The Volokh Conspiracy

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Race and Partnership Rates at Large Law Firms


Heather Mac Donald writes about this at the City Journal. The most striking data is on the average grade breakdown of incoming associates by race (which stems from what appear to be quite aggressive racial preferences in hiring), which comes from my colleague Rick Sander's The Racial Paradox of the Corporate Law Firm (2006); note that it is from the "After the JD" study of lawyers who joined the bar in 2000, though my sense is that not much has changed (at least as to blacks and whites) in law schools and law firms since then:

To the extent that grades measure legal ability—and I think they do to a considerable extent, though of course the two aren't perfectly correlated—it's not surprising that the disparity coming in would yield disparity in attrition and in partnership rates, though of course this doesn't preclude other possible causes for the latter disparity. For a response to Sander's article, see this piece by James E. Coleman, Jr. & Mitu Gulati.

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  1. I have no reason to believe law students of any race wouldn't represent a portion of the brighter side of their race and ethnicity. I generally do believe that we live in a largely meritocratic society where the brighter you are, on average you'll do better.

    Typically, Asians will do better than whites, who will do better than other groups, who will do bettern than blacks no matter where you are in the world. And as it turns out, group IQs correlate extremely well with those outcomes.

    I find this post fascinating because no matter what a group average IQ is, there's going to be very bright people in those groups, and law students represent that in my opinion. The grades line up with the afforementioned correlation, but strangely enough the Asian group is misplaced in the typical global correlation. I feel like if you looked at a different group of students, say Masters of Engineering students, the pattern would go back to typical.

    1. The result might have to do with Asians clustering at particularly competitive law schools. Or it could just be sample size issues.

    2. Choose your counsel well, for the same price you could have a 98% chance of getting someone that could cobble together better than a 3.0, or settle for 86%. Same applies to MDs and any other professionals where affirmative action policies are implemented. Indeed, this is why rational people oppose these policies and have ever since Thomas Sowell so capably wrote about them.

  2. Are there studies correlating grades to attorney performance in the real world? In my own field (engineering) I haven't found a strong correlation between a high GPA and the ability to produce a real world product. Of course, I also haven't seen any studies looking at GPA vs success in engineering either.

    1. In my industry (accounting / taxation), I have found one of the best indicators of future performance to be high school algebra - it generally is a good predictor of the ability to solve for the unknown and overall problem solving skills, The second best indicator has been scores on the ACT,

    2. I think that in engineering the correlation depends a lot on the type of engineer you are referring to. For operations engineers, my experience ist that the correlation is lowest; for design engineers it is higher, for high quality project engineering managers, it is higher still.
      Many shades of gray, I'd say

    3. Definitely not a study, just personal experience. But in my experience, law school grades, which in almost all classes are based upon the results of a single essay final exam, are very highly correlated to writing ability, the ability to write logically, coherently, and persuasively. And that quality, writing ability, is also perhaps the best predictor of success in the practice of law. There are exceptions, of course. For example, among litigators who try jury trials, the ability to come across to a jury as likable, trustworthy, and able to construct a convincing story leads to success in obtaining favorable jury verdicts, much more than writing ability or even knowledge of the intricacies of legal theory. But jury trial litigators are a rather small subset of big corporate law firms. So it doesn’t surprise me that law school grades are good predictors of success in big law firms. It may also help to explain why minority students, blacks and hispanics, are less successful in both law schools and law firms; the quality of education which they get at the El-Hi level and in undergraduate studies in writing suffers by comparison to many white students who attend schools offering classes in rhetoric and requiring much more practice in writing lengthy research papers. Writing well is a learned skill which requires practice, and the more practice you get, the better.

    4. In my 35 plus years of practice, I have found a strong correlation between law school academic performance (quality of law school and grades at said law school) and quality of work as an associate. Really, every day I admire Paul Cravath more and more.

