NY Law Journal: City Bar Study Sees Diversity Slip at Local Law Firms
A report by the New York City Bar documents a "slippage of hard-won diversity gains" at local law firms last year, coupled with only "lackluster" improvements over the long term.
The 2010 Diversity Benchmarking Study is the fifth since the city bar launched with what it recalled as "great enthusiasm" an effort to promote diversity. The study notes several positive developments, but characterizes as "disappointing" the overall results of its survey.
"We must turn more fully toward retaining diverse talent and addressing the root issues which impede the development and progress of diverse attorneys," the survey concludes.
The city bar surveyed 108 firms that are signatories to a 2004 statement of diversity principles (NYLJ, Dec. 16, 2003); 88 of the firms responded. Articulated in the statement are short- and long-term goals related to hiring, retention and promotion of diverse talent.
Progress in meeting those goals "has been far more challenging than we anticipated," acknowledged Barbara Berger Opotowsky, the city bar's executive director in an interview.
"While we're pleased that a diversity mind set and some key best practices have taken hold in the legal profession, we are concerned about the slow pace of change," Samuel W. Seymour, the group's president, said in a statement. "Firms need to analyze their specific efforts to determine what is working and what is not," said Mr. Seymour, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell.
Vivian Polak, chair of the diversity committee at Dewey & LeBoeuf, one of the firms that responded to the survey, called the results "depressing."
"Firms have been so focused on recruitment that they have made the incorrect assumption that, if you have a diverse first-year class, you're golden," she said in an interview. "It's a huge fallacy."
The survey found that for the first time since March 2004, the percentage of minorities and women declined at the responding firms, dipping to 16.6 percent of total attorneys from 18.1 percent last year for minorities, and 35.3 percent for women, down from 36 percent.
The decline, triggered by "turbulent economic conditions," reversed last year's "promising trends" (NYLJ, Dec. 4, 2009), the report observed. Moreover, the new survey reported a decline of the share of minorities in the ranks of partners and special counsels. The percentage of female partners also fell, although their share of special counsels increased.