One of the many dramatic changes in the legal profession beginning in the mid-1970s was the growing number of women, minorities (African-American, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian, Hispanic, and multi-cultural), and others with diverse backgrounds entering the practice of law. In addition, along with growing awareness in society as a whole, more LGBT and lawyers with disabilities are identifying as such. While advances have been made and most legal employers are well-intentioned, more must be done to recruit, develop, retain, and promote lawyers from diverse backgrounds so they all reach their full potential and contribute to the leadership and future of the profession.
The US Supreme Court decision Bradwell v. State of Illinois, 83 U.S. 130 (1873) upheld state law barring women from the practice of law. The concurring opinion stated that it is God’s intention that women stay at home, bear children, and take care of their husbands. Obviously, that opinion no longer is the law of the land and, in the latter third of the 20th century, women began entering the legal profession in significant numbers. In 1970, fewer than 5 percent of lawyers in the US were female and, by 1980, that number increased to only 8 percent. By 2012, however, women comprised over 30 percent of the profession. Between 1971 and 1991, while the number of male lawyers doubled, the number of women increased sixteen-fold nationally. According to the ABA, in 2000, for the first time, women outnumbered men in the entering class of law schools nationwide and have accounted for 46 percent to 49 percent of graduates since then. But, according to NALP, the number of women associates working at the nation's law firms declined for the third year in a row during 2012, to 45.05 percent.
Nationally, in 1970, fewer than 2 percent of the nation’s lawyers were persons of color. Since 1993 when NALP began compiling diversity information, law firms made steady, if marginal, progress increasing the numbers of minorities in both the partner and associate ranks. Minorities as a whole made up 12.91 percent of the lawyers, including partners, in 2012, compared with 12.70 percent in 2011. According to the American Bar Association, since 2000, the percentage of minority law school graduates ranged from 20 percent to 23 percent. Nevertheless, NALP statistics show that, in 2011, over 17 percent of legal employers had no minority associates, and over 27 percent reported no minority women associates. Minority women, just over 2 percent of the partners and 10.96 percent of associate in the nation's major law firms, are the most dramatically underrepresented group.
The increasing globalization of business in general, which is mirrored by the legal profession, drew lawyers with knowledge of other languages and cultures into the mainstream. For example, the expansion of technology and Pacific Rim business, as well as the large Asian immigration to the US, made Asian-American lawyers the largest and fastest growing minority in the profession. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Asian-American/Pacific Islander lawyers nearly doubled, and they now comprise almost half of all minority associates at the nation’s largest law firms. And, among partners overall, Asians are somewhat more prevalent than either African American or Hispanic partners.
The number of lawyers identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (GLBT) is small, around 2 percent, but evidence suggests the profession gradually is becoming more inclusive and sensitive to GLBT issues. The Human Rights Campaign 2013 Corporate Equality Index rated 889 employers across approximately 40 industries on a scale of 0 to 100 based on a range of criteria including whether they have equal employment opportunity policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity, offer provisions in their insurance coverage that apply to same-sex partners, and publicly support GLBT organizations and equality laws. Of 141 AmLaw200 firms rated, 71 received perfect scores, up from the 55 the last year. Three firms received ratings of 95, and another 38 received scores of 90. The legal profession had the largest number of perfect scores for any industry surveyed.
Lawyers with disabilities generally aren’t part of the discussion about diversity in the legal profession, but their access to law practice is just as important just as it is for other underrepresented groups. According to NALP, less than one-quarter of 1 percent of partners report having a disability, and associates with disabilities account for just 0.17 percent of associates in law firms. Although the presence of individuals with disabilities among law school graduates isn’t precisely known, NALP research suggests that approximately 2 percent of graduates self-identify as having a disability. Those studies also show that law graduates with disabilities were less likely to be employed and, if employed, less likely to obtain higher-paying jobs in private practice but more likely to obtain lower-paying government and public interest positions.
Some employers incorrectly assume that all attorneys with disabilities need reasonable accommodation or that accommodations are too costly or difficult to provide and, furthermore, if accommodation is necessary, the lawyer likely will be unable to meet expected performance measures. None of these assumptions are true, and the purpose of workplace accommodations is to enable attorneys with disabilities to perform their jobs and meet the employer’s performance standards. Consequently, even if the small number of lawyers with disabilities who make it into and through law school attain employment, they face difficulties in retention and promotion.
Despite the increases in numbers of women, GLBT, and people of color and with disabilities entering the legal profession, as of 2013, diversity remains an elusive goal according to the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. Thus, although we’ve come a long way, there’s still a long way yet to go toward greater integration and inclusion.