    5. ThomasW: "Are there studies correlating grades to attorney performance in the real world?"

      Really? This is open to question at this site? There are a world of studies showing positive predictive abilities of grades, standardized achievement tests, and general cognitive ("IQ," etc.) tests on performance in a variety of fields and strongest in fields that require one to manipulate symbols and draw on diverse sorts of information. The predictive relationships are common, virtually universal, though far from absolute. Grades are the poorest indicator -- likely because so many different things go into determining grade averages.

  3. Missing - grades from what schools? The SAT has been criticized for not predicting first year GPA better than high school grades. But you never see what schools - and what courses - the grades come from. Even accounting for grade inflation, there's a difference between a 3.8 at Stanford and a 3.8 at Kentucky. And between a 3.8 that includes thermodynamics and one that depends on Theory of the Marvel Universe.

    1. Notes say it was a national sample, so several schools. That's probably insufficient for you question though.

    2. You can get around that by looking at LSAT scores, and the results are pretty much the same distribution.

    3. JonFrum: "The SAT has been criticized for not predicting first year GPA better than high school grades. "

      The problem with first-year grades is that of the course selection. The most well-known issue comes from education majors, who typically have the lowest SAT/ACT average scores among college students, but who rack up nearly all-A's in their Ed courses. Versus the strongest students who take more math and natural science courses, etc. Tends to even out the average grades.

      Grades /within/ majors are better t being predicted and better at predicting. Grades in professional education are likewise pretty good predictors.

  4. I'm going to guess, based on this, that the Asian shortfall in the higher GPA buckets is due to the smartest Asians going into STEM, not law.

    1. I'm going with the small sample size issue and the crisis of replication (the inability to replicate findings) in biology and the social/behavioral sciences.

  5. Not sure what I'm supposed to be "outraged" about.

    The attached article starts out talking about a potential lack of diversity in partnership promotions and then tries to back track to find the problem, and for some reason lands at the chart above (with additional side tracks to make sure the central point doesn't stay central).

    The article reads like a Fox News article where there's a lot of sturm und drang, but, at the end, I'm not sure what exactly the point is.

    1. I would assume the point is that blacks were the only racial group with a significant hiring rate at an under 3.0 GPA, which is a rather conspicuous artifact of racially discriminatory hiring; In order to meet quotas, the law firms are hiring every warm body that's black, while being selective about who they hire from other races.

      Whether you're going to be outraged about that depends on your feelings about racial discrimination, I suppose.

      1. And still Anita Hill couldn’t land a job in the private sector.

        1. That was down to her wisdom score, not her Int.

          1. He CHA was at 12, tops.

    2. Not sure where you got the idea that you're supposed to be "outraged."

      Rather, it seems the actual point of the article might be summarized in its subtitle. "An elite law firm’s inability to promote enough minority partners exposes the unrealistic expectations of diversity mandates."

  6. Given how aggressive and candid large law firms have been getting on the diversity hiring front, I have been wondering at what point you're going to see one get hit with a Title VII suit.

    1. Isn't there some rule there, analogous to "don't get in an argument with somebody who buys their ink by the barrel"?

  7. I think there are some dots to connect before one can conclude based on this rather indirect data whether and the extent to which job offers were racially biased.
    For example, If hiring were in fact race-blind, but black applicants had lower average grades than whites, you would expect the average GPA of successful black applicants to be lower than that of successful white applicants. So average GPA of new hires alone doesn't prove anything.
    The 14:2 ratio of percent new hires with sub-3.0 GAPs looks more damning, but if black applicants were 7 times as likely as white applicants to be in this GPA category, this ratio is what race-blind hiring would produce, other things equal. (Of course other things, such as offer acceptance rates and self-selection skewing applicant's non-GPA qualifications, may *not* be equal; but this just reinforces the need to connect the unconnected dots).

    1. " would expect the average GPA of successful black applicants to be lower than that of successful white applicants."

      Why? If hiring was race-blind but black applicants had lower grades than whites, wouldn't you expect black and white successful students to have the same average GPA?

