General Counsel Calls for Law Firms to Increase Black Attorney Percentages Go Largely Unanswered

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, protests ignited and corporations declared that Black lives mattered and promised to advance racial justice in society and presumably the workplace. Such calls to conscience weren’t new to their general counsel who had been making this appeal to their law firm clients since 1989 when Harry Pearce then the general counsel of General Motors wrote a letter to his outside counsel requesting that attorneys of color be utilized on GM’s legal matters. Since then hundreds of general counsel have signed a half dozen similar open letters.

Three decades on and another harrowing murder, this time Tyre Nichols, their is worry these calls have fallen on deaf ears. According to the recently released National Association of Law Placement (NALP) annual diversity report, Black associate percentages increased by 0.6 percentage points to 5.77% in 2022. However, the total Black attorney percentage is only 3.92% due to the infinitesimal 0.1 percent increase in Black partners to 2.32%. 

If the past is prologue, these very modest gains will be wiped out fairly quickly by attrition and layoffs just as they were following the 2008 financial collapse. For the seven years that followed, the Black associate percentage dropped precipitously from 4.75 to 3.95. And while the current percentage of 5.77 represents the highest mark, it is still pales since 8 percent of law students are Black. Most revealing is during those years partner profits skyrocketed and Asian American associate percentages steadily increased to 10.93%.

To get to the why in all this, Lawyers of Color, the organization I lead, began tracking the Black attorney percentages of the largest 500 law firms in our Black Guide to Law Schools & Firms 2022. What we’ve found is that a small number of law firms are responsible for the Black associate percentage increase with some 85 firms raising their year-over-year percentages by 1% or more. Notable standouts were Chapman and Cutler LLP, which had the highest percentage increase among large firms going from 4.28% to 7.21% last year and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, which leaped from 5.08% to 8.15% giving the the highest total percentage of Black attorneys among large law firms.

While most simply maintain the status quo, some seem only to make a good show of supporting diversity. For instance, following Floyd’s murder, law firms formed the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance (LFAA). One of its members, 450-lawyer Holland & Hart, reported having only 5 Black attorneys. That’s about 1% folks. LFAA’s stated mission is to “better use the law to benefit communities of color.” Having a respectable percentage of Black attorneys would seem the logical place to start.

February 28, 2023

Yolanda Young