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  • March 01, 2024

    Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Women in Law Firms and the Shifting Landscape of Legal Associates Across the Nation

    The National Association for Law Placement recently issued its latest diversity report on race, ethnicity, and gender in the legal profession. Srishti Ponnala discusses the report, which highlights the legal profession’s slow evolution toward a more diverse and inclusive future.

    Srishti Ponnala

    confident looking business woman

    In her recent Business Law Blog article, “The DEI Landscape in Law Firms,” Mary Purdy focused on how law firms specifically in the Milwaukee market could establish their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

    In this article I expand this discussion, by focusing on women in law and the obstacles and opportunities in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that law firms face on a national scale.

    Women as the Majority: A Crack in the Glass Ceiling?

    For the first time in more than three decades of data tracking by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the legal profession reached a significant milestone: women surpassed the 50% mark among law firm associates. The statistic is reported in NALP’s 2023 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, issued in January 2024.

    Srishti Ponnala Srishti Ponnala, U.W. Law School Class of 2025, is the 2023-24 student liaison for the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Business Law Section. She hopes to concentrate her practice in corporate law.

    It is a historic development that not only highlights the strides made in promoting gender diversity within the legal profession but also signifies a broader shift in the landscape of legal associates.

    Women associates have steadily made progress in joining associate ranks over the last five years, according to the report. The number of women enrolled in U.S. law schools overtook men eight years ago, and that gap has widened over time. Nearly 56% of J.D. students currently enrolled at American Bar Association-accredited law schools are women.1

    The NALP began tracking law firm diversity data in 1991. At that time, women accounted for a little over 38% of law firm associates. “Real change is slow, hard and imperceptible, but it does happen” Nikia L. Gray, NALP executive director, said in her commentary in NALP’s 2023 report.

    Law firms have been struggling to maintain their DEI momentum that began after the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. As firms made moves to meet client and public diversity demands, they were put on notice by DEI critics after the U.S. Supreme Court axed affirmative action in June 2023, prompting worries that less-diverse law schools could result. Further, some firms received letters from congressional leaders and state attorneys general threatening potential legal action over their DEI initiatives. Others, including BigLaw firm Perkins Coie, faced lawsuits attacking their associate-recruiting diversity programs.2

    The NALP report is based on surveys of 812 U.S. law offices for nearly 108,000 partners, associates, and other lawyers. This shows that, while firms are seeing their most diverse workforces in three decades, their progress on diversity, equity and inclusion remains “excruciatingly slow.”3

    Associates of Color on the Rise

    While the focus on gender diversity is crucial, the NALP report also underscores advancements in racial and ethnic diversity among law firm associates.

    To appreciate the significance of the recent surge in associates of color, it is essential to contextualize the data within a broader timeframe.

    In 2010, the percentage of associates of color stood at 19.53%. In 2023, the percentage of associates of color increased by 1.8% from 2022, reaching 30.15%. This substantial year-over-year growth represents the largest recorded increase for this demographic by the NALP, signaling a positive and impactful trend in the profession. Further, Black and Latina women each accounted for at least 1% of all law firm partners, although women of color still account for less than 5% of all partners.

    Moreover, the NALP found the percentage of minority students in summer associate internships fell in 2023 to 42.27%, dropping for the first time since 2017. This could signal a potential slowdown in the diversity shift among associates, as summer programs are pipelines to full-time law firm jobs.4

    Conclusion: What’s Next?

    As law firms celebrate this crack in the glass ceiling, it is crucial to develop strategies for sustaining and amplifying progress.5 Focusing on mentorship programs, increasing diversity and inclusion initiatives in both the recruitment and retention process, and continuing transparent reporting mechanisms are some of the tools that can contribute to fostering an environment where all legal professionals can thrive – regardless of gender or ethnicity.

    In doing so, we ensure a more equitable and representative legal landscape for generations to come.


    1 Vaidehi Mehta, “Have Law Firms Achieved Gender Parity? Partially.,” Find Law, Jan. 16, 2024.

    2 Tatyanna Monnay, “Women Exceed 50% of Law Firm Associates for the First Time,” Bloomberg Law, Jan. 9, 2024.

    3 Brenda Sapino Jeffreys, “Why Progress on Law Firms is Minimal at Best,”, Feb. 1, 2024.

    4 Karen Sloan, “Most US law firm associates were women in 2023, survey shows,” Reuters, Jan. 9, 2024.

    5 SeeThe Double-glazed Glass Ceiling: Why Women of Color Consider Leaving the Legal Profession and What Can Be Done To Keep Them,” Diversity Matters Newsletter, Bakker Donelson, First Quarter 2021.

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    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2024 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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