Patterns of Prejudice in Legal-Industry Hiring

In a study summarized here, two sociologists sent 316 law firms résumés with identical and impressive work and academic credentials, but different cues about social class. The study found that men who fit a profile identified by the researchers as “upper-class origins”…by listing hobbies like sailing and listening to classical music had a callback rate 12 times higher than those of men who signaled working-class origins, for example by mentioning country music and track and field sports.

For comparison, the callback ratio between those profiled as “upper class men” versus “upper class women” was 4X.  Yet “lower class women” received callbacks at almost 5X the rate of “lower class men,” and at 1.6X the rate of “upper class women”!

I’m not sure the metric used by the researchers really distinguishes economic class…there are a lot of very-well-off people who like country music…but rather some class archetype that exists in the minds of some people, evidently including those people involved in hiring at the subject law firms.  (I also wonder how many of these law firm people actually listen to classical music on any kind of basis, rather than just using it for an “our sort of person” filter)  It seems to me that regional/geographical prejudice (against southerners and rural people) and ethnic prejudice (against people of Scots-Irish background) are influencing these hiring decision-makers.

Here are links for the abstract of the study, a presentation that summarizes the results,  and the complete paper.

29 thoughts on “Patterns of Prejudice in Legal-Industry Hiring”

  1. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an American blogger doubt that people actually listen to classical music. What’s the problem?

  2. Dearie….I do not at all doubt that people actually listen to classical music, I’ve been known to do so myself occasionally. What I doubt is that people in law firms who are responsible for hiring have any particularly strong affinity for this music when compared with the population as a whole.

  3. The paper is long and I found it difficult not to scream “You mean SEX not GENDER you maroon” after a while. Also, they are clearly much more focused on oppressed women than on oppressed poor people.

    Their criteria do seem questionable.

    “The first item we used was the applicant’s last name, which can serve as an important indicator of social class”
    Um, what?

    “The second set of signals—a generic undergraduate athletic award versus one specifically for outstanding athletes on financial aid—provides a straightforward indicator of class background because, other things equal, students on financial aid tend to come from lower income families than students not receiving financial aid.”
    I don’t think this suggests that at all, not for at least the last 20 years or so.

    Their sample is of course biased very strongly towards coastal cities, and they admit that they picked regional law schools for their fictional applicants, for the good reason that firms prefer more local candidates, but that does rule out them being able to test cultural biases based purely on school (i.e., lots of DC firms are not going to hire a Texas A&M grad, because of cultural bigotry).

    And the paper seems very heavily to rely on anecdotes vs. hard data for most of the analysis in the second half, making it difficult to see how much the results are merely due to the preconceptions of the authors. I also don’t see any mention of previous work showing how women applicants are discriminated against BY WOMEN who are mostly responsible for candidate selection.

  4. I skimmed the complete paper because I wanted to know where those 316 law firms were located. First, it was 316 offices representing 147 law firms. Second, out of those 316 offices, only 62 were located in 4 southern cities — Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Miami. 63 were located in New York City.

    I wonder how differently the results would be if two studies were done — one of southern/western law firms and another of northern/eastern law firms.

  5. Oh, chortle, chortle. I listened to classical music almost exclusively until I enlisted … at the age of 22. And have listened to it by choice whenever I was in a place with a classical music channel after that.

    Yes – this led to some really weird professional experiences … like becoming a pop-music DJ for Armed Forces Radio while being almost entirely innocent of knowing pop music. Aside from having a couple of Simon and Garfuncle albums, and knowing of a lot of Beatles music because my brother had a copy of the White Album and played it incessantly …

  6. Brian…”I also don’t see any mention of previous work showing how women applicants are discriminated against BY WOMEN who are mostly responsible for candidate selection.”

    I don’t know much about the internal operations of law firms…I would hope the HR function is limited to preliminary screening to cut down on the resume flood and the actual decision about who to call back for a possible interview would be made by a partner.

  7. ” I listened to classical music almost exclusively until I enlisted ”

    I did, too. I discovered classical music in college through Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” then the music of Michel Le Grand, who is still writing music !

    I never liked rock and roll. I can’t stand the Beatles.

    I have begun to like country and western because of a girl friend who liked it when I was single.

    I like Opera and Beethoven.

  8. Related: astonishingly arrogant remarks, even by Democratic college-professor standards, directed against the “white working class.”

    Don’t miss the eloquent response by a woman who is a CNC machinist:

    “I have a hard time understanding how someone like Gest or Capehart can look down their noses at someone like me because I don’t share their desire for overpriced toilet paper (college degrees). Could either of them program a machine to cut an arc into a piece of material? No, but I can. Could either of them change their oil, replace their brakes, or change their front differential fluid? (I’d be surprised if they knew where the dipstick is to even check it.) No, but I can. I’m a 35-year-old, white working class woman that could outsmart them on a common sense basis and on a highly technical basis, and somehow I am the one that needs more education?”

  9. Well, of course a member of the clerisy would wish for the white working class to just die already. We are unbiddable, unimpressed and independent to play our part in the neo-feudal world which he wants. The new migrants will make a much easier class of serf for the nobles and their serving clerics to manage.

