Could it be true? Is there actually some good news to report on the employment front?

With the economic downturn gripping the nation, it’s not surprising to learn that recruitment and retention of minority lawyers stalled, or even took a step backward, in 2009. However, there may be some hope yet glimmering on the horizon, both for economic recovery in the legal profession and for minority lawyers in particular, who were hit disproportionately hard by the failing economy. Vault.com, a source for employer rankings, ratings and insight into multiple industries, including the legal industry, has partnered with the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), a leading advocate for the hiring, retention and promotion of minority attorneys, to compile and post the results of this year’s Law Firm Diversity Survey. The findings can be perused in the Law Firm Diversity Database, which provides data on over 300 law firms, showing how well firms have been able to develop and sustain a diverse workforce.

The good news is that, while overall hiring remained below 2007 levels, there at least appears to have been some improvement in the numbers as compared with 2010, and firms also seem to have been able to retain more of their attorneys. As for minorities, their hiring and attrition levels returned to pre-recession levels, with the numbers of minority equity partners growing. In fact, the percentage of minority equity partners has grown to its highest rate (6.29 percent) since 2003 when the Law Firm Diversity Survey was first launched. With the never ending barrage of bad news on the economic front, it’s refreshing to learn of some positive momentum, which we hope continues.

Of course, the picture is still not completely rosy. The path to partner status remains an uphill battle for women and minorities, in particular. Rather than promoting from within, more law firms found new partners outside of their own associate ranks through lateral hires. Not only did more firms gain partners via lateral moves but, of those associates who did make partner, the majority were while males. That fact remains despite the ever increasing numbers of women and minorities in the law firm population. In fact, women and racial minorities together have made up more than half of law firm associates over the last eight years. Yet, partnership ranks remain dominated by white males, who make up more than 75 percent of partners and more than 78 percent of equity partners.

We are hopeful that the findings on partnership do not represent a lack of appreciation of the importance of diversity among the law firm ranks. Attorneys attending many of the national conferences, whether they be those sponsored by the ABA, DRI, or other organizations, have no doubt heard diversity presentations.  These seminars  highlight how corporate clients value diversity not only within their own ranks, but in the ranks of any vendors with whom they choose to do business, including their law firms. One message we have heard loud and clear: it is  important to demonstrate diversity by showing who you have on the payroll but also by ensuring that minorities are an integral and active part of the practice. We have certainly found that diversity offers an opportunity to benefit from countless advantages, from new attitudes to increased creativity (just to name but a couple).

We are glad to see that Vault.com and MCCA have continued to closely monitor these developments and will look forward to checking back in after 2011 draws to a conclusion with some optimism that we have continued to move in the right direction.

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