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.

John Lewis Jr.

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