Diversity Among Summer Associates at an All-Time High According to NALP’s 2021 Report

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) recently announced record-breaking lawyer diversity growth among women, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) legal professionals in its annual Report on Diversity at U.S. Law Firms.  

While growth among these groups, especially women of color, is still unbalanced across associate and partner levels, the increase in representation throughout 2021 compared to previous years points to high growth rates in the coming years, according to NALP’s analysis. 

NALP Executive Director James Leipold attributes the unprecedented levels of diverse representation to law firms springing into action following “some of the most tumultuous social unrest the United States has seen in many years.”  

“The test now is whether that resolve will remain, and whether these same institutions can effect similar changes at the associate and partnership levels in the decade ahead,” Leipold said in his commentary on the report. 

Summer associates show largest increase in lawyer diversity 

Among all groups of attorneys, summer associates showed the most growth among diverse populations.  

People of color among summer associates in 2021 grew by almost 5%, the largest increase recorded in 29 years of NALP data. Women made up more than half of all summer associates for the fourth year in a row. At the intersection of these two groups, women of color nearly doubled in percentage of the total summer associates from 2009 (12.48%) to 2021 (25.14%). 

Additionally, the proportion of LGBTQ summer associates increased to 8.41%, the highest representation ever measured by NALP. 

The representation of women, people of color, and LGBTQ summer associates in 2021 exceeds that of the most recent law school graduating classes in many cases, according to NALP’s analysis. This data suggests a more diverse class of upcoming graduates and a more optimistic outlook for diversity in the associate levels in upcoming years. 

While this rapid growth is encouraging for diversity, the legal professional has the responsibility to support these diverse groups once they enter the field. 

“The challenge for the industry is to retain, train, develop, and promote this talented and diverse pool of new lawyers so that five years from now the associate ranks as a whole reflect similar diversity and representation, and 10 or 15 years from now we can celebrate a partnership class that is similarly diverse,” Leipold said. 

Women of color still underrepresented at the partner level 

Despite their double-digit growth among summer associates, women of color still account for less than 5% of partners at firms of all sizes and most jurisdictions. Black and Latinx women represent less than 1% of all partners, at 0.86% and 0.92% respectively. 

Representation of Black lawyers overall has increased in 2021 but has fallen further behind the increases among Latinx and Asian populations. The percentage of associates who are Latinx women exceeded the percentage who are Black women for the first time this year.  

These discrepancies highlight the continued challenges women of color face in the legal profession and demonstrate the retention problem law firms have with these populations. 

2021’s increase in diversity in the legal profession has given many reasons to celebrate, but also calls for a renewed urgency to address underrepresented populations among attorneys.  

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