April 1, 2009
Diane Nowak-Waring or
Big Law Firms Make Diversity Strides Yet Disparities Still Persist
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) released its latest groundbreaking research report on the professional experiences of attorneys at Top 200 law firms, finding that while there have been commendable improvements to diversity programs in large law firms since its earlier studies done back in 2002 and 2003, “Big Law” has a long way to go before the legal profession becomes a true meritocracy.
This research study, the ninth one conducted by MCCA, is titled Sustaining Pathways To Diversity: The Next Steps in Understanding and Increasing Diversity & Inclusion in Large Law Firms. Reporting on the views of more than 4,400 practicing attorneys from more than 120 of the nation’s top 200 most profitable law firms, MCCA’s research is the most comprehensive and credible study to date about the professional experiences of Big Law attorneys.
Reflecting a broad sector of the legal profession, the respondents were diverse in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status, age, experience, geographic location, and academic background. In fact, an outside statistician determined that the response rate gives MCCA’s survey a confidence level of 99%, with a potential deviation of less than 2% for any one question.
The research analyzed the experiences and comments of a diverse group of law firm attorneys from a variety of academic backgrounds and in various stages of their law careers and compared these responses across the different demographics of the lawyers..
While progress is apparent and most attorneys reported that their law firms are making strides to advance diversity, MCCA believes that some of the key findings from the research analysis signal areas of significant concern. Several particularly troubling findings deal with perceptions and realities of “academic pedigree” and glaring inconsistencies regarding the career development and professional opportunities of racial/ethnic minorities and whites.
While many law firms claim to have a meritocracy that rewards those with top credentials from Tier 1 (Top 10) law schools, the research points out that in reality, this is simply a “myth of a meritocracy,” and in the real world of “Big Law,” Top Tier credentials are less important to success than is fitting within the majority culture. “MCCA’s research reveals that when it comes to one’s professional development, landing plum assignments, and receiving satisfactory coaching/mentoring and feedback, whites enjoy a significant advantage over all minorities, and this advantage persists whether one’s academic experience ranks as ‘Top Tier’ or ‘Third Tier,’” said Veta T. Richardson, executive director of MCCA.
Some of the research highlights include:
- Many minorities who attended Tier 1 law schools reported having less access to mentoring, coaching and sponsorship than did all white lawyers, without regard to what tier law school these white lawyers attended.
- Whites who graduate from Tier 3 law schools are no less satisfied than their white peers who attended Tier 1 law schools, as 75% of all whites reported high levels of satisfaction with the coaching/mentoring and professional development that they receive in large law firms.
- Only half of the minorities who attended Tier 1 law schools reported that evaluations of their work were free of assumptions and stereotypes based on background, while nearly three-quarters of all the white attorneys, without regard to what tier law school they attended, reported work evaluations as free of assumptions.
- The group of lawyers who are most likely to consider law school grade point average and class rank less important when evaluating new hires is white females (associates and partners), with white male partners considering these factors most important in hiring decisions. This underscores that while men and women may have different views about what “qualified” means, the findings suggest that these credentials are not considered essential to determining which lawyers receive the professional development they need to be successful in large law firms.
- Many white males reported feeling that the very programs intended to build more inclusive workplaces may be unfairly leaving them out. Several felt they were victims of “reverse discrimination” and as a result these lawyers tended to resent their firms’ diversity efforts.
- Minorities and women reported lower satisfaction levels than white men regarding the work/life balance in their law firms. However, the perspectives shared by female associates were much closer to those of male associates than they were to female partners, illustrating that generational differences regarding work/life balance now appear to be more significant than gender differences, with younger male attorneys’ views aligning more closely with that of younger women attorneys.
“We want to stress to law firms the importance of approaching diversity initiatives with sensitivity to ALL lawyers,” said Ms. Richardson, who was in charge of the general oversight and financial responsibility of this research project. “MCCA believes when diversity programs are successfully executed, all attorneys and their firms benefit. In addition to exposing these challenges in developing inclusive law firms and with MCCA’s goal of being solution-focused, we have offered firms practical recommendations for overcoming each of these challenges.”
MCCA retained Dr. Arin N. Reeves of The Athens Group (www.athensgroup.net) to collaborate on this research and assist with all aspects of the project, including setting standards of research protocol, design of the survey questionnaire and instructions, determination of the research sampling, analysis of the survey findings, preparation of the written report, and development of the final set of recommendations. In addition to Dr. Reeves, MCCA’s research team included Novations Group, Inc. which provided independent third party data design, collection, consultation, and statistical analysis.
The demographic distribution across respondents was as impressive as the response rate. Background on who was surveyed and who responded includes:
- The survey was circulated to attorneys in 217 law firms, including all firms listed in the Am Law 200 list of top firms by revenue. All total, representatives from 124 different law firms responded. Nearly half of these firms had 10% or more attorneys responding.
- There was a total response of 4,404 lawyers, which equates to roughly 4.17% of the total attorney population in the 217 firms. With this sample size, the final results yielded a confidence level of 99%, per MCCA’s independent statistician.
- 49.3% of the respondents were partners, 40.7% associates, and 8.2% were counsel/of counsel.
- 58.5% were male, and 41.5% were female.
- 22.6% self-identified as racial/ethnic minorities, and 75.1% as white/Caucasian (non-Hispanic).
- 4.9% self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
- 1.8% self-identified as a person with a disability.
The Minority Corporate Counsel Association advocates for the expanded hiring, retention, and promotion of minority attorneys in corporate legal departments and the law firms that serve them. Since its founding in 1997, MCCA has emerged as the legal profession’s knowledge leader on diversity issues and its expanded platform offers solutions to diversity management challenges involving women, physically challenged, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lawyers, in addition to attorneys of color (which remains its primary focus). MCCA advances its mission by publishing innovative research, illuminating diversity best practices, honoring diversity leadership with its prestigious Employer of Choice and Thomas L. Sager awards, and assisting diverse law students through the Lloyd M. Johnson, Jr. Scholarship Program. MCCA’s award-winning programs and services have been cited by several leading organizations, including the National Minority Business Council, Inc., the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the National LGBT Bar Association, and the Association of Corporate Counsel.
MCCA is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and also has a southeast regional office in Atlanta, Ga. For more information, go to mcca.com.