      "...but if black applicants were 7 times as likely as white applicants to be in this GPA category, this ratio is what race-blind hiring would produce, other things equal."


      1. Because there are more of them applying, as a percentage of their racial group. By way of (unrealistically extreme) example, if every blue applicant, and only 1% of red applicants, had a GPA below 3.0 (let's say these groups each average 2.75), and 10% of sub-3.0 applicants of each group get offers, the average GPA of *all* blue accepted applicants would be 2.75, while the average of all red accepted applicants would be much higher. Very different avg GPAs but with zero hiring bias.

      2. "If hiring was race-blind but black applicants had lower grades than whites, wouldn’t you expect black and white successful students to have the same average GPA?"

        Not necessarily. If hiring depended on several characteristics (e.g., grades, leadership in law school organizations, and personal charm), and if blacks were equal in the latter two but weak on the first, then the average black hire would have a lower GPA than the average white hire.

        1. That is true (and is yet another possible confounding factor not addressed in Eugene's summary) but the point I was making applies even if GPA is the only selection criterion: If black applicant's GPAs skew lower than whites', and in each GPA bracket the offer rate is identical for all races (no bias), then *successful* black applicants will skew lower than successful white ones - that is, their average GPA will be lower.
          If you don't believe this, model it using a spreadsheet or maybe some coins.

          1. This should also mean that if more prestigious firms higher better candidates (and better candidate = higher GPA) because they are the first choice for all candidates, that in the most prestigious firms there won’t be a grade disparity at all - everyone will have 4.0, as long as they’re also race neutral.

            But if they’re not race neutral, or GPA isn’t only rule, then you will find disparities.

            So the real question is: other than race, what factors account for employment at which firm?

            This also raises the question of relative firm preferences - if Firm A is highly prioritized by Race A, and Firm B by Race B, but each race de-prioritizes the opposing firms, then you’ll get an atypical mix of successful/unsuccessful applicants, even if Firms A and B are entirely neutral on which they accept.

            Arch1 is assuming (and I think rightly so, but I don’t know) that all races apply equally at all firms, and that there is an additional unspecified attribute that also matters (so the “offer rate is identical for all races”).

            1. "So the real question is: other than race, what factors account for employment at which firm?"

              Table 8 in the paper quantifies the impact of (some) races, GPA, and school eliteness, across IIRC a big set of large firms.

              (My spellchecker just substituted "whiteness" for "eliteness; hmm)

    2. Having now looked at the Sander paper I think its Table 9 is more on point than table 10 (the one Eugene included) as regards large law firm hiring bias. It shows that for recently hired lawyers, blacks in each GPA range are 1.5-3 times likelier than whites to work for a large firm. This is still not a clincher (it doesn't address y81's comment, or the possibility that blacks are much more focused on large firms than whites, and no doubt other stuff I've missed), but the size of the discrepancy seems to create a big burden for these other factors to explain if one wants to argue that large firms' hiring is bias free.

    3. The tacit assumption is that, if your hiring is race blind, it's not going to be merit blind.

      You'd expect a merit based race blind hiring to produce roughly the same distribution of grades for all races, with the numbers from each race changing in response to their grade distribution.

      I say "roughly" because other factors could skew things a little, but the numbers above are pretty stark.

      1. "You’d expect a merit based race blind hiring to produce roughly the same distribution of grades for all races, with the numbers from each race changing in response to their grade distribution."

        Several commenters have stated something like this, but without an argument, because there *is* no argument - it is just false. Here's (another) counterexample:

        1) Company X's hiring is merit based and race blind (the upshot being that they hire on average say 20% of A-average applicants and 10% of B-average applicants)
        2) Race A's applicants to X all have A averages; Race B's applicants all have B averages
        3) Upshot: The grade distribution of accepted applicants of race A will differ from that for race B (since the former all have A averages, and the latter all have B averages).

