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Lawyers Prefer "Brad" to "Latoya" as Clients. What's That About?

Vivia Chen

June 13, 2019

The Brad of all Brads: Brad Pitt (photo from Wikipedia).

Almost every time I write about race in the legal profession, I get angry emails from white male readers. The tone of those emails runs something like this: You are too fixated on these issues, and you are unfair to white men.

Recently, I wrote about Am Law firms with zero black partners, which I thought was pretty benign, yet it sparked this response from a male reader: “I have to tell you that I found your article to be offensive, mean-spirited and a bit nasty.”

Well, what can I say?

I’d love to say racism is passé, but I keep running into research that suggests otherwise. For instance, we already know that black lawyers face significant challenges, but did you know there’s discrimination against black clients, too?

In a fascinating study (“Getting a Lawyer While Black: A Field Experiment”) published in the Lewis and Clark Law Review, Yale University lecturer Brian Libgober finds that lawyers were twice as likely to respond to potential clients with white-sounding names than black-sounding ones. (Hat tip: ABA Journal.) In a series of experiments, Libgober sent out emails using names like Brad or Latoya to lawyers who handle torts, criminal and divorce cases to monitor responses. The bottom line: “Brad” got responses 50% of the time, while “Latoya” only got one in six replies.

All this reminds me of the study by consulting firm Nextions in which 60 partners from 22 firms were asked to rate a research memo by a third-year associate. Some were told the memo was authored by a Caucasian; others were told an African American wrote it. The Caucasian got a 4.1 out of a high grade of 5, while the African American got a 3.2.

The not-so-subtle conclusion of these two studies: It pays to be white.

But Libgober’s study is actually a bit more complicated. In a follow-up experiment, Libgober compared the response rate of California and Florida lawyers, revealing an unexpected result: Lawyers from red state Florida were more responsive than those in liberal California to black names.

The reason for the counterintuitive result: market forces. Florida lawyers are more plentiful (there are about 20% more lawyers per capita in Florida than in California) and cheaper (lawyers make less in Florida), so they can’t afford to discriminate.

“We thought Florida would be worse because it was part of the Confederacy,” said Libgober in our phone conversation. “In searching for an explanation, it didn’t look like racial animosity or preferences per se, so that led us to look at the market environment.”

He adds: “Lawyers have preferences about the type of clients and matters they want to work on, but their ability to express those preferences is constrained by job realities and the market. If you’re working at full capacity, you can choose what you work on, and for some lawyers gender and race would matter.”

Libgober speaks like an academic, so permit me to translate: Busy, successful lawyers can discriminate, and do. In a way, discrimination has become a luxury item that only some can afford.

Which bring us to Big Law. Libgober’s research is focused on torts, criminal and divorce lawyers—what he calls the “retail” sector of the profession, so is this relevant to elite Am Law firms?

Yes, says Libgober. “There’s an important story about discrimination at the top-end and the low-end.” He adds, “We find evidence that individuals at the top of the profession with expertise and revenue are discriminating on multiple fronts because they can.” Black lawyers, on the other hand, “are more responsive to all clients, suggesting that black lawyers have less market power,” Libgober explained. But any time you’re dealing with a small, select segment like Big Law that’s sheltered from competition, “individuals will use [power] in ways that are not so socially desirable.”

Arguably, that might explain why major law firms lag behind in almost every category when it comes to blacks—from hiring to promotion to giving them access to legal services.

“Market power can trump attitudes about race,” sums up Libgober.

I don’t know if that takes the sting off racism, but it’s an interesting idea.

In the meantime, can we all agree that it’s easier to be white?


Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com.

On Twitter: @lawcareerist.com


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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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