Unpacking the Pipeline

Evan Parker, Ph.D.

In discussions about diversity and inclusion, legal industry observers often criticize law firms for their failure to keep pace with the increase in law school diversity. The criticism shows up in front-page headlines – for example, “Diversity stalls at top U.S. law firms.”

The key goal of the LawyerMetrix Diversity Imperative is to understand why diversity progress in law firms has stalled. In this volume, we take up the question of “Why” by unpacking AmLaw 200 firms’ hiring pipeline and investigating the racial/ethnic diversity trends for groups of law schools.

The Law School vs. Law Firm Diversity Gap

A quick review of the data reveals that, overall, the gap between law schools and law firms is indeed increasing.1 From 2011 to 2016, the average percentage of J.D.s awarded to students of color increased from 24% to 29%. Over the same period, the percentage of non-partner attorneys of color increased from 16% to 18%. Thus, the “diversity gap” between schools and firms increased – from 8% in 2011 (24% minus 16%) to 11% in 2016 (29% minus 18%).

Before criticizing firms for their more sluggish growth, however, it is important to account for one of the AmLaw 200’s longstanding hiring practices: to recruit largely from nationally-recognized law schools with established reputations, or in other words, to select on school “pedigree.” For this reason, a diversity trend summarized over all law schools misrepresents the true AmLaw pipeline.

Unpacking the Pipeline

Making the proper school-to-firm comparison requires disaggregating the overall law school diversity trend. To that end, we binned schools into four groups using the U.S. News rankings: (1) rank 1 to 14 (“T-14”); (2) 15 to 50 (“Tier I”); (3) 51 to 100 (“Tier II”); and (4) 101 or higher/unranked (“Tier III”).2

Figure 1 illustrates the annual percentage shares for diverse J.D.s for each school group. Similar to the AmLaw 200, the pace of change over the six-year period for T-14 was limited – from 27% in 2011 to 29% in 2016. For Tier I, the share of diverse J.D.s declined in recent years, falling to its lowest point in six years in 2016. In contrast, the pace of change for Tier II and especially Tier III schools was pronounced. Most markedly, Tier III schools’ diversity increased from 25% in 2011 to 33% in 2016.

Diversity Imperative Figure 1

Figure 1: Percentage of Law School Graduates of Color, 2011 to 2016 by Law School Tier

Viewed as a whole, diversity is increasing within the J.D. ranks. But this growth is largely driven by Tier II and especially Tier III. It is important to recognize that these schools are not part of the traditional AmLaw 200 pipeline. In disaggregating by tier, we can see that the conventional wisdom about the school-firm diversity gap is misleading.

To bring the point home, we calculated the growth rates for each law school group vs. the AmLaw 200. The top two panels in Figure 2 compare growth rates for T-14 (blue line) and Tier I (purple line) against the growth rate for the AmLaw 200 (gray line). Surprisingly, the increase in diversity at AmLaw 200 firms is outpacing the schools that make up the majority of its entry-level pipeline. The bottom left panel shows that diversity in Tier II (dark gray line) and the AmLaw 200 grew at roughly the same rate. Finally, Tier III (green line) significantly outpaced the AmLaw 200, recording a 35% increase in the percentage of diverse graduates relative to its 2011 starting point.

Diversity Imperative Figure 2

Figure 2: Diversity Growth Rates: Law School Graduates vs. AmLaw 200 Law Firms

Implications and Next Steps

The results in this volume raise new questions about the pipeline for entry-level hiring in the AmLaw 200. In contrast to conventional wisdom, we observe patterns that put firms’ diversity efforts in a different, indeed more favorable light. Despite the flat (T-14) or declining (Tier I) supply of diverse law school graduates in the traditional AmLaw hiring pipeline, the AmLaw 200 is increasing its diversity in the non-partner ranks. In fact, from a growth perspective, AmLaw 200 firms are adding diverse non-partners at a faster rate than the T-14 and Tier I are graduating diverse J.D.s.

Our next Diversity Imperative post will explore the potential link between geography-based demographic factors and law firm diversity. Watch for this and subsequent LawyerMetrix Diversity Imperative posts and contact us to learn how your firm’s diversity metrics stack up against your competitors.


1 For the law schools, we used data compiled by the American Bar Association and made easily accessible by the AccessLex Institute’s Center for Legal Education Excellence. For the law firms, we used the Diversity Scorecard data compiled by the National Law Journal.

2 Use of the U.S. News rankings is not an endorsement. These rankings are intended to approximate how hiring committees and partners at large firms interpret school reputation/pedigree.