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ABA’s Profile of the Legal Profession Explores COVID-19’s Lasting Impact

courtroom demonstrating the ABA Profile of the Legal ProfessionCOVID-19 has changed the way lawyers work—perhaps permanently—but it didn’t affect everyone equally, according to the 2021 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession.

The ABA released its annual snapshot of the legal profession last month. The profile explores trends in 11 subject areas — including demographics, law schools, the judiciary, technology, and the pandemic. The report is based on a survey of more than 4,000 ABA members last fall and a follow-up survey of nearly 1,400 senior lawyers in March.

COVID’s impact on the profession

While a majority of all lawyers (51%) felt it was hard to separate work and home during the pandemic, women (63%) and lawyers of color (62%) were more likely to struggle in this regard.

Almost half of lawyers felt disengaged from their employer during the pandemic and overwhelmed by all they had to do. Again, this was especially true for women and lawyers of color.

The pandemic also had a significant impact on senior attorneys (62 and older): One-third (33%) said the pandemic changed their retirement plans. Of those lawyers, 53% said COVID-19 delayed their retirement and the other 47% said it hastened their retirement.

A loss of income may have been one driving factor in lawyers’ plans, with 36% of older lawyers saying they made less money during the pandemic and only 18% reporting making more money.

Some responses from senior lawyers included:

“The pandemic ‘made me realize life is short, perhaps I should pull the plug while I can.’”

“It forced a partial retirement, whether I could afford it or not.’”

“Because it became more apparent that I could work remotely, I think it has made me more likely to just slow down a bit rather than retire.”

Women make gains

As the profession faced an unprecedented health crisis, calls for increased diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) were louder than ever before. The report notes that many trends have emerged in the profession over the past decade – some encouraging and others concerning.

One such positive trend is the increased presence of women lawyers. In 2011, women made up 33% of all lawyers. Today it has risen to 37%.

Moreover, the number of women attending law school continues to rise (the number of men attending law school is declining). Currently, there are 25 law schools where women comprise 60% or more of the student body, but there are no law schools where men comprise 60% percent or more of the student population.

Diversity continues to be a pain-point

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, people of color continue to be underrepresented in the legal profession. And for Black and Native American attorneys, their representation is declining.

In 2021, just 4.7% of lawyers were Black, a decline from 4.8% in 2011, while 13.4% of the U.S. population is Black. Native Americans remain the smallest racial group among U.S. lawyers at just 0.4%, down from 1% in 2011, while 1.3% of the U.S. population is Native American.

Likewise, in 2021, 4.8% of all lawyers were Hispanic, up nearly one percentage point from 2011, despite the U.S. population being 18.5% Hispanic. Only 2.5% of all lawyers were Asian, up from 1.7% a decade earlier, although the U.S. population is 5.9% Asian.

Though underrepresentation of people of color in the legal profession is concerning, the National Association for Law Placement’s (NALP) 2020 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms noted that for the first time, more than 10% of all law firm partners were lawyers of color. In 2009, just 6% of law firm partners were people of color.

The number of openly LGBT lawyers continues to grow slowly, according to a NALP annual survey. In 2020, a little over 3% of lawyers at U.S. firms identified as LGBT, up more than one percent from 10 years earlier. And law students are more likely to be openly LGBT than law firm lawyers: 7.7% of law firm summer associates describe themselves as LGBT.

The number of lawyers who report having disabilities remains small, at slightly less than 1%. However, according to NALP, in 2020 just under 1% of all law firm associates reported having a disability, nearly double the percentage reported one year earlier (0.59%).

Diversity on the bench

The federal judiciary continues to be dominated by judges who are white and male, according to statistics from the Federal Judicial Center.

As of July 1, 2021, nearly four out of five sitting federal judges (79.7%) were white. That’s a slight decrease from 79.9% in 2016.

However, while the racial composition of the federal bench has changed slowly, the gender composition has shifted more substantially. In 1980, 5% of all federal judges were women. In 2021, that percentage was 27.8%.

On the state level, white men continue to be overrepresented on the states’ high courts. Sixty-two percent of all state supreme court justices are male, compared with 49% of the U.S. population. Moreover, just 17% percent of justices on state supreme courts are Black, Latino, Asian American, or Native American.

To read more from the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession, visit the ABA’s website.

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