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When It Comes to Minority Partners at Law Firms, Read the Fine Print

Sometimes it pays to read beyond the headlines.

I was watching my goddaughter participate in a high school moot court competition over the weekend and during a break, I picked up the March issue of “The National Jurist,” a magazine for law students. A headline in the table of contents caught my attention: “Why Asian- Americans Make More Money.”

On the face of it, Asian-American associates have higher starting salaries than whites and other people of color entering law firms. On average, an Asian-American law school graduate can expect to make about $15,000 more a year than his white counterpart, followed by Hispanics and African-Americans.

Asian-American associates are also more likely to be hired at the nation’s largest law firms. Many have high GPAs and good academic records and the stereotype of Asians having a superior work ethic seems to play in their favor.

Unfortunately, according to the article, that’s about as good as it gets.

The salaries are higher because more Asian-Americans are hired in more expensive cities where the cost of living, as well as the pay, is higher. And while they may come in at a higher salary, they are less likely to be promoted or make partner at those firms.

So while it appears that an Asian-American lawyer fits the stereotype of the model minority who stands above all comers, the details suggest it ain’t necessarily so.

According to a study published in January 2012 by the National Association for Law Placement, the presence of black and Hispanic partners generally increases with firm size, while Asian partners are found at both the smallest and the largest firms, but not in large numbers. The percentage of female minority partners is higher in the largest firms, although Asian women are represented nearly identically at small and large firms.

Geography also plays a major role in the distribution of minority partners.

Atlanta has the highest level of black partners overall, followed distantly by Richmond and Detroit.  Black female partners exceed 1 percent in just nine cities: Atlanta, Detroit, Ft. Lauderdale/West Palm Beach, Miami, Nashville, Raleigh, Tampa, Washington, D.C., and Wilmington, according to the report.

More than half of minority partners in Austin, Miami, Minneapolis, Orlando, Phoenix, and Tampa are Hispanic. Asian-Americans find the most success in Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountain region.

The leading cities for Asian associates — both overall and for women specifically — are San Jose, followed by San Francisco, the Los Angeles and Orange County areas, New York City, and Seattle. Every city reported at least some Asian associates.

More disturbingly, however, a study by the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession, found that “Structurally, law firms as a group are following an unremarkable strategy of diversity efforts with little impetus to attempt anything that might be considered particularly dramatic or innovative, until one firm or another is able to demonstrate that a new approach might merit consideration.”

In essence, the report said, many corporate law firms have not set up a rubric to determine what diversity means to them in terms of added business, how to go about getting and encouraging the growth of that business, or how to measure the interest of clients who don’t initiate or express concern about having a diverse team.

So the firms hire people of color just to have them on the books. They then don’t quite know how to best use that diversity once it’s in the building. The clients aren’t always sure, either, except they seem to have a feeling that it is the right thing to do.

“Corporate clients express a commitment to greater diversity and, intentionally or not, imply to outside counsel that continued or additional business will flow as law firms manifest support for and commitment to greater diversity,” the report said.

“However, corporate clients, at best, use diversity as one of many criteria in selecting outside counsel and rarely implement strategies to reward in-house counsel for choosing diverse outside counsel or bestow more business upon those firms that are succeeding in their diversity endeavors.”

So while it appears that one group may be benefiting at the expense of another, research shows that no one minority group is gaining—at least not in the legal profession or, it could be argued by extension, in many other areas.

And that’s the real story.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

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