There’s an article in today’s New York Times exposing (again) one of the problems with affirmative action — it elevates nice, ordinary people to situations where they’re bound to fail. This time the focus is on the nation’s top law firms, where African-Americans consistently fail to last:
Thanks to vigorous recruiting and pressure from corporate clients, black lawyers are well represented now among new associates at the nation’s most prestigious law firms. But they remain far less likely to stay at the firms or to make partner than their white counterparts.
A recent study says grades help explain the gap. To ensure diversity among new associates, the study found, elite law firms hire minority lawyers with, on average, much lower grades than white ones. That may, the study says, set them up to fail.
The study, of course, is being vigorously challenged. You can read about the whole debate here.
I’m actually inclined to agree with the study’s conclusion based upon my own years at big law firms. So many of these firms hired minorities solely so that they could boast about their progressive ethnic balance. This meant that they weren’t always so picky about their new hires’ qualifications. These kids were window dressing, and the firms never really committed to having them for the long haul.
However, based on my twenty-years out-of-date information, let me throw out one more reason that minorities aren’t lasting at the big firms — their sense of entitlement prevents them from working as hard as they ought to. In this regard, I speak from personal experience. I was one of a big crew of women and minorities that a large urban law firm hired so that it could boast about its diversity, something that was becoming very important in the legal marketplace. All of us were academically qualified and could have been hired without regard to our sex or race, but we still felt very special — we were the vanguard of the new lawyer. Away with the “white boys,” and in with the women, the Hispanics and the African Americans.
Of course, because we were so special, we felt pretty sure we were entitled to special treatment. It just wasn’t fair to make us work so hard, and why in the world weren’t they holding our hands constantly? Those ugly, old, white men seemed to expect us to be self-propelled, aggressive, and to stand on our own two feet. We were women and minorities, though, and we weren’t about to do that. We wanted mentoring! As it happened, mentoring wasn’t going to be in the cards at that old-line firm, with the result that those of us who didn’t leave under our own steam were swiftly “downsized.”
At the time, I was absolutely certain that all blame for the debacle that was my incoming year of associates was the firm’s fault. I’m less and less sure now. The fact is, while the firm made no effort to accommodate the new culture of incoming lawyers they’d hired, we made no effort to fit into the firm’s culture. In our youthful arrogance, and cloaked in our victim status, we believed that it was the firm that should completely change its decades old culture in our favor. Looking back, I’m quite sure that, if I hadn’t been so caught up in my special status as a touchy-feely, sensitive, needy woman lawyer, I would have been better equipped to handle the hard work and hard knocks that come with a big firm. A big firm is a dynamo, and nothing is going to shape it into the type of small, personal firm with which I routinely work now. That’s simply not the nature of the big firm beast.
(By the way, my memory says that Asian men had no problem adjusting to big firm culture. While Asian women had bought into feeling just as needy as Caucasian women, Asian men were simply hard workers who eschewed victim status.)
In any event, I realize that my observations are outdated and that there is a small number of big firms out there that has been able to handle the new breed of non-white, non-male attorney. For the most part, though, I do wonder whether a large part of the problem doesn’t lie with the various law firms’ arrogance, but with the arrogant sense of entitlement that characterizes the new breed of female and/or minority lawyer.