Elite law firms hire minority lawyers with, on average, much lower grades than white ones
Thanks to vigorous recruiting and pressure from corporate clients, black lawyers are well represented now among new associates at the nation’s most prestigious law firms. But they remain far less likely to stay at the firms or to make partner than their white counterparts.
A recent study says grades help explain the gap. To ensure diversity among new associates, the study found, elite law firms hire minority lawyers with, on average, much lower grades than white ones. That may, the study says, set them up to fail.
The study, which was prepared by Richard H. Sander, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was published in The North Carolina Law Review in July, has given rise to fierce and growing criticism in law review articles and in the legal press. In an opinion article in The National Law Journal this month, for instance, R. Bruce McClean, the chairman of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a major law firm, took issue with the study’s “sweeping conclusions” but not its “detailed data analysis.”
James E. Coleman Jr., the first black lawyer to make partner at Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, a prestigious Washington law firm now known as WilmerHale, said Professor Sander was overemphasizing grades at the expense of other qualities like writing skills, temperament and the ability to analyze complex problems.
“I don’t think you can do what he is trying to do, which is to use purely objective data to explain what is happening in law firms,” said Professor Coleman, who now teaches law at Duke and is a co-author of a response to Professor Sander called “Is It Really All About the Grades?”
Achieving racial diversity at all levels is an urgent issue, law firms say, but they acknowledge that gains among new associates disappear by the time new partners are elected. “We’ve seen stagnation and even decline when it comes to race,” said Meredith Moore, the director of the New York City Bar Association’s diversity office.
The new study proposes an explanation. It found that the pool of black lawyers with excellent law-school grades is so small that firms must relax their standards if they are to have new associates who resemble the pool of new lawyers.
Professor Sander found that very few blacks graduated from top-30 law schools with high grades.
Yet grades, according to many hiring partners and law students, are a significant criterion in hiring decisions, rivaled only by the prestige of the law school in question. For instance, Professor Sander found, “white law school graduates with G.P.A.’s of 3.5 or higher are nearly 20 times as likely to be working for a large law firm as are white graduates with G.P.A.’s of 3.0 or lower.”
The story for black students appears to be different. Black students, who make up 1 to 2 percent of students with high grades (meaning a grade point average in the top half of the class) make up 8 percent of corporate law firm hires, Professor Sander found. “Blacks are far more likely to be working at large firms than are other new lawyers with similar credentials,” he said.
But black lawyers, the study found, are about one-fourth as likely to make partner as white lawyers from the same entering class of associates.
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