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In the minority

As the oldest child of first-generation Korean immigrants, I honestly never paid that much attention to my status as a minority. I was born here in the United States, and English is still my dominant language (much to the chagrin of my parents).

I think the last time I even remember being teased for being Asian was on a school bus when I was nine years old. I had to really reach back and think about it, so it must not have been too traumatic.

Fast forward 20-plus (ahem, give or take) years later. I had a long discussion with another minority associate about minority attorney retention issues in law firms. It was probably the first in-depth conversation I had regarding race and issues associated with being a minority as a professional adult. Also, it was the first time I realized what my parents were actually talking about when they sat me down numerous times to give me the “you are a minority in America” speech.

The National Law Journal recently reported statistics in two back-to-back articles regarding ethnic and female diversity in law firms for 2011. (The numbers were derived from demographic information about nearly 124,000 attorneys in 1,349 law offices. It also included diversity figures in the 44 U.S. cities with the largest attorney populations.) I think the title of one article, “Ethnic diversity improved at law firms; for women, not so much,” says it all.

Unfortunately for me, I fall in both of those categories. According to the latest edition of the NALP Directory of Legal Employers, the percentage of minority lawyers at major U.S. law firms rose slightly, from 12.4 percent to 12.7 percent in 2011. The percentage of minority partners also rose slightly, from 6.2 percent to 6.7. Minority men comprised 4.5 percent of law firm partners and nearly 20 percent of associates in 2011, but minority women could only be found as 2 percent of partners and just under 11 percent of associates.

I think that the article’s title about improvement was geared toward reflecting a more positive outlook on the ethnic diversity percentages within law firms, but I’m not really inclined to celebrate. The New York Times reported in August that minorities are leading the growth in our biggest cities. As of now, minorities comprise 40 percent of the population in our country’s largest metropolitan areas (20 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black, 6 percent Asian).

A comparison between the number of minorities in the general population and minorities in law firms makes for a pretty disheartening picture.

The retention of minorities and women in law firms has been a continuous issue. What are your thoughts on the success of diversity programs within law firms or diversity-based, professional organizations? What else could be done?