has reported statistical findings of diversity in law firms for multiple demographics, tracking each sect’s growth as partners, associates, counsel, non-traditional attorneys, staff lawyers, and summer associates.[2] This reporting keeps firms accountable and tracks social progress in the field. Over a span of 32 years, the number of women in law have been steadily increasing, and in 2023 with an addition of 1.1%, women outranked men as law firm associates at 56.17%.[3]

The number of women has also grown in the other NALP reported legal positions. For example, the percentage of women partners in law firms rose to 27.76%, which is not only the highest number of women in the position to date, but also marks the largest annual increase.[4] This boost of diversity in gender can be attributed to more women attending law school, a societal shift in more women taking on demanding professions, and representation for other women considering entering the legal field.

Other demographics are also experiencing a rise of representation in the legal field. According to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), in 2023, 40% of the incoming law school class were students of color.[5] 30.15% of law firm associates are people of color, a number that has been steadily rising since 1991. [6]Additionally, 14.7% of 2023’s incoming law school class, and 11.67% of summer associates identified as LGTBQ. [7]

The NALP’s reported growth is encouraging; it represents law firms placing more value on diversity and shows a continued acceptance of differing demographics. However, despite the growing progress towards equality, there are still disparities in diversity. Although the number of diverse associates is growing, the glass ceiling has yet to be broken for more women as equity partners, a position where the gender gap is particularly noticeable.

Men still make up 76.3% of equity partners, with women and people of color only making 8.1% and 4.9% increases over a period of 12 years.[8] These statistics indicate that although women and people of color are entering law firms at a higher rate than previously, the higher paying positions are still difficult to reach. In 2023, black and Latina women made up 1% of law firm partners for the first time ever. Lack of progress in this area can be attributed to the slow growth beginning at the first step of a legal career, law school acceptance, or the tendency of law firms to promote men quicker than women and people of color.

Acknowledging disparity is important, but real change can effectively occur when societal expectations keep the legal field accountable for upholding diversity. To best practice law fairly and equitably, a rise in diversity must occur. Representation in the legal field allows for the better counsel of parties, representation of clients, and examples for incoming law students. Trends since 1991 indicate a growth in diversity will continue to occur each year, and it is the participants in the legal field’s duty to continue to facilitate its growth.

[1] https://www.reuters.com/legal/legalindustry/most-us-law-firm-associates-were-women-2023-survey-shows-2024-01-09/

[2] https://www.nalp.org/uploads/Research/2023NALPReportonDiversityFinal.pdf

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] https://www.insightintodiversity.com/law-schools-see-record-diversity-ahead-of-affirmative-action-ban/

[6] https://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2024/01/nalp-for-the-first-time-a-majority-of-law-firm-associates-are-women.html

[7] https://www.insightintodiversity.com/law-schools-see-record-diversity-ahead-of-affirmative-action-ban/ and Id at 2.

[8] Id at 2.

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