Fight or Flight: Explaining Minority Associate Attrition

By: Abby Yeo

Diversity has been a prominent problem in the legal profession. Law is among the least diverse professions in the nation. According to a survey conducted in 2016, racial minorities represent about 20% of all attorneys at law firms. The industry has seen efforts to incorporate minorities into law schools and law firms, including minority mentorship programs, partner training, and objective evaluation methods; however, progress has been achingly slow. In the seven years between 2009 and 2016, the percentage of women in law firms has grown by less than one percent and the percentage of minority lawyers has only increased by about two percent. The lack of diversity is exacerbated among more senior attorneys. A survey of national law firms showed that while minorities compose 32% of the summer associate class at law firms, minorities compose 8% of partners.

Thus, the primary impediment to diversity in law firms is not the hiring, but the retention of minority attorneys. Minority attorneys are 1.3-1.5 times as likely to voluntarily leave their law firms compared to white, male attorneys. Minority partners are almost three times as likely to leave their positions compared to white men. Minorities’ greater dissatisfaction with private sector jobs  may be among the causal factors for the disproportionate attrition rates, although the precise reasons remain undetermined.

A recent report analyzing Harvard Law School’s alumni showed that black graduates went into private practice at a higher rate than white graduates and also left Biglaw at a higher rate than white graduates. An opinion piece written by a black Harvard Law graduate suggests that a sense of obligation and propriety drives the initial flock to big law firms. The writer states that the money he made as a first-year associate in Biglaw exceeded the combined income of his parents, themselves college graduates and working full time. The acknowledgement of parents’ sacrifices and the realization of the power, both financial and social, imbued by the position compel minorities to take Biglaw jobs. However, the writer posits, these same sentiments of responsibility and conviction are the same factors which inspire minority lawyers to cast aside Biglaw jobs in favor of government and non-profit positions. The physical absence of a cohort of lawyers of the same minority group cannot be easily ignored; minority lawyers must consider how they are wielding their social capital, as uniquely empowered representatives of their minority group.

Minority attorneys have fewer opportunities for advancement, which also contributes to higher attrition rates. For example, women of color do not have equal access to assignments and mentorship opportunities, and receive less compensation and fewer promotions than men and white women. These choices by firm management prevent minorities from ascending the ranks of the firm and take a psychological toll because they create an inhibiting environment.

While diversity remains an aspirational goal for lawyers, the need for legal services does not discriminate. Politicians, corporate employees, minimum-wage workers, and labor union members depend on counsel to pursue their legal interests—whether in the course of work or arising from personal life. Minority groups benefit from having attorneys of the same race. Ultimately, the mass migration of minorities from Biglaw to not-for-profit legal practice is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should not be the product of a lack of choice for the minority attorney.