Women Associates Reach Important Milestone, But Legal Profession Faces Many of the Same Diversity Challenges

ABA Profile of the Legal Profession Assimilation or multiculturalism Demographic change and changing demography as social cohesion of people assimilated or assimilating or diversity in a population in a 3D illustration style.

We recently welcomed a new year and with it women lawyers have reached an important milestone. For the first time, women make up the majority of associates at U.S. law firms (50.3%), according to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), which recently released its Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms.

In addition, women have experienced record growth at the partnership level, NALP found, making up 27.8% of all partners in 2023.

Data from NALP and the ABA’s 2023 Profile of the Legal Profession showed small but meaningful gains for lawyer diversity but an ongoing lag in terms of many attorneys reaching parity with their representation in the general U.S. population.

I share some interesting findings on lawyer diversity from both reports below and encourage attorneys to read the full profiles. 

Growth among Asian American, Hispanic, and mixed-race attorneys

The percentage of diverse lawyers has grown 10% over the past 10 years, according to the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession. Lawyers of color now make up 21% of the legal profession, almost double the number of diverse attorneys in 2013.

The biggest change has been among Asian American lawyers, who represent 6% of all U.S. lawyers in 2023 compared to 2.5% in 2021, according to the ABA National Lawyer Population Survey, which is quoted in the Profile of the Legal Profession.

This means the representation of Asian American attorneys is almost proportionate to their size in the U.S. population, which is 6.3%.

The percentage of Hispanic lawyers has also risen nationwide, according to the Lawyer Population Survey, up to 6% in 2023 from 3.7% in 2013. However, Hispanic lawyers are still underrepresented compared to their share of the U.S. population (19.1%).

As an aside, the ABA notes that the increase in Asian American and Hispanic lawyers is likely due to California beginning to report the race and ethnicity of its lawyers.

In addition, representation of mixed-race lawyers grew to 3% of all U.S. lawyers in 2023, matching their share of the U.S. population.

Continued stagnation for Black and Native American lawyers

Meanwhile, the number of Black lawyers remains stagnant. In 2013, Black lawyers made up 4.8% of the profession; that number grew to just 5% in 2023, according to the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession. In comparison, Black people represent 13.6% of the U.S. population.

Native American lawyers continue to be the smallest racial or ethnic group measured. In 2023, 0.2% of lawyers were Native American or Alaska Native, similar to a decade earlier, according to NALP. In comparison, Native Americans and Alaskan Native people make up 2.9% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And while the percentage of white lawyers has declined almost 10% in the last decade (79% in 2023 compared to 88.7% in 2013), the ABA notes that they are still overrepresented compared to their presence in the U.S. population (58.9%).

Gender, sex, and sexual orientation

Male lawyers still greatly outnumber female lawyers overall nationally, but the percentage of female lawyers is rising gradually.

In 2023, 39% of all lawyers were women and 61% were male. While these numbers have changed drastically over the past 70 years—from 1950 to 1970 only 3% of all lawyers were women—the number of female attorneys has grown only 5% over the last decade, according to the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession.

In Illinois, roughly 60% of attorneys are male, 40% are female, and 0.1% are nonbinary, according to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission’s 2022 Annual Report.

The representation of openly LGBTQ+ lawyers at U.S. law firms continues to rise, according to NALP. In 2023, 4.6% of lawyers at U.S. firms identified at LGBTQ+, up from just 2.2% a decade earlier. Notably, the percentage of law firm summer associates who identify as LGBTQ+ is substantially higher, at 11.7% in 2023.

Diversity in leadership

Diversity among law firm partners has grown each of the 33 years NALP has been measuring progress, but the growth has been “excruciatingly slow,” NALP says.

In 1991, NALP reported just over 2% of partners were lawyers of color and almost 11% were women. In 2022, people of color made up 12% of partners and women accounted for almost 28%. As noted previously, the 1.1% growth in women at the partnership level is the largest annual increase NALP has recorded. In addition, in 2023, Black and Hispanic women partners reached 1% for the first time, according to NALP.

Asian American attorneys were the highest represented among law firm partners (4.9%) followed by Hispanic lawyers (3%), Black lawyers (2.5%), and multiracial lawyers (1.4%).

Representation among Native American/Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander attorneys at the partnership level remains low, at 0.15% and 0.08% respectively.

Age and Ability

Lawyers, on average, are older than “most professions,” according to the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that almost 14% of all U.S. attorneys are 65 and older compared to roughly 7% of all U.S. workers.

And the median age for attorneys is getting older. In 2022, 46 was the median age for all U.S. lawyers, seven years older than the median age of 39 in 1980.

In Illinois, the number of attorneys who are 70 or older has grown significantly, up from roughly 3% in 2018 to almost 10% in 2022, according to the ARDC. Almost 50% of Illinois lawyers are over 50.

Why? The ABA Profile of the Legal Profession points out that few lawyers are younger than 25, likely given law school and bar requirements, and lawyers tend not to retire at 65.

Just 2% of all lawyers surveyed reported having a disability, according to NALP. While this number remains low, more lawyers have reported having a disability in recent years.

For example, in 2023, 2.4% of associates reported having a disability. This is more than 1% higher than the percentage five years earlier.

Advancing lawyer diversity

The recruitment and retention of lawyers from traditionally underrepresented communities remains a struggle for the legal profession.

Firms and legal organizations have employed many methods to help—recruitment and pipeline programs, diverse hiring practices, and diversity and inclusion policies, just to name a few—each with varying degrees of success.

In Illinois, the Supreme Court has taken action. In 2017, the Illinois Supreme Court mandated that all Illinois lawyers take one hour of diversity and inclusion CLE as part of their professional responsibility CLE requirements.

Former Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier (Ret.) noted in the press release that the requirement’s goal is to “foster a profession that is both healthier and more respectful of the full range of perspectives and experiences present in our multicultural society.”

The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism provides free online and in-person CLEs on a range of contemporary DEI topics, to help lawyers meet this requirement and advance the Court’s goal.

Take a DEI CLE: www.2civility.org/education-cle/free-online-cle

Request a DEI CLE speaker: https://www.2civility.org/education-cle/#tabs-3

Staying up to date on issues impacting the legal profession is vital to your success. Subscribe here to get the Commission’s weekly news delivered to your inbox.

Illinois Bar Associations Pledge to Promote Diversity and Unity in the Legal Profession

Lawyer Diversity: “Good News / Bad News Story,” says NALP

Here’s What the Legal Profession Looks Like in 2022


How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

One thought on “Women Associates Reach Important Milestone, But Legal Profession Faces Many of the Same Diversity Challenges

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *