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Local firms show slow increase in hiring of women, minorities

Numbers may be up, but high-level positions still an uphill journey

Women are inching ahead in the legal profession in San Diego. An annual equality survey by Lawyers Club of San Diego shows small but steady increases in the numbers of women and minorities in partner and leadership positions in law firms from last year.

Conducted by Lawyers Club’s Equality and Action Committee, the survey monitors trends and tracks the progress of female and non-white attorneys in the San Diego legal community. The Lawyers Club is a bar association with the mission “to advance the status of women in the law and society.”

Only firms with 15 or more attorneys were included in the 2012 survey. For the 42 San Diego law firms surveyed, women made up an average of 36 percent of total attorneys (up from 34 percent in 2011), 25 percent of partners (up from 21 percent in 2011) and 48 percent of associates (the same as in 2011).

Non-white attorneys made up an average of 13 percent of attorneys at the 26 firms that provided information about ethnic diversity, compared to 12 percent in 2011. At the 11 public agencies surveyed, women accounted for an average of 54 percent of total attorneys (down slightly from 55 percent in 2011), 48 percent of the attorneys in top-level positions (the same as in 2011), and headed 55 percent of the agencies (the same as in 2011). Non-white attorneys comprised 22 percent of attorneys at public agencies in 2012, up from 20 percent in 2011.

Maggie Schroedter, chair of the Equality and Action Committee and an attorney at San Diego law firm Higgs Fletcher & Mack, spearheaded the effort to maximize participation from local firms. Committee member Paula Rosenstein, recently sworn in as a San Diego Superior Court judge, headed up the public sector portion.

“The data we acquired helped us paint an accurate representation of the diverse makeup in the local legal community,” Schroedter said. “Diversity and gender equality are of growing importance — not only as a matter of ethics, but also because a diverse workforce is vital in developing a successful business and maintaining valuable client relationships.”

Local attorneys were optimistic about the results, yet some still see an uphill journey before greater progress is made.

For example, while numbers of women lawyers are increasing, it’s still tough for them to break into high-level corporate positions or make the partnership track.

“Statistics show a slight improvement in the numbers of women as partners and other leadership roles in firms, but there remains a lot of room for improvement,” said Wendy Behan, a partner with CaseyGerry and past president of Lawyers Club San Diego.

While women enter the profession at about the same rate as men, on the average “only 25 percent of women are advancing to the partnership,” she said. Ideally, “The Equality Survey will serve as a springboard to conversation within our legal community — and firms will closely examine why women are either leaving their firms or not advancing to partnership.”

Many firms work to encourage diversity. Arlene Prater is a managing partner at Best Best & Krieger, which ranks as the third most diverse firm on the survey list of private firms.

“We believe a diverse workforce improves the culture of a law firm and heightens the experience of practicing law,” she says. “Different backgrounds and outlooks expand understanding and broaden critical thinking, which enhances the work we do for our clients.”

Claudette Wilson, a partner with the survey’s top-ranking Wilson Turner Kosmo LLP, said that although minorities and women are still underrepresented, the numbers have significantly improved over the years.

“Not that long ago, women and minorities were represented in associate ranks, but not in partner ranks,” she said. “Overall, I am thrilled with the direction the San Diego bar has taken, and give a lot of credit to the efforts of those involved in Lawyers Club — Earl B. Gilliam and other minority bar associations, as well as the passion of many in-house counsel who insist that their attorneys reflect the diversity of their own clients and the community.

“While the gains made since last year are slight, things are moving in the right direction,” Prater said. “The survey shows that many local firms are making a commitment to hire and expand the roles of women and minorities and that benefits everyone in the practice of law.”


-Moore is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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