Minorities in Law: Challenges and Resources

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What is diversity? Within the legal profession, the two main types of diversity that come to mind are law firms employing attorneys with diverse backgrounds, and law firms that are owned by minorities. The legal profession has emphasized diversity and inclusion over the past decade, but despite this, the American Bar Association (ABA) reports that the legal field today is one of most homogenous of any profession. As of 2021, women make up just 37 percent of lawyers in the United States. Lawyers of color represent only 14.6 percent of the total population of the nation’s lawyers. The breakdown is as follows:

  • White (Non-Hispanic)            85%
  • Hispanic                                4.8%
  • Black                                     4.7%
  • Asian                                     2.5%
  • Multiracial                              2.0%
  • Native American                   0.4%

For the first time in history, however, over 10 percent of all law firm partners are lawyers of color, per the ABA (2020 figures). Twenty-six percent of law firm associates are lawyers of color. Diversity is stronger in law firms in the cities of Miami, San Diego, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orange County, Houston, and Austin.

Diversity does not just mean ethnicity or race, however. In addition to that diversity of culture and background, gender, sexual orientation or identification, disabilities, age, religion, and military service also count.

3 Lawyers that are minoritiesLGBT lawyers make up 3.3 percent of the total lawyer population as of 2020. They comprise 4.7 percent of law firm associates. Interestingly, law students are more likely to be openly LGBT than law firm lawyers, with 7.7 percent of law firm summer associates (law students) describing themselves as LGBT.

Lawyers with disabilities are another minority among attorneys. Less than one percent of all lawyers report themselves as lawyers with disabilities as of 2020. The percentage of law firm partners with acknowledged disabilities is even smaller, at 0.69 percent.

Minorities face unique challenges when it comes to practicing law. One of these challenges is in leadership and promotion. Male lawyers of color made up just 7 percent of law firm leadership positions in 2020, and female lawyers of color, just 3 percent. Promotions from associate to equity partner are quite small among minorities, with 87.3 percent of such promotions coming from white lawyers.

Of course, minorities were not always even allowed to practice law. The first black lawyers weren’t admitted to the ABA until 1950. It wasn’t until 1986 that the ABA created the Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession to advocate for the integration of minority lawyers into the bar. The challenges that minorities face in the legal profession today reflect the fact that their introduction into the profession is fairly recent in terms of history. This does not, however, lessen the impact of those challenges on minorities in the legal profession.

Current Challenges Facing Minorities in the Legal Field

Minorities face a variety of challenges when entering the legal profession – both while in law school and after graduation. Minorities are not being promoted into leadership and equity positions at law firms at comparable rates to white males. As a result, minorities’ rates of attrition at law firms is much greater than that of non-minority lawyers. Minorities also have difficulty finding mentors to work with early in their careers. Minorities face preconceived racial biases at most, if not all, workplaces.

Diversity does not mean having just a few racial, ethnic or other minorities within a law firm. It means having people from diverse backgrounds, experiences and cultures within all levels of a law firm. As only half of all state bars and licensing agencies for attorneys track race and ethnicity in the profession, it can be difficult to determine numbers of lawyers by race and ethnicity in each state.

Pay Gaps

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the U.S. Department of Labor reports that as of May 2022, the mean annual salary for lawyers is $163,770. Because wage discrimination based on an employee’s membership in a protected category like race, disability or sex is prohibited by anti-discrimination laws, it can be difficult to find statistics on how much minority lawyers make. The BLS notes that in May 2022, the weekly earnings of minorities was generally less than that of white workers. White workers earned an average of $1,046 weekly, while black workers earned less, at $791 per week, and Hispanics/Latinos earned even less, at $762 weekly. Asian workers in the legal profession, however, earned higher weekly salaries than whites, at $1,168 per week. This illustrates the interesting and stereotypical principle that Asian workers tend to earn higher salaries than other ethnicities.

Minority women lawyers face particular disadvantages when it comes to wage gaps. They are earning less than men, as women lawyers earn an average of 47 percent less than male lawyers. They have the added disadvantage of being part of a minority group, which, unless they are Asian, means that they earn less than other minorities as well. (Asian women lawyers, curiously, earn higher salaries than white men).

Minorities in Executive Positions

According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), African American lawyers go into private practice at a lower rate than any other ethnic group. Minorities who do take jobs in private practice are more likely to join law firms with more than 100 attorneys than non-minority law school graduates. Asians are more highly represented in private practice than white lawyers and other minority lawyers.

The NALP reports that as of 2020, 10.2 percent of all law firm partners are lawyers of color. The city with the largest percentage of law partners of color is Miami, at 32 percent. The city with the fewest amount of law partners of color is Pittsburgh, at just three percent.

When it comes to promotion and leadership among minority lawyers, the numbers are homogenous – largely white and male. Seven percent of law firm leadership positions in 2020 are held by male lawyers of color, and just 3 percent by female minority lawyers. Promoting from law firm associate to equity partner is even smaller among minorities. Asians receive the greatest number of promotions to equity partner, at 5 percent, followed by Hispanics at 2.5 percent, blacks at 2.4 percent, multiracial at 1.9 percent, and Native Americans at 0.3 percent. Promotions from associate to non-equity partner are similar in distribution, with Asians leading minorities at 6.4 percent, followed by Hispanics at 4.3 percent, blacks at 2.5 percent, Multiracial at 1.5 percent, and Native Americans at 0.5 percent. None of these compare to the rates of white associates being promoted to non-equity partner and equity partner, however (84.8 percent and 87.8 percent respectively).

As of July 2021, diversity among federal judges is poor. The vast majority, 79.7 percent of them, are white. Blacks make up 9.8 percent of federal judges; Hispanics 6.3 percent, Asians 2.8 percent, and Mixed race/other 1.4 percent. The racial composition of the federal bench is changing slowly.

Likewise, among state Supreme Courts, justices are predominantly white and male. Eleven states have never had a person of color on their state Supreme Court. Twenty-eight states have no black justices. Forty states have no Hispanic justices. Forty-four states have no Asian American justices. Forty-seven states have no Native American justices.

Minority Ratios in the Classroom

White males and females taking the bar exam for the first time in 2020 had the highest passing rate of all law students, at 88 percent. Other ethnicities passed as follows:

  • Multiracial:                 82%
  • Asians:                       80%
  • Native Americans:      78%
  • Hawaiians:                 78%
  • Hispanics:                  76%
  • Blacks:                       66%

The ABA reports that in 2020, nearly one-third of law school students were students of color. This percentage had increased from 25 percent in 2011. After graduation, minorities were less likely to be employed full-time as lawyers than non-minorities.

Most law school students in 2020 were women. Thirty-two percent of law students were students of color. In 2020, 61 percent of first-year law school students were white, 13 percent Hispanic, 8 percent black, 7 percent Asian, 4 percent Multiracial, and 6 percent race unknown or other.

Minority faculty levels at law schools have remained quite low. As of 2020, law schools with the highest percentages of minority faculty are:

  • Howard University:                 82.3%
  • Texas Southern University:    79.1%
  • Southern University:              75.2%
  • Florida A&M University:         70.9%
  • North Carolina Central Univ:  52.6%

According to U.S. News and World Report, the average percentage of minority students at law schools in 2020 was 28.5 percent. Some schools have higher than average percentages of minority law school students, including:

  • Howard University:                            98.8%
  • Texas Southern University:                85.0%
  • St. Thomas University (FL):                83.3%
  • Univ. of the District of Columbia:       74.5%
  • Florida A&M University:                     71.1%
  • University of Hawaii:                          70.7%
  • University of Detroit Mercy:               69.7%
  • Southern University:                          68.3%
  • Golden Gate University:                    65.5%
  • Florida International University:        65.4%

