The myth of meritocracy

Legal departments may need to rethink how to recruit, develop and retain legal talent

Despite years of well-intentioned dialogue and initiatives to drive inclusion in the highest levels of our profession, minorities and women have yet to enjoy a broad-based, sustained and numerically significant presence, especially in large law firms and legal departments. The numbers tell the story. Representation of minority and women partners in large law firms hovers stubbornly at about 6 percent and 17 percent, respectively. This appears to be so, in part, because some view inclusion goals to be at odds with hiring “the best and the brightest.” After all, the argument goes, our profession is a meritocracy that affords everyone an equal opportunity to professional success at the highest levels. Right? Well, perhaps not.

In 2003, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association commissioned a study titled “Creating Pathways to Diversity—The Myth of Meritocracy: A Report on the Bridges and Barriers to Success in Large Law Firms.” The study asked to what extent factors such as law school pedigree, law review, clerkships and school/class rank actually inform who will ultimately be successful in practice.

The study concluded that “the traditional indicators of high academic performance (in law school), such as law review, Order of the Coif, judicial clerkships or graduation with honors, are not prerequisites for success in large law firms, nor do many attorneys think they are reliable indicia of a law student’s ability as a practicing attorney.” The study also found that “law firms are law school snobs” that place overemphasis on students from the so-called “top 10” schools.

Further, the study asserted that these indicators of law student success do not bear strong correlation with ultimate success as a practicing lawyer.

To support this hypothesis, the researchers surveyed more than 1,800 top large law firm partners practicing in the U.S.’s 250 largest law firms.

The researchers sought to draw a correlation between these lawyers’ success as practitioners with their success as law students. The results were surprising.

Of the lawyers surveyed, 48 percent graduated from a “top 10” law school. Only one in five was on his school’s law review or graduated with any academic honors. A mere 14 percent did a judicial clerkship. The researchers concluded that the relative importance of the myriad success indicators such as class rank, school rank, prior work experience and moot court credentials depended, in large part, on the subjective preferences of the interview team.

The researchers also noted significant racial and gender disparities. For example, 47 percent of the black partners at major New York City law firms graduated from either Harvard or Yale as compared to 19 percent of overall New York big firm partners. The study also noted that, on average, Ivy League-educated black women lawyers earn roughly half of what their white male counterparts earn over their careers.

For many of us, this study empirically supported what we viscerally knew to be true—that Big Law’s infatuation with “box credentials” ultimately misses the unmeasured, unidentified and uncultivated potential of so many who have gone on to enjoy great success in the profession. 

As we consider the pipeline that leads young lawyers into our respective legal departments, we have to rethink how we recruit, develop and retain talent.

We should consider, as other professions do, whether academic success should be part of a calculus that also considers other factors that contribute to success as a lawyer—emotional intelligence, relationship- building skills, charisma, initiative, courage, grace under pressure, intellectual curiosity, work ethic and passion.

Together, we can engineer the diverse profession necessary to confront the complexities of an ever-changing global business and legal landscape. We need only to think outside the box.

John Lewis Jr. is senior managing compliance counsel for The Coca-Cola Co.

John Lewis Jr.

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