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Should Firms Look at Economic Diversity in Hiring?

The Careerist

December 2, 2013

Today's guest blogger is Robin Sparkman, editor in chief of The American Lawyer. The following post also appears in the December issue of TAL.

Tsokur-iStock(1)Associate recruitment season has finally wrapped up at the big firms: all those hours of interviewing, callbacks, law school receptions and endless committee meetings. Firms arrived at their hiring decisions after scrutinizing applicants’ law school and undergraduate grades, work experience, small talk and, let’s face it, race, gender and sexual identity (LGBT). Diverse law students are in short supply. And firms, admirably, are looking to address the inequities of past discrimination by aggressively recruiting women, gay and minority lawyers. Firms also want to make sure that their workforces more closely resemble the ranks of their clients than say, the U.S. Senate.

These are important and commendable decisions. But along with this definition of diversity, firms should consider trying to identify candidates who come from economically diverse backgrounds, too. 

Whether it’s the latest census data, the economic polarization questions that kept cropping up in the New York mayoral race, or the 99 percent rallying cry, the issue of income inequality continues to dominate the national headlines. It’s a profound and complicated topic: Why, even after the end of the recession, is the gap between the top quintile of American earners and the rest still widening?

Other institutions have tackled this problem. At Amherst College, the former president, Anthony Marx, recruited more students from community colleges and increased financial aid for low-income students, among other things. And in the United Kingdom, where class discrimination is arguably more institutionalized, Allen & Overy senior partner David Morley started PRIME to provide internships for young people from poor or blue-collar backgrounds who may want to study law someday. A host of U.S. firms with London offices have also joined the program.

Why can’t The Am Law 200 tackle this issue head-on when it comes to associate recruiting? Why not make identifying and actively recruiting law students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds a priority? (Sure, recruiting a racially diverse group gets at this cohort to some degree, but it’s not exact.) Of course, these young people would have to possess the other bona fides required to work at the big firms. And some law students may not want to disclose this part of their upbringing, given all of their subsequent academic accomplishments.

Firms wouldn’t need to completely overhaul their hiring practices. They might have to change their processes slightly to elicit this information and to expand the pool of laws schools they recruit from.

And, certainly, they would need to market this development to clients—get the message out that their hiring decisions will reflect a broader definition of diversity. They need to let clients know that they are doing their part to bring in associates who have overcome the challenges of growing up in a low-income environment and navigated the halls of academia without the financial cushion and perks that many of their classmates had.

Clients, in turn, would need to recognize this more expansive interpretation of diversity, and when it comes to staffing on matters, they would need to be open-minded and enlightened.

This isn’t a comprehensive solution, but it is one way that firms can do their part in helping resolve one of the largest social ills of our times.

 E-mail  Vivia Chen: vchen@alm.com     Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawcareerist


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While a nice dream, isn't the reality that (most? all?) firms pursue initiatives that benefit their bottom lines - rather than doing good just to do good? So, how about this. . . . There is a fair argument that candidates from economically challenged backgrounds have already demonstrated a superior drive and work ethic in order to have positioned themselves as sufficiently "qualified" to earn a BigLaw interview. Thus, it is not a stretch for firms to project that the drive/work ethic of economicallyy-diverse grads will be very strong (a good hire investment) - as they have more to lose if the experience doesn't pan out?
This is not novel thinking, but it could add the self-investment quotient needed to turn a wish into a reality.
Happy Holidays.

As we discuss diversity, can we please not shy away from use of the word "sex" to discuss "sex discrimination"?

Interestingly above the column refers to "gender and sexual identity." Lacking a comma after "gender," not sure whether these are intended to be linked and missing an "and" or are distinguished. As lawyers we ought to lead the way on semantic clarity.

It seems worth pointing out that in the 1960's the U.S. DOJ did some soul searching about whether to treat discrimination on the basis of economic status as something to prosecute in their civil rights racial work. The soul searching was brief, I believe only months, before they decided to limit the issue to purely race.

In the few minutes I had before getting on with my day, I could not find a good site for this, but sites are out there. A book on this was written sometime in the last ten years.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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