Minority Issues

Diversity Sacrificed in the Recession

Diversity.jpgAs we mentioned in Morning Docket, American Lawyer today released diversity numbers that confirm what many expected; minority associates bore a disproportionate brunt of law firm layoffs. Am Law Daily reports:

The drop in law firm diversity may be small, but it’s important. Overall, big firms shed 6 percent of their attorneys between 2008 and 2009–and, amid the bloodletting, lost 9 percent of their minority lawyers. (Here and elsewhere in this story, we’ve calculated such percentages only for the 191 firms that provided numbers in both years, in order to have a consistent basis for comparison.) Diversity advocates call the drop a warning sign that shouldn’t be ignored. “I think [that] when you’re looking at any numbers of a population you’re trying to increase, and you see a decrease, that’s significant,” says Venu Gupta, executive director of the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms. “I guess I hoped we wouldn’t be going backward,” echoes Fred Alvarez, chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession and a Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati partner.

We’ve heard many reports about layoffs, especially stealth layoffs, disproportionately affecting minority associates. Now we’ve got additional numbers.
But going inside the numbers, the recession helps us clarify the Biglaw firms that really care about diversity and the firms that were willing to sacrifice those goals when times got tough.

When it comes to layoffs, some firms really didn’t seem to care about diversity:

The declines in minority attorneys were not evenly spread across firms. About a third saw no decrease, while 31 firms saw decreases of 20 percent or more. The biggest decliners in percentage, including Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; Gibbons; Kilpatrick Stockton; and Milbank, lost more than a third of their minority attorneys. (Gibbons and Kilpatrick say they remain strongly committed to their diversity programs; Fried, Frank did not respond to a request for comment.) While general head count also went down at almost all 31 of those firms, in every case it was outpaced by the percentage drop in minority lawyers.

What does it mean to remain “strongly committed” to diversity while laying off more than 33% of your minority attorneys? I have no idea. Arguably clients that care if their chosen law firms are committed to diversity are not fooled by spin that contradicts hard data.
For firms looking to cut the numbers of minorities in their water park without running into employment discrimination lawsuits, stealth layoffs were a godsend:

Still, it’s unlikely that the drop in minority attorneys is linked only to broader industry layoffs. Large law firms are presumably savvy enough about labor and employment law to avoid publicly announced cutbacks that hit a protected class of employees disproportionately. But, say several diversity experts, minority attorneys remain extremely vulnerable to stealth layoffs through performance evaluations. Our 2009 Minority Experience Study found that minority associates, especially African American associates, were more likely to say that their workload was “too light” and to report lower hours than white associates. Consultant Arin Reeves of The Athens Group says minority associates suffer when work dries up: “Your ability to meet hours is reflective of whether or not you’ve been invested in.”

Many people have pointed out that being low on hours isn’t necessarily the fault of the associates themselves. That goes for associates of all colors and creeds. But at firms that don’t really have any desire to change their “old boys network” culture, it’s not really that surprising that minority associates found themselves shut out of work opportunities once there wasn’t enough work to go around. As the saying goes: “when white people catch a cold, black people get the flu.”
It’s easy to look at these diversity numbers with sadness, but I see at least one positive from the statistics. Minority law students, lateral associates, and minority partners with a book of business now have unmistakable evidence about which firms care and which firms don’t.
If you are a young, brown attorney, why the hell would you go to one of these firms that has shown an ability to cut you out of work and put you on the street when things get rough? If there are some firms that want to have an all-white associate class, I say let them. Vote with your feet. Because if you work at a firm that laid of a third of their minority associates, imagine how terrible it was to be a minority working there before the layoffs. Why set yourself up to work at a place with a culture of soft prejudice and no desire to change?
This isn’t 1960. There are plenty of firms that are at least trying to address longstanding issues of racial prejudice. Work for those firms. There’s no sense banging your head into a brick wall when you can just walk around it.
The Diversity Scorecard 2010: One Step Back [Am Law Daily]
Earlier: The Recession’s Impact on Diversity Initiatives

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