Momentum of Black Lawyers in Big Law Seems to Be Fading

According to the National Association for Law Placement’s (NALP) latest report on diversity in law firms, in 2022, 49.4% of law firm associates were women and 28.3% were people of color — both historic highs. However, women and people of color comprise just 22.6% and 9%, respectively, of equity partners in Big Law.

Per the report, “White men continue to be disproportionately represented in the equity partner ranks within multi-tier law firms.”

The NALP reports that Black associates had the biggest year-over-year rise, representing 5.7% of all associates in 2022, compared to 5.2% in 2021. Black associates also comprised 11.8% of the latest group of summer associates, which was an almost 0.7% rise from the year prior.

But the percentage of Black lawyers who are partners increased by just 0.1% from 2021, accounting for only 2.3% of all partners, equity and non-equity.

“The most frustrating part is the Black partner front,” said the NALP’s new Executive Director, Nikia Gray. “Their rate has been going upward, but it’s been so incremental. At this rate, they won’t reach parity for another 30 years.”

Yolanda Young, the founder of Lawyers of Color, is also afraid that the increase in the percentage of Black associates will only be temporary. “This increase occurred during the 2021-2022 hiring spree,” Young pointed out.

“If the past is prologue, these gains will be wiped out fairly quickly by attrition and layoffs,” Young continued, noting the many lawyers who were laid off during the Great Recession 15 years ago.

Even more troubling, once the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the Harvard College and University of North Carolina affirmative action cases — it’s predicted the court will either end or strike a heavy blow to affirmative action — we may not even see these elevated numbers in the junior ranks.

“It’s too early to say what will happen, but we are very concerned about the issue,” said Gray. “The impact is not just at the law school admissions level; it could also affect diversity fellowship programs and other diversity initiatives.”

However, there may be a silver lining to the demise of affirmative action, according to Richard Banks, a professor at Stanford Law School and co-founder of the Stanford Center for Racial Justice. “This could lead to more democratization of the profession,” he said.

“Affirmative action has allowed us to labor under the delusion that we should only focus on the top schools,” continued Banks. “It was always about putting the best butts on the most elite seats rather than looking at how stratified the system is. Maybe the end of affirmative action will cause employers to consider hiring from Howard instead of Stanford.”

What is certain is that the odds are still against Black lawyers in Big Law. “The data tells us that what we’ve been doing is not working,” Gray said. “The way firms approach inclusion is flawed. It’s time to do a radical reassessment.”

According to Gray, in order to make progress, “firms need to reexamine the whole organization and look at it more holistically.”