California Lawyers Association

ABA Report: Legal Profession Slowly Diversifying

The legal profession remains largely white and male, despite efforts to increase diversity, according to a new statistical report released at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco last month. 

Women make up 36% of the legal profession today. But that share hasn’t changed at all in the last five years and has gone up just five points since 2009. Likewise, the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities serving as lawyers has only improved from 12% in 2009 to 15% today. 

“The legal profession evolves very slowly,” outgoing American Bar Association President Bob Carlson acknowledged when the stats were released. Carlson noted that the numbers are more encouraging when viewed from a long-term perspective. When he became a lawyer in 1979, only 8% of lawyers were women. 

The findings show that women are seeking out the profession in droves—nearly half of all law school graduates have been female since 2000—yet the number of women in senior leadership roles at U.S. law firms has been largely stagnant for at least a decade, with women making up about 19 percent of all equity partners.

Roberta Liebenberg, former chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, called the trend distressing. The lack of upward mobility at law firms, combined with high stress and a pay gap across all levels (the average weekly salary for female lawyers in 2018 was $1,762, compared to $2,202 for men) is driving women to leave law firms by age 50. 

“They’re reinventing themselves in their second season and going to other places,” she said, including going in-house, opening their own law practices or joining the bench.

Liebenberg said there’s a real concern that there won’t be enough women to mentor the female associates coming out of law school (where women have outnumbered men since 2016). Law firms that don’t address this issue will be at a competitive disadvantage since clients are demanding to have experienced women working on their matters, she said. 

When it comes to racial and ethnic minorities, the gains have been small but steady, said Patricia Lee, chair of the ABA Diversity and Inclusion Center.

Lee encouraged law firms to be more flexible and creative in choosing the criteria they use to hire and promote lawyers, because the traditional criteria may overlook the skills and talents a diverse attorney can offer the firm.

Firms also need to develop their methods for supporting and integrating diverse attorneys into the workplace to avoid becoming a “revolving door” for minority lawyers, she said.

Lee pointed out that California has a particularly strong pipeline program geared toward encouraging students from underrepresented areas to pursue a legal education.

“All those things have to exist to pave the way,” she said. 

“When CLA was first established in early 2018, we quickly set up a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee to figure out how we could become a meaningful voice in this critical dialogue,” said President Heather L. Rosing. 

“Women and people of color are still considerably underrepresented in the bar and the bench, and bar associations like CLA have an obligation to mobilize their member base to help find solutions, which includes establishing a pipeline into law school.”

The core principle of diversity is reflected in the CLA mission statement, which is to promote “excellence, diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and fairness in the administration of justice and the rule of law.” In addition to collaborating with other organizations with a commitment to increasing diversity in the profession, CLA has taken internal measures to enhance the diversity of leadership, including revisions to its own internal appointment processes.

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