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Law Firm DEI through the lens of Belonging

What law firm race & gender diversity data tell us about the practice of Belonging

Setting the table 2 of 3
March 13, 2024

Law firms across the country have invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts for decades.  Impactful work has been done, and National Association of Law Placement (NALP) data demonstrates twenty years of gradual progress.[1] Such progress has been slow but significant for women, with more women in law firm partnerships, and with 2023 being the first year with more female than male law firm associates.

But the data on race remains dire.  In 2023, 35% of first-year law students[2] identified as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC).  Yet BIPOC lawyers were only 20% of lawyers at NALP-reporting law firms across the country in 2023. BIPOC lawyers comprised 30% of associates, 12% of partners, and just 9.6% of equity partners at firms with two-tiered partnerships. 

This same 2023 national data reveals that persons identifying as White are 58% of first-year law students, 70% of law firm associates, 88% of partners, and 90.4% of equity partners at two-tiered partnership firms.  In Kansas City, Missouri, where I practice law, the NALP-reporting law firms’ 2023 data indicates that White lawyers are 75% of associates and 91.5% of partners.


And when one adds gender to the mix, the disparities across the professional lifecycle most glaringly favor White men.  In 2023, self-identified White men were 27% of first-year law students, 37% of law firm associates, and 65% of partners – the only race/gender pairing that gains ground, more than doubling on a percentage basis, from law school to partnership ranks.  Nationally, White men are essentially a quarter of law students, a third of law firm associates, and two thirds of partners.


Similar statistics and trends are documented in the 2020 ABA Model Diversity Survey Report, compiled by the ABA’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.

What to make of this?  Through a conventional DEI lens, the data obviously underscores persistent disparities in race and gender representation in our law firms.  As we already know, we’ve made modest progress, yet we have a long way to go in law firm diversity, particularly in law firm partnerships.

But looking at this same data through a Belonging lens, two things jump out for me.

First, take a moment to sit with the discomfort of seeing the explicit data for White lawyers, statistics seldom shown.  For example, the NALP Diversity Reports present diversity data by category (associates, partners, etc.) only for Total Lawyers, Women Lawyers, and “People of Color,” by gender – one has to do the math to reveal the positions of White lawyers, White men, and White women.  That’s certainly a space-efficient way of compressing findings into charts on a page, but still … it feels weird to look directly at race data for White people, to surface Whiteness.

I never bought into the notion of “I don’t see color” (Really?  Then go to an eye doctor, and maybe listen to some Seeing White in the waiting room).  But I know that in my childhood I was raised to believe I was solely an individual, meant to progress through life and succeed exclusively on the basis of my own “merit,” dedication, and hard work, and that “race” meant folks who did not look like me (cringe, I know, but I’m being accountable here).  Seems like old habits die hard.  To look directly at Whiteness and its place in our social construction of race and caste can trigger queasiness for many White people like me. 

Second, while these law student statistics, and to a lesser degree the law firm associate statistics, reflect the diverse race and gender reality of America, ponder the challenges faced by the leadership of our law firms.  Again, NALP-reporting law firms’ partnerships are nationwide, on average, composed of 88% White people (over 91% White people for such Kansas City, Missouri law firm offices), and 65% are White men.  Forgive me for generalizing, but if these White male partners are at all like me, the skills needed to build Belonging for lawyers different from us in race, gender, and other facets of diversity are likely not second-nature.  Practicing Belonging at work requires both focused attention and considerable effort. Success may begin with intention, but it will only be achieved through the impact of our actions, over time.    

We have a diversifying profession, attempting to serve a rapidly diversifying client base.  It’s a business imperative for law firms to become better at fostering all of their lawyers’ loyalty to their firms, their dedication to the profession, their investments of time and effort in their career development, and their diligence in their day-to-day work of lawyering.  Successful law firms will be those that understand, value, and practice Belonging.

BTW, in passing above I mentioned Season 2 of John Biewen’s podcast Scene on Radio, Seeing White, first released in 2017. If you haven’t had a chance to listen, consider giving it a try. It remains relevant, challenging, and enlightening, especially for White folks like me.


[1] NALP publishes an annual Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms.  See  NALP’s race and ethnicity identity categories include Asian, Black or African American, Latinx, Native American or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and Multiracial, but not White.  One must do calculations to surface the resulting White data, by total lawyers or gender.

[2] The ABA collects law student information from U.S. law schools and compiles annual statistical reports.  See  ABA race and ethnicity identity categories include White, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and Two or more Races, with all but White combined in People of Color.  Gender identity categories include Men, Women, and Another Gender Identity.  And unlike the NALP lawyer data, ABA law student statistics across categories separately include data for Prefer not to Report.