Based on The American Lawyer’s 2011 Midlevel Associates Survey, African American associates are averaging higher salaries today than they were 3 years ago, yet they remain at the bottom of the rung in terms of overall pay and hours billed. The recent increases have resulted in a narrowing pay gap among ethnic groups, but the reality is that gaps still exist and play a role in today’s legal landscape.

Of the more than 5,000 respondents from nearly 150 participating firms, nearly 90% chose to disclose their ethnicity. The results were as follows: 72.8% white, 10.4% Asian, 3.7% Hispanic, 2.6% black, and the remaining 10.5% chose not to disclose. Black associates billed an average of 1,934 hours and reported an annual salary of $180,727, up almost $3,200 from 2008. Hispanic associates billed slightly more than 2,000 hours and saw an average salary increase of $7,085 to $185,063. Asian associates also billed slightly more than 2,000 hours yet saw a $3,619 decline in average salary to $191,074, despite being most valuable to their firms at an average billing rate of $450 per hour. This drop may well account for why Asian associates reported lowest satisfaction with current compensation and benefits. White associates, like Hispanic and Asian associates, also billed slightly more than 2,000 hours and brought in an average salary of $184,368.

While salary differences may in part be a reflection of differences in hours billed, the drops in Asian salaries and satisfaction, as well as the continued lagging of African American salaries and hours billed remain areas of concern.

In a Dec. 5 article for Coporate Counsel, Brian Zabcik notes that many firms have mentoring programs in place to combat these odds and support associates, but this is evidently not enough. Black associates are most likely to have a mentor yet by the numbers still remain disadvantaged, as 86.5% of black associates, 83.1% of Hispanic associates and 73.8% of Asian associates, respectively, indicated they had mentors.

Says Zabcik, “All minorities thought they had a lower chance of making partner than whites. Only 60% of blacks, 63.7% of Asians, and 68.4% of Hispanics thought that they were headed toward promotion. A significantly higher percentage of white associates–76.3%–thought they were on the partnership track.”

Whether subtly or overtly, even psychologically, race and ethnicity still play a role in today’s legal landscape. Current legal demographics, salary statistics and associate attitudes toward promotion all reflect this, something which today’s firms need to be keenly aware of in an industry and generation seeking further diversity and equality.