        I guess that the quoted sentiment *sounds* convincing because people are assuming that applying an identical filter necessarily yields an identical outcome. In general, however, this isn't true: The output depends on both the filter and the input.

    4. "The 14:2 ratio of percent new hires with sub-3.0 GAPs looks more damning, but if black applicants were 7 times as likely as white applicants to be in this GPA category, this ratio is what race-blind hiring would produce, other things equal."

      Wouldn't you need to show that applicants in this GPA category were 7 times more likely to be black for this to hold? It might be that black applicants are 7 times more likely as white applicants to be in this GPA category, but black applicants are still outnumbered in this GPA category by white applicants. If that was the case, would you still expect a 14:2 ratio in race-blind hiring?

    5. "The 14:2 ratio of percent new hires with sub-3.0 GAPs looks more damning, but if black applicants were 7 times as likely as white applicants to be in this GPA category, this ratio is what race-blind hiring would produce, other things equal."

      No. What would happen in a competitive process that is "fair" in terms of the use of GPA, would be that the excess of lower-grade individuals from low-grade groups (as with other groups) would be in most cases excluded. The /numbers/ of people from the lowest-scoring groups would be reduced, but group average differences would also be reduced.

      Of course it's possible that /that/ is what we have here. I'm doubtful. Given the substantially larger proportions of whites Hispanics and Asians with higher GPA's, it seems likely that some with higher grades were passed over in favor of blacks with lower grades (something not done with Hispanics and Asians). Not that that's necessarily a /bad/ thing.

  8. Sigh. One paragraph in the article stuck out.

    "The liberal partners, the strongest advocates for “diversity,” rarely practice what they preach, instead funneling the results of diversity hiring whenever possible to someone else’s case. In private conversations, they acknowledge the diversity sham but shrug their shoulders: “What choice do we have?”"

    This gets into a larger topic, and that's the question of the best way to handle apparent racial inequity/bias.

    One model is to simply adopt a policy of treating everyone equally, no matter their race, with laws in place to ensure the same. I've always been a proponent of this theory.

    A second model is to assume there is inherent bias against a racial group, and "tilting the playing field back" to account for that bias is needed. I've always had issues with this policy, because it appeared that answering racial bias with more (but opposite) racial bias would lead to worse outcomes.

    The results of this study seem to reinforce that. The field was "tilted back" and initially, it made an effect. However, by introducing the "reverse bias," less qualified applicants were elevated, and it showed. What may be worse, is that by elevating a series of less qualified applicants (but all of one race), it gave the impression that everyone of that race was less qualified....and it parlayed through the office.

    1. With merit based hiring, the customer has no reason to care about the race of the lawyer they get, because they've already been vetted as meritorious.

      But, with the numbers above, you would rationally avoid black lawyers at these firms, because your odds of getting a below average lawyer would be fairly high.

      Racial quotas of this sort make racial discrimination on the part of the customers rational.

  9. I see the 'Affirmative action made me statistically racist' crowd has logged on.

    1. The ratio of black income to white income has not changed at all in 20 years. Basically, everything that Sarcastro advocates has been a complete failure, and he has absolutely no idea what to do about it, hence the sarcasm.

      1. I actually think class creates both more diversity of background and a more distorted meritocracy than race; that's what I would support. But your argument is also disingenuous.

        We don't know the counterfactual; what would be happening to that relative income if it weren't for affirmative action?

        To cut to the chase, I find that folks abusing statistics like this end up coming down on a eugenics-y side of things. Are you into the genetic lack of intelligence of blacks?

        1. You can support any policy by asserting, without evidence, that things would be even worse without it. What would be happening in the Mideast if we hadn't invaded Iraq? What would the Japanese Americans in California have done if Roosevelt hadn't interned them? Plus, anyone who disagrees with me is a racist.

          1. But your proof is similarly flimsy by that same reasoning - your metric is meaningless without something to compare that result to.

