This article in the NY Times is fairly interesting. It deals with an article written by Prof. Richard Sander from UCLA law school. Basically he found, and his research is apparently solid, that elite firms hire minority students with lower grades. He says this sets up minorities to fail in big law firms.
The evidence of minorities failing in big firms comes in two forms. The first is that there are very low numbers of ethnic minority partners in elite law firms. The second is that most of the minority associates leave the firm early on.
Sander’s claim is that they leave b/c they feel inadequate and aren’t up to the work in the firm. Critics claim that minorities are given less attractive assignments and less mentorship. They claim it’s not the lower grades that set them up to fail but the lower level of support once they are in the firm.
Another set of critics of Prof. Sander say that minorities are leaving b/c they have more options and are in effect choosing not to “hire” the elite firms. They are moving to in house counsel positions.
This is just my two cents, I didn’t go to an elite law school, didn’t get stellar grades, and only applied once at a big firm. This is based solely on my impressions. But I kind of agree with everyone on this and see a few different motivations for the low number of partners at elite firms.
First, it’s true that if law firms are hiring minorities with lower grades they may not be ready for the kind of work at elite law firms. Elite law firms tend to have a culture that does not understand minorities. They probably are bad at figuring out who would make a good associate at their firm. So they look at several minorities and can’t tell who got lower grades b/c they couldn’t do the work and who choose lower grades but are still competent.
If you’ve only ever talked to a couple black people from Chicago you are not competent and do not have the experience to evaluate the differences among black people from Southern California, Cuban blacks from Miami, or black Dominicans from New York. So I think the firms pick the wrong people b/c they don’t have the experience and exposure to evaluate minority candidates yet.
I had an interview at a big firm and as soon as a tattoo popped out from under my sleeve. The interviewer’s eyes were as big as dinner plates. They didn’t want to recognize that not all Latinos are going to be polished Jimmy Smits types. Some of us are proud that we are still a little pachuco. I may not have had the grades to work at that firm, but the choice wasn’t made on that basis. It was made on the basis of a cultural difference that had no correlation to my competency. How happy could I have been working some place where I had to hide myself all the time? I never applied to another big firm and never will.
Second, I don’t think elite firms are very appealing to a lot of minorities. Minority students at elite law schools are extremely talented and motivated people. After a couple years at a big firm they are smart enough to figure out that they could have more control, less work, and get a bigger share of the money they earned if they dump the firm and set up shop for themselves. Why give a partner a portion of your money so he can spend more time golfing? You don’t have to. Minorities just flat out don’t need the big firms. I see a lot of minority attorneys setting up their own firms.
Going along with this is that when you reach the level of a student from a top law school there is a little bit of ego. When you’re that smart and talented it’s hard to work for other people. I’m not nearly as bright as anyone who went to Yale or Harvard and I still would rather work for myself over the cache of working at some fancy firm and being some partner’s monkey.
Third, the reward or getting good grades aren’t really rewards to a lot of minorities. I realized first year that if my reward was to go work for a big firm then I didn’t want it. I would not have time to work in my community and help my neighbors. Worse I wouldn’t be in a position to reject clients that I found reprehensible. I would have no control over who my clients were.
I know a Latino lawyer who is very smart and ambitious who works at a big firm. He often represents large corporate interests that clash with the working class people of our community. He worked for a national retailer that was hiring contractors to avoid the legal implications of underpaying (I call it wage theft) their janitors who were mostly Latino. Those interests have rights to competent legal representation and that’s his choice, but I know very few other minorities who would find that kind of work fulfilling or enjoyable. I know I’d rather be working for the janitors.
A lot of minority law students go to law school to empower themselves and their community. We want to fight back and help the oppressed. I want to work for La Causa. I want to be a guide in the legal system for Latinos and help them become a part of the melting pot of the U.S. I want to make sure they can access the legal system just like any one else.
If good grades are going to reward me with a job that helps the big retailer screw over my neighbor who works 12 hours every night to take care of his family then I don’t want them. I can use the time I was going to spend studying volunteering or working and learning how to be a better lawyer when I get out. A lot of my minority friends choose to start helping their community immediately over grades. A lot of my white friends choose the same thing for that matter.
The lack of minority partners may just reflect that elite firms don’t offer enticements that are attractive to minority lawyers. They offer money. Speaking for myself, I would rather have control over my workday, over who my clients are, and over the type of work that I do. I would rather be my own boss. I would rather build my prestige by actually making an impact in my community than by how much I got paid. I would like to do justice and not just represent the people that they paid me the most. Looking at other minority law students and attorneys I meet, I think that feeling is pretty widespread in the community.