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Eric Friedman
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Kathryn Inman
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City Bar Report Cites ‘New Normal’ in Diversification of Law Firm, While Challenges Remain

New York, June 19, 2014After a decade of collecting data on law firm diversity, the New York City Bar Association has found that an expanding business case and increased emphasis by clients is establishing diversity as essential to the ‘new normal’ for law firms. At the same time, unconscious bias and the need for more white men to play a role in diversity efforts are challenges that law firms must overcome in order to diversify fully.

In its 2013 Diversity Benchmarking Report released today, the City Bar found signs of progress in the diversification of law firms, especially at the junior associate level. For example, while attorneys of color made up about a fourth of second-year associates in 2004, by 2013 they made up nearly a third. And the number of openly LGBT attorneys more than doubled during that time, as a result of both better reporting and increased acceptance in the workplace.

At the most senior levels of law firm leadership, however, minority and women attorneys are still not adequately represented, and there is higher turnover among these groups than among white men. In addition, minority and women who become partners are more likely to be non-equity partners than white males.  

The City Bar’s Benchmarking Reports compile data from signatories to the Association’s Statement of Diversity Principles. On the tenth anniversary of producing the reports, the City Bar saw an opportunity to move ‘beyond the numbers’ and gather qualitative information as well through in-depth, hour-long interviews with law firm managing partners, diverse law firm partners, diversity directors and senior in-house leaders at major corporations.

A key issue that arose in the interviews, described by one interviewee as the “elephant in the room” interfering with continued diversity progress, was “unconscious bias.” Interviewees described manifestations of unconscious bias against minority and women attorneys, explaining how it influenced firm advancement, and noted the importance of individuals being aware of their own inherent biases. For example, said one interviewee, “There is an anti-commitment bias against women. It exists whether or not you have children. The bias is that women are not as committed as men, not as likely to stay around….There’s a sense of, should I invest in that person?”

Another key theme that emerged was the importance of proactively engaging white men and helping them understand the economic importance of diversity, as well as the vital role they must play in promoting diversity. The concern was that many white men fail to see how diversity is relevant to them. “If you were trying to foster change and lead an initiative and 60% of people feel like it has nothing to do with them, it’s not going to be successful,” noted one participant.

“While we’re pleased that more and more firms appear to understand that diversity benefits them as well as their employees, we still have miles to go,” said City Bar President Debra L. Raskin. “Increasing awareness of unconscious bias and firm-wide accountability for improving diversity are positive trends we should all support.”

While looking back over the past ten years, the report also lays out some recommendations for “the road ahead.” In addition to increasing understanding of unconscious bias and engaging more white men in diversity efforts, they include actively tracking and supporting women and minorities through transitions, evaluating unintended consequences of multi-tier partnership models, and increasing accountability of partners for improving diversity.

In 2003, more than 100 New York City law firms signed the City Bar’s Statement of Diversity Principles. Signatory firms articulated key goals and agendas for diversifying the talent pool of attorneys, from the junior level to the most senior law firm leaders. Crucial to that effort was providing the City Bar with detailed data on a comprehensive set of workforce metrics over time. The first survey was distributed in 2004 and collected data on the diversity representation and demographics at key levels, hiring and promotions, availability and usage of flexibility, as well as an in-depth look at the associate pipeline. Today, the Statement has over 130 signatories.

The 2013 Diversity Benchmarking Report is available at: 2013 Diversity Benchmarking Report

About the Association
The New York City Bar Association, since its founding in 1870, has been dedicated to maintaining the high ethical standards of the legal profession, promoting reform of the law and access to justice, and providing service to the profession and the public. The Association, through its 24,000 members, continues to work for political, legal and social reform, while implementing innovative means to help the disadvantaged. Protecting the public’s welfare remains one of the Association’s highest priorities. www.nycbar.org