BigLaw Still Sucks for Black People, Who Never Make Partner

By William Peacock, Esq. on May 30, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's not really news, but it is worth noting: BigLaw partnership is still lacking in diversity, to put it mildly. How bad is the problem? According to a recent study, only 1.9 percent of partners are black in BigLaw, a percentage that hasn't changed in five years. For black women, it's an astonishingly low 0.6 percent.

Like we said, with the statistics static over the last few years, pale partnership is not exactly news, but the lack of progress does beg the question: what's the holdup?

First, a Few More Numbers

One of the reasons why there is a shortage of black partners is that there's a shortage of black lawyers: only 4.2 percent of American attorneys are black, compared to 7.1 percent of physicians and surgeons, 8.5 percent of financial managers, and 9.8 percent of accountants and auditors.

The American Lawyer, the purveyors of the partnership survey, summed up the issue quite nicely by calling our hallowed bar "the palest profession."

Social Awkwardness

Elie Mystal, at Above the Law Redline, describes the social obstacles that block advancement:

Of course, that puts minorities in a "perception" catch-22. Be the guy always at your desk: then you are the guy who isn't doing enough "facetime" to build relationships with your peers. Be the guy always willing to go out for a drink or meet up at the golf course: then you are the guy who might not have the "focus" and the drive to achieve excellence. And that is assuming that the black person is going to even be invited out for the drink or to the country club.

And women, unfortunately, have it worse:

As usual, all that is worse for black women. If they don't do the facetime, they are "surly" and "unapproachable." If they do, and happen to not be at their desk the moment somebody happens to walk by, their absence is visible and noted. If their bosses treat them as secretaries, and they don't complain, they are pushovers. If they do complain, they have an "attitude" problem. A pet pig being fattened for slaughter receives fewer mixed messages than an African-American female at a large law firm, though their fates are going to be sadly similar.

Implicit Bias

A recent study demonstrated inherent bias on the part of law firm partners when evaluating associates' work: the same memo was scored at 4.1 out of 5 for a white Thomas Meyer, but only 3.2 for a black Thomas Meyer.

It wasn't just numerical scores either. The law firm partner participants added qualitative comments that were positive for the white fictional associate (words like "potential") while the black associate inspired the assessment: "can't believe he went to NYU."

Meanwhile, a blind study showed that minority and female associates actually received more positive evaluations than majority men -- basically, they did better work when race and gender was masked.

Join the discussion on Facebook at FindLaw for Legal Professionals.

Editor's Note, June 30, 2015: This post was first published in May 2014. It has since been updated.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard