Chicago law firms have a lower percentage of minority partners and junior lawyers than peer cities, according to new data from a national legal organization.
About 7.3 percent of the law firm partners in Chicago belong to a racial or ethnic minority, compared to 8.4 percent nationally. That’s less than in New York (9.0 percent), Washington, D.C. (9.6 percent), Houston (11.3 percent) or Los Angeles (14.6 percent).
About 21.3 percent of the city’s junior lawyers are black, Latino, Asian or multiracial. They make up 22.8 percent of lawyers in Washington, 23.9 percent in Houston, 27.3 percent in New York and 32.4 percent in Los Angeles.
The National Association for Law Placement in Washington released the numbers today. Nationally, the percentage of female and minority lawyers inched up from 2016. Yet there are still fewer female and black junior attorneys than prior to the Great Recession, a finding that NALP Executive Director James Leipold said in a statement was “both discouraging and significant.”
The report also found that 22.3 percent of Chicago’s partners are women, compared to 22.7 percent nationwide.
Jeanne Gills, president of the Chicago Black Partners Alliance and a partner at Foley & Lardner, said minority lawyers’ underrepresentation in the Chicago bar stems from the same forces as found elsewhere in the country: unconscious bias and limited access to big clients and complex cases, which hampers career advancement.
Chicago’s segregation may play a role, too, she said. Law is a relationship business, and while white and minority attorneys work together, those ties might be looser than the social bond developed between colleagues whose children also attend the same school.
General counsels who hire law firms should seek out minority and female attorneys, Gills said. They don’t need to rely on the law firm’s designated “relationship partner” to determine who works on their cases. They can look on the firm’s website—all of which feature lawyers’ photos and biographies—and ask for introductions. They need to give people their first opportunity to handle a deal or litigate a case.
“There just is no excuse for not being able to find us in law firms of all sizes and all practice areas, and not allowing a report like this to be self-fulfilling,” she said. “We are here, and the more you make a concerted effort to find us, to employ us on matters, that’s what’s going to move the needle.”