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Law Firms Shun Wealthy Female Law Students

Vivia Chen

February 6, 2017

Suzy-Parker-LIFE-Mag.-1950Law firms are either very astute in the way they hire or they're just plain sexist. Maybe both.

I know there's fatigue about the problems of the privileged set, but hear me out. According to new research featured in Harvard Business Review, there's a gender divide in how social status works in Big Law hiring. In a nutshell, men who drop telltale signs of wealth on their resumes (like references to sailing and tennis) clean up in the employment game, while their female counterparts get shunned.

The study's authors (Lauren Rivera of the Kellogg School of Management and Andras Tilcsik of the University of Toronto) sent out resumes to almost 150 firms for summer associate positions. The fictitious applicants hailed from second-tier schools where they ranked in the top 1 percent of their class and served on the law review. The only variables were gender and extra-curricular activities that hinted at their economic status.

The upshot? "Even though all educational and work-related histories were the same, employers overwhelmingly favored the higher-class man," write the authors. "He had a callback rate more than four times of other applicants and received more invitations to interview than all other applicants in our study combined."

Hail to the rich (and probably white) guy!

Okay, maybe that's not news. But what's striking is how firms dissed well-heeled women, even though these women have no problems fitting in culturally. The reason: Firms regard them as "the least committed of any group" for a demanding job—"including lower-class women." In fact, firms perceived wealthy women to be "flight risks" who were likely to opt for a less pressured job or leave work entirely for "family" reasons.

Is all this based on stereotypes? You bet. "That's clearly a bias" says Merle Vaughn, who heads the law firm diversity group at Major, Lindsey & Africa. But she says that bias is dying. "That's a bias based on people currently in power but that's rather old school."

Perhaps so. Yet there seems to be some truth to the rich-woman-opts-out stereotype. "I’d love to say that this is totally unfair and reflects bias," says Los Angeles-based recruiter Sabina Lippman. "But to be honest, looking at it statistically over a large group, the answer is that well-off women leave the practice more often and firms are more reluctant to hire them."

Indeed, research shows that female graduates of elite colleges and law schools, who tend to come from wealthier backgrounds, are less apt to stick with their careers. Last year, ALM Intelligence reported that women from the top 10 law schools dropped out of Big Law at a much higher rate than women from lower-tiered law schools. (Women from lower tier schools not only stuck it out, but some—those who went to schools ranked 51 to 100—actually increased in numbers in Big Law over time.) And in a study by Joni Hersch, professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University, only 68 percent of female graduates of elite colleges with children worked, compared with 76 percent of women who went to less-selective institutions.

The statistics might be true, but that doesn't justify treating affluent women differently in hiring. So what can women from privilege do to overcome these assumptions? The study's authors suggest that women "ditch the extracurricular activities." What's more, they advocate disguising gender by replacing first names with initials.

All that strikes Vaughn as nonsense. "I tell people to put in stuff in their resume that will help them bond with other people at a firm," she says. "I play golf and tennis and I'm a black woman, and I think firms might like that." She adds that people should be true to themselves.

Maybe the country club stuff helps minority women but what about affluent white women? All this is hair splitting, says a diversity director at a big firm. "There is discrimination, but I'm not sure if it's directed at high status women or women generally."  The reality is that having money—for either sex—changes the dynamics, says this director. "If you're comfortably-off and half-way sane, why wouldn't you take a less pressured job or drop out?"

Ah, the problems of privileged.



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Another example of women lawyers as canaries in the coal mines. More affluent women lawyers simply have stronger wings (more money) to fly away.

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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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