  10. I’ve been digging classical solos and duets for some time now. It sounds more immediate, I suppose. One of these days I’m going to learn the cello if I ever find enough time.

    Love Beethoven, forceful, engendering, redolent of an age of understanding that is much unlike our clueless present day.

  11. They would take me. Breeding is what they want, a little class and some useful general knowledge. The right schools, an English education and some smarts. Hell MIT wanted me just because of my SAT.

    Fools, I learned how to ace multiple choice exams early on. I pulled a 98.9 out of my ass.

    It’s sad I never took advantage of my serious natural talents but I regret none of it. ;)

  12. @ PenGun learning the internal rules of test-making and test taking requires intelligence. There are people who take lots of those tests and never figure out even simpler strategies.

    Attempting to measure prejudice in such ways is always going to bring in complications. They can set it up so that the hard information looks the same from the candidates, but it really isn’t. Sailing as a hobby strikes one differently if the candidate is from suburban Boston rather than suburban Dallas. Same for country music, pole vaulting, wargaming, or a dozen other common hobbies. The combinations tell different stories. Those may not be accurate stories springing up in the mind of the evaluator, and there is still prejudice, but it’s not a clean take. Similar things happen when they try to measure prejudice by using race-coded names or switching the sexes of identical resumes. A black-sounding name suggests an affirmative-action acceptance, so the degree listed is not necessarily identical. A woman whose resume includes drumming or ballet is not the same as an identical resume from a man.

  13. I wonder what would have happened to any fictional applicants who listed ‘competitive shooting’ as a hobby or who listed varsity letters in football or basketball.

    Or time in the military, especially the ground combat branches of the Army or Marines.

  14. One thing that was particularly interesting: for men, passing the ‘upper class’ screen was hugely valuable, 12:1 ratio. For women, it worked in reverse: you were better off if you did *not* pass the UC screen.

    Based on the anecdotes reported, the decision-makers seemed to believe that UC women would leave when they had kids, whereas LC women would have no choice but to keep their noses to the grindstone.

    Also, I didn’t get the impression that these law firms were (in general) particularly concerned about the EEO laws or about public or client perception of ‘equality’ in hiring.

  15. PenGun uses his anonymity for bragging quite often.

    Test taking is definitely a skill. Multiple choice tests have gone out of fashion, I suspect, but they were probably just as good at measuring intelligence,

    If employers were allowed to test IQ, college degrees would be far less valuable. They are about where high school diplomas were before the PC police stopped the use of IQ testing.

    Now, employers are not even allowed to use criminal records in some places.

  16. MikeK…”If employers were allowed to test IQ, college degrees would be far less valuable. They are about where high school diplomas were before the PC police stopped the use of IQ testing.”

    The very same Supreme Court decision that banned the use of IQ tests (for applicants for janitorial jobs, at Duke Power) ALSO banned the use of high school diplomas as a hiring criterion for the same jobs. Somehow, the second part of this seems to have gone away…not sure if it was explicit legislation, or a later court interpretation, or what.

    My understanding is that employers *can* use testing (IQ or other) but the burden is on them to prove the relevance of the test to job success.

  17. “PenGun uses his anonymity for bragging quite often.”

    I am in no way anonymous. Click on my name, then the picture that appears and the next one has Author at the bottom.

    And who might you be?

  18. “Sailing as a hobby strikes one differently if the candidate is from suburban Boston rather than suburban Dallas.”

    Of course: no one would count fresh water sailing, would they?

  19. “And who might you be?”

    The fellow whose book is in the left border column. Where’s yours ?

  20. My understanding is that the influence of women in HR on hiring can be summed up as “women want to hire desirable men and non-threatening women”. It is interesting that this study aligns with that more or less perfectly.

    The male approach is “A’s hire A’s and B’s hire C’s”. Both have rather obvious ev-bio explanations if you go for that kind of thing, although the latter is a little harder to validate by surveys.

  21. Oh Sarge, of course I’ve heard of him. We used to play at Cowboys & Injuns too, you know.

    It was a tease aimed at our Canadian chum.

  22. Phwest….my own experience with HR organizations & people, including women, is generally positive. Surely it differs a lot from company to company and industry to industry. All of the heavy-handed government intervention and constant threat of lawsuits does of course have a malign effect.

    I have never actually seen a company in which the ultimate hiring decision is made by an HR person, except of course for jobs in HR itself and for low-level jobs involving hiring a lot of people for the same role in batches…I assume such companies do exist, because it seems to be a common persuasion, but it violates the fundamental rule of coupling responsibility and authority. There does seem to be a trend toward requiring the candidate to interview with a whole lot of different people, and in some cases any one of them can veto the hire. Terrible ideas.

  23. Above ‘anonymous’ comment was me.

    Also, where hiring is done by the manager or executive who has actual responsibility for performance it seems unlikely that a woman would want to damage her own career prospects by using non-hotness as the main criterion for hiring other women. If you are a female sales manager with a quota to meet, are you really going to turn down a candidate who has a great sales track record and is an excellent fit to the job just because she is also spectacularly beautiful?

  24. Those are lovely cows. I used to go past them every time I went that direction.

    I liked their attitude, and thought it would make a good start picture, as mine is not far from theirs. ;)

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