For the first time in seven years, the percentage of minority equity partners remained virtually flat, nudging up from 6.05 percent in 2008 to 6.06 percent in 2009 at the 263 law firms surveyed, according to a report released in October. That finding helped to corroborate fears that diversity efforts have taken a backseat to economic concerns.
"It remains to be seen whether these numbers reflect a recessionary anomaly or the start of a trend," said Vault Senior Law Editor Vera Djordjevich.
"Nonetheless, given the slow rate at which law firms have been diversifying their ranks and the likelihood that recruiting will not return to pre-recession levels any time soon, there's a danger that even a one-time drop in minority recruitment could have a long-term impact on overall law firm populations."
Summer associate programs have been an effective way for law firms to bring in women and minority attorneys, but that pipeline narrowed in 2009. The number of summer associates hired in 2009 dropped by 20 percent, and the past year's summer class had the lowest percentage of minority students in three years. The percentage of minorities hired by law firms at all levels in 2009 was 19 percent, compared to nearly 22 percent in 2008. While the percentage of minority equity partners remained flat, there was a small increase in minority non-equity partners - from 8.5 percent in 2008 to 9 percent in 2009.
Meanwhile, minority attorneys left their firms at higher numbers in 2009. They represented 13.4 percent of the attorneys at the firms surveyed but accounted for nearly 21 percent of those leaving during 2009.
The survey did find some good news on the diversity front, however. The percentage of minorities serving on management committees and in executive positions inched up to 5.5 percent.
Women made bigger gains at law firms, according to the survey. They made up 16.8 percent of equity partners in 2009, compared to 16.5 percent in 2008. Their numbers also grew in the non-equity ranks and on management committees.
"The study is encouraging for women lawyers," said MCCA Executive Director Veta Richardson. "Despite the recession, they continue to advance in leadership roles in their firms. However, the data is more troubling for minority attorneys. The recession has hit them harder, especially law students, and the decline in their ranks may linger for years."