Outside of Puerto Rico, the following schools awarded the greatest proportion of their law school degrees to students of color in 2020:

  • Howard University:                 99%
  • Texas Southern University:     93%
  • St. Thomas University (FL):     81%

Of course, discrimination against minority law students tends to greatly increase their stress and anxiety. We already know that law school students experience more stress than other graduate students. In a 2018 study by Harvard Medical School, college students who classified as minorities based upon sexuality, ethnicity or gender have shown elevated rates of mental health disorders, as well as self-injury and suicidal ideation. Minority law students who are facing such serious issues are encouraged to seek professional help, from their school’s students services office or from mental health professionals outside of the school.

Resume Profiling

Minority law school students and graduates who are sending out resumes might discover an inconvenient, unfortunate truth: the whiter the resume, the greater your chances of landing an interview. As reported by Harvard Business School, companies are two times more likely to contact minority applicants for interviews if the submit a “whitened” resume than minority candidates who reveal their race on their resume. This practice is known as “resume profiling,” and, unfortunately, proves that discrimination does, indeed, exist in the workplace.

How Those Challenges are Being Addressed

Challenges that minorities face in both law education and law practice have been recognized. The next step after recognition and acknowledgement is doing something about them. These challenges are now being addressed by a variety of individuals and organizations.

Organizations or Individuals Spearheading Change

Civil rights attorneys work to combat discrimination in all forms, including, but not limited to physical or mental disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, race, age, and status as a member of the uniformed services.  They also work to protect individual rights such as privacy, as well as the freedoms of conscience, thought, expression, speech, the press, religion, and movement. These lawyers are at the forefront of spearheading change in discrimination in law, both for lawyers and for plaintiffs.

How the Bar Association Handles Racial Bias

The ABA has addressed discrimination in law practice head-on, amending their Model Rules of Professional Conduct to specifically prohibit both harassment and discrimination. They have hosted meetings, committees, focus groups, and written documents on diversity and inclusion and how to achieve this in the legal profession. The first obstacle, however, is understanding exactly what diversity means. As Laffey and Ng write in their ABA article,

Diversity does not mean having a few ethnic or other minorities in the office. It also does not mean a group comprised only of minorities. It means having people of diverse culture, experience, and background in all levels of a law firm. While this might not be the full answer, true diversity and inclusion in the legal profession require more than just checking off the requisite boxes on a checklist or survey. They require more than talk. They require action from the leadership down.

Laffey and Ng go on to write that educational programs for pre-lawyers, law school students, and continuing legal education (CLE) for lawyers must also provide everyone with a greater awareness of issues such as implicit and explicit bias in the workplace, as well as strategies to eliminate them. They note that states like Minnesota require lawyers to complete CLE programs addressing such issues, and suggest that all states should be incorporating anti-discrimination CLE into their program requirements for lawyer licensing and maintenance of licenses.

How Minorities Can Self-Advocate

Minorities can help themselves through self-advocacy in the legal profession. This could involve joining a union, or even hiring an employment lawyer to fight discrimination they experience in the workplace, rather than remaining silent. More things that minorities can do to self-advocate is to become involved with their local minority bar associations. Ways to do so include helping to host or sponsor an event or to mentor a minority law student.

Minorities in the legal profession should also become involved in the non-legal community around themselves. It is impossible to adequately address discriminatory and bias issues without understanding where, and how, they originated. This will help them to have the necessary tools to effectively address these biases. The legal profession is filled with intelligent minds and well-meaning individuals who, if they work together to address issues such as discrimination and bias, can eventually accomplish the goals of minimizing and eliminating them altogether.

Resources for Minorities in Law

There exists a variety of resources for minorities in both legal education and law practice, to help in supportive ways.

Financial Resources

ABA Legal Opportunity Scholarship Fund
Code 2040
U.S. Black Chambers
Harness IP Diversity & Inclusion Fellowship

Support Resources

Color of Change
American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
National Disability Rights Network

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Lawyers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.