White men still dominate the legal profession in Minnesota and, while women and some minority groups have made inroads, the decades-long push to diversify the ranks of lawyers has not yielded the parity many hoped for.
Those are a few of the inferences from the Judicial Branch’s recently released annual “Report to the Community,” which, for the first time, provided a demographic snapshot of the ethnicity of the approximately 26,000 lawyers in active practice in Minnesota.
Of the 25,229 lawyers in active practice, according to the survey, 20,015 of them — or about 79 percent — self-identify as White/Caucasian.
The data comes from the Lawyer Registration Office, which, at the behest of the Supreme Court, began collecting information on race and ethnicity as part of the 2016 lawyer registration process.
“These numbers tell us that attorneys in the state of Minnesota are still not representative of its population, and notably the changing face of that population,” said Ben Kwan, the president of the Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association and an employment lawyer at the Minneapolis firm of Halunen Law.
“The numbers give a lot of weight and merit to things that folks in the diversity bar have been saying for years: This community has a difficult time recruiting and retaining attorneys of color,” he added.
The statistical under-representation of minorities in the profession is sobering in light of the many efforts to increase diversity in the bar in recent years — efforts that, in Kwan’s view, “may have lulled some into the idea that things were better than they are.”
But he said the data also confirm what is evident from a cursory examination of lawyer bios on law firm websites or attendance at a legal gala: While Minnesota is fast becoming a more diverse place, the legal profession isn’t keeping pace.
After whites, Asians and Pacific Islanders constitute the state’s second-largest ethnic cohort of lawyers. With 589 active lawyers in the state, they account for 2.3 percent of practitioners — a statistical under-representation when compared to their overall share of the state’s population, which was pegged at 4 percent in the 2010 census.
The disparities are worse for other minority groups. While blacks constitute about 5.2 percent of the state’s population, for instance, just 1.8 percent of active lawyers — 467 of them — self-identify as Black/African American.
The next largest ethnic cohort self-identify as Hispanic/Latino, which accounts for about 1 percent of all practitioners even though Hispanics make up around 5 percent of the state’s general population. Native Americans/Alaskan lawyers constitute about 0.4 percent of practitioners, according to the survey. Slightly less than 1 percent of respondents — 243 — self-identified as multi-racial.
Still, there is at least one bright spot in the figures. Diversity rates are greatest among the 8,622 active lawyers who launched their careers within the last decade.
Among all practicing Asian-American attorneys in the state, for instance, 53.9 percent were admitted in the last decade. The comparable share for Hispanics is 52 percent, 41 percent for blacks and 33 percent for Native Americans.
On the other end of the spectrum, minorities constitute just a sliver of the 1,650 active lawyers in Minnesota who have been in practice for at least 41 years. That group includes just one self-identified Asian, one self-identified Native American, two self-identified Hispanics and 12 self-identified African Americans.
The survey did not ask questions about sexual orientation or disability status, which organizations such as the Minnesota State Bar Association, the Minnesota Women Lawyers and the Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association had lobbied for as means of obtaining a more complete demographic portrait of practitioners.
Additionally, lawyers were not required to answer any of the demographic questions, which may have skewed some results. About 14 percent exercised that choice in response to the queries about race and ethnicity and nearly seven percent declined to declare their gender.
Still, Robin Wolpert, the president of the MSBA, called the survey “a big deal” and “a huge step forward for the state bar and for the courts.” She also praised the Minnesota Supreme Court for ordering the survey.
“Now we have the basic benchmark information and can make informed choices about how to enhance the inclusiveness and diversity of the profession,” said Wolpert.
Wolpert said she expects to meet with members of the state’s affinity bar associations next week to discuss the implications of the data.
On first impression, Wolpert said she was struck by the figures that illustrate the relative youth of the state’s practitioners. According to the survey, a majority of active lawyers in Minnesota today — 14,617, to be precise — were admitted to practice within the last 20 years.
Among all active lawyers in the state, men remain the dominant gender. According to the survey, 56 percent of practitioners identify as male and 37 percent identify as female. (As referenced earlier, about 7 percent declined to answer the gender question.)
Among active lawyers who were admitted to practice within the last 10 years, 42 percent identify as women and 47 percent identify as men. That represents a 3-point drop from the cohort of self-identified woman lawyers who were admitted to the bar between 11 and 20 years ago.
However, Wolpert cautioned against reading too much into the relatively small disparity. She pointed to one possible explanation for the discrepancy: Younger lawyers declined to respond to the gender question at a far greater rate than their older counterparts.
Overall, Wolpert said she was impressed by the response rate to the survey, calling it is “a fabulous result” for a first-year effort.
Likewise, Connie Armstrong, the president of Minnesota Women Lawyers, applauded the Supreme Court for its willingness to expand the collection of demographic information to include race and ethnicity. That came on the heels of the MWL’s successful effort several years ago to add a gender question to the annual lawyer registration form.
Armstrong said the results on gender don’t differ much from prior years. But, she said, the under-representation of minorities amplifies the long-standing concerns about the state’s struggle to recruit — and just as importantly, retain — minority lawyers.
The demographic survey, which constitutes just a sliver of the annual report from the Judicial Branch, was presented in table form, without explanation or additional analysis. The report devoted much more attention to several other trends in the profession, including the fast-accelerating rate of turnover in Minnesota’s judiciary.
In 2016, two new justices — Margaret Chutich and Anne McKeig — joined the Supreme Court, where they filled seats previously occupied by Wilhelmina Wright (who was appointed to the federal bench) and Christopher Dietzen (who retired). Over the court’s 158 year history, the report noted, the court has seen the addition of more than one justice in a calendar year only 22 times.
The turnover at the high court comports with a larger trend in the state’s judiciary, which has seen a surge of new judges at both the appellate and district court levels. According to the report, more than 150 new judges or justices have taken office in Minnesota over the past seven years. That averages out to roughly 22 per year, which represents a 45 percent increase from the prior seven-year span.
That trend is not expected to end anytime soon, the report says. An estimated 37 percent of all judges who were serving as of 2015 are predicted to be off the bench by 2020.
The report also highlights the continued expansion in the number of drug courts in Minnesota, which are now officially known as “treatment courts” to reflect other specialty courts, such as veterans courts, mental health courts and other problem-solving courts.
Tapping grants from the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, five counties — Anoka, Olmstead, Roseau, Scott and Wright — launched new drug courts. Those federal funds were also used to expand seven existing programs.