Today, the Minority Law Journal published its new Diversity Rankings. There was a big change in the publication’s methodology, and that resulted in significant upheaval in the rankings:
All this churn comes courtesy of a new ranking formula adopted after we found ourselves wondering whether our traditional approach to measuring diversity–calculating the overall percentage of minorities within a firm–ignored something significant. Did it really make sense to treat all lawyers of color as essentially equivalent in stature? Should a firm get the same kind of credit for a minority associate as it does for a minority partner? We decided that it was time to start giving more credit to firms that have increased the racial diversity of their partnership ranks. Under our revised formula, we add each responding firm’s percentage of minority lawyers to its percentage of minority partners to come up with a diversity score. This number is a truer gauge, we believe, of what kind of progress a firm is making in hiring lawyers of color at every level, with an emphasis on those at the most senior levels. (Click here for a fuller explanation of our methodology, and a list of firms that did not respond.)
The new methodology hurt a lot of firms that have a lot of minorities in the pipeline, but few in the partnership:
Among those who scored poorly on the new survey, Cravath’s example is illuminating. Cravath has a very high percentage of minority lawyers overall–21.3 percent, nearly twice the survey average. On the other hand, only 2.3 percent of Cravath partners are attorneys of color–a relatively low proportion that hurt the firm’s diversity score. Other firms pushed out of the top tier include Simpson Thacher & Bartlett (from number 11 to number 35); Debevoise & Plimpton (from number 14 to number 37); Weil, Gotshal & Manges (from number 16 to number 23); and Latham & Watkins (from number 17 to number 26). Simpson Thacher and Debevoise reported below-average minority partner rates; Weil’s and Latham’s rates were a bit better than average, but not quite good enough for the firms to keep their old rankings.
The publication’s list is based on numbers firms self reported by September 30, 2008. But I wonder if the diversity battlefield has shifted significantly since September. While it does seem critically important to see if firms are making minority partners, right now it seems even more important to know which firms are firing minority attorneys in disproportionate numbers.
What explains the slowing pace of overall minority representation? Answering a question about the obstacles they face in improving diversity, many firms cited a perennial problem: a shallow pool of minority candidates from which to choose when hiring associates. Economic conditions also appear to be a factor. In response to the same question, some 30 firms explicitly cited economic woes as hampering diversity efforts even before the full force of the current financial crisis hit. “The biggest challenge to building diversity in the past year was the economic downturn,” said O’Melveny & Myers (tied for number 20). “The state of the economy has made us ever more mindful of the need to control expenses and ensure that the internal programs we develop and facilitate, as well as the external programs we sponsor, are the best use of our resources.” Translation: In tight times, the bottom line is always top of mind, and a firm’s push toward greater diversity isn’t exempt from that calculus. Financial concerns can hurt diversity initiatives in several ways. Layoffs and reduced hiring may mean fewer associates of color, and as several firms said in their responses, pressure to increase billable hours can detract from mentoring and recruiting efforts.
Crying poverty when it comes to diversity programs and initiatives is nothing new, but that could be the underlying weakness with such programs and initiatives. The vast majority of minority attorneys that I’ve met don’t really want or need a special-awesome outreach luncheon. Instead, fair treatment and a respectful working environment would suffice. That doesn’t cost money. It does (in some places) cost a fairly massive change in firm culture.
As we’ve chronicled before, in these difficult times the power balance is squarely in the hands of partners. It’s hard to inspire associates (of color or otherwise) to collective action when people are desperate to find a job and keep a job. Law firms are struggling and in this environment “green” is probably the only color anyone really cares about.
Diversity Scorecard – 2009 [Minority Law Journal]
2009 Diversity Scorecard [Minority Law Journal]
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