            I ain't saying you're racist. In fact, I'm specifically not assuming that, hence my question.
            I continue to wonder about your thoughts about genetics and intelligence based on a trend I see.

        2. Sarcastr0: "Are you into the genetic lack of intelligence of blacks?"

          That's frankly not relevant. The cause of group differences can be completely environmental. It wouldn't mean that they didn't exist. They might be overcome over generations -- if only one knew how to actually do that, which we frankly don't, other than tinkering around the edges.

    2. Your policy positions make you racist, not statistics.

      1. Ehhh, affirmative action supporters are racist, huh? All those white race traitors...

        But as to what I was actually talking about, affirmative action's existence does not imply anything about a given individual minority professional.
        But some on here seem to feel justified in using AA's existence to explain why they disdain any nonwhite doctors or lawyer they see.

        That's bad math, and also racist.

        1. "affirmative action supporters are racist, huh"

          Ironically, yes. I mean, could you engineer a better system for perpetuating racism than affirmative action?
          1. Take a subset of a certain group of people who are less qualified
          2. Elevate them to a position that they are less capable at than the other groups of people in a given profession or job.
          3. Complain melodramatically that they're being discriminated against because of their group (rather than their qualifications and capability)
          4. Still use the more capable groupings for your own purposes.

          That's affirmative action and liberals. A system to perpetuate racism.

          1. Even if all your many implicit and explicit assumptions are correct, you've tellingly mistaken wrongheaded for racist.

  10. I don't put nearly so much emphasis on GPAs. Sure, you need to be able to do complex legal work. But once you reach a certain level of competence, it seems the biggest factor is your ability to generate business. I expect that is a much bigger factor in attrition than GPA. Especially where we're talking relatively minor GPA differences.

    Clients rarely, if ever, care about your GPA (maybe they care if you went to an Ivy League school, but outside of a few name-brand schools, they don't even care about schools that much). Instead, clients generally pick attorneys based on referrals, social networks, perceived competence, reputation, etc.

    It would make sense that African Americans would have more difficulty generating new business. They are less like (on the whole) to have the same broad social networks or networks of successful family members. Clients may also, for lots of reasons (from old fashioned racism to perceived incompetence based on an assumption they were a "diversity" hire), refrain from hiring African Americans. It may be harder for African Americans to develop referral networks because of the smaller social networks. And the referral sources they do develop may be reluctant to send work to them for fear the people being referred may have racist views.

    Whatever it is, it's a hurdle for them that doesn't exist for many of the white, already-connected applicants that the firms already see. And it has nothing to do with competence, GPA, or hiring practices.

    1. Generating business is not generally a factor in elevation to partnership at biglaw firms. It would be a factor in compensation of partners, and in hiring lateral partners. But most biglaw firms have a number of service partners.

      1. It's also not a factor at all in hiring associates.

  11. From the response (emphasis added):

    ...Black Associates are more likely to be recruited primarily, if not exclusively, from the most elite law schools. Our guess is that the elite firms also hire white associates "with weaker grades" from these same schools [20].

    A serious response should not include the phrase "our guess." Either the data supports your argument or it doesn't. If it does, then cite the evidence. If it doesn't, don't argue the point.

    I'm actually quite surprised that this nonsense made it into a law review in 2006.

  12. On another more pedantic point, what is the correct way to refer to a lawfirm's shortened name?

    The firm is officially "Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP." The comma in the middle of the sentence "the New York law firm Paul, Weiss announced its latest class" looks out of place. "[T]he New York law firm of Paul Weis announced..." reads better.

    Other firms, like "Morgan, Lewis & Bockius" is often referred to as "Morgan Lewis" without the comma.

    Still others have dropped the partnership list and are now just "Jones Day" or "Baker McKenzie," but those don't count.

  13. I worked for a company that only hired mechanical engineers from the BOTTOM 30% of the class to save money on salaries, and my god it showed. Most could not engineer their way out of a paper bag.

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