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WASP Law Firms Finally Dead?

Vivia Chen

June 30, 2010

Prl_2[1] Harvard law professor Noah Feldman had some very nice things to say about WASPs (in case you forgot, that stands for "White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant") and their contribution to diversity in an op-ed in The New York Times on Monday. So nice, in fact, that I wondered if I missed something.

Feldman starts off by noting that if Elena Kagan gets confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court will consist of six Catholics and three Jews--a dramatic departure from as recently as five years ago, when the high court "had a plurality of white Protestants." The change, he adds, "is a cause for celebration" in that "no one much cares about the nominee's religion."

And who should get credit for this progress? "The very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court," says Feldman.

Though he acknowledges that the WASP elite excluded other ethnic and religious groups in history (particularly Jews), he argues that "anti-Semitism in America never had anything like the purchase it had in Europe." And once "the ideas of meritocratic inclusion gained a foothold, progress was remarkably steady and smooth." Feldman cites Princeton University's transformation from "a longtime bastion of the Southern Protestant elite" to its inclusion of women and minorities, starting in the late sixties, as a case in point. (Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan all went to Princeton, he points out.)

Feldman's op-ed didn't talk about law firms specifically, but it brought home to me how the white-shoe, WASP firms are now shells of their former selves. It wasn't that long ago that certain old-line firms like Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Sullivan & Cromwell; and Milbank,Tweed, Hadley & McCloy were known as high-WASP shrines, while firms like Weil, Gotshal & Manges; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; and Proskauer Rose had a distinctly Jewish reputation. Now, all three of those WASP icons, plus others, are headed by Jewish partners. (S&C's chair Joseph Shenker is even a former rabbi.)

WASP institutions eventually put out the welcome mat to other groups, says Feldman, because the idea of fairness is central to the Protestant ethic. From "the antiaristocratic ideals of the Constitution, which banned titles of nobility and thus encouraged success based on merit," fair play is a running theme of WASP culture, argues Feldman. Acceptance of non-WASPs into "societies, clubs, and colleges," adds Feldman, "was not just a case of an elite looking outside itself for rejuvenation; the inclusiveness of the last 50 years has been the product of sincerely held ideas put into action."

Opening the gates because of "sincerely held ideas"? Really? In the law firm context, at least, I'd argue that firms let in non-WASPs mainly for economic survival. In an excellent article in the New York Law Journal that looks at the history of Jewish law firms ("Can the 'Jewish Law Firm' Success be Duplicated?"), Eli Wald, a professor at the University of Denver College of Law, notes that Jewish firms flourished because they carved out niches in litigation, bankruptcy, and real estate--"practices that the white-shoe firms eschewed as undignified." As the market changed, old-line firms scrambled to develop those areas; hence, barriers to non-WASP lawyers fell.

I'd add competition for raw talent as another contributing factor to the demise of the WASP law firm. As I've written many times, the legal profession is credentials-obsessed. As pedigree dropped in importance, law firms placed greater weight on academic achievement. I e-mailed Feldman about this theory, and he didn't disagree. "Felix Frankfurter was hired by a Wall Street firm previously closed to Jews because he was first in his class," Feldman tells me.

Initially, I thought Feldman's op-ed was way too charitable in crediting the ruling class for the triumph of meritocracy. I wondered why he's singing the praise of WASPs when his own father, had he been a lawyer, probably would have been excluded from those white-shoe firms. After all, Elena Kagan's father was a Yale Law School graduate who specialized in representing tenants in apartment sales--not exactly a high-brow field.

But when you scratch deeper into Feldman's op-ed, it's also clear he's celebrating the demise of WASPdom. In fact, Feldman congratulates WASPs for being gracious enough to make themselves extinct: "Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial, or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph."

Feldman slips in another subversive note at the end: WASP fashion, a longtime symbol of Wall Street and the good life, has actually been a Jewish enterprise. 

The style now generically called “prep,” originally known as “Ivy League,” was long purveyed by Jewish and immigrant haberdashers (the “J.” in the New Haven store J. Press stands for Jacobi) and then taken global by Ralph Lauren, née Lifshitz. But until the Protestant-dominated Ivy League began to open up, the wearers of the style were restricted to that elite subculture.

The spread of Ivy League style is therefore not a frivolous matter. Today the wearing of the tweed is not anachronism or assimilation, but a mark of respect for the distinctive ethnic group that opened its doors to all--an accomplishment that must be remembered, acknowledged, and emulated.
So today, as you dart around the firm in those classic power-grubs, take a moment to remember the WASP lawyers that used to haunt those same halls. Those crisp cotton shirts and nicely tailored suits are pretty much all that's left of that legacy.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Lauren Polo.


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The guys in the picture both look like major metrosexuals to me. I've never dated men who are prettier than I am. Now I have to think about whether I should date men who dress better than I do. Damn! Where are all the real men?

@keliy: Wearing things that are ugly and preppy at the same time is the secret WASP handshake. Just browse typical brands like Gant and Polo Ralph Lauren for inspiration. Purple sailing shoes might be an idea.

why do the men in your pictures both wear the same ugly tie? Is that the secret handshake? What's a girl supposed to do?

Not sure she hates WASPs, but having read many of her articles, its difficult to believe she doesn't hate guys. And since the WASP lawyers in question were guys, ....

You seem to have a lot of hatred for WASPs. Anything you would care to talk about?

Now why do the men in your pictures both wear the same ugly tie? Is that the secret handshake? What's a girl supposed to do?

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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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