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Law Firms Shun Wealthy Female Law Students

Law firms are either very astute in the way they hire or they're just plain sexist. Maybe both.

I know there's fatigue about the problems of the privileged set, but hear me out. According to new research featured in Harvard Business Review, there's a gender divide in how social status works in Big Law hiring. In a nutshell, men who drop telltale signs of wealth on their resumes (like references to sailing and tennis) clean up in the employment game, while their female counterparts get shunned.

The study's authors (Lauren Rivera of the Kellogg School of Management and Andras Tilcsik of the University of Toronto) sent out resumes to almost 150 firms for summer associate positions. The fictitious applicants hailed from second-tier schools where they ranked in the top 1 percent of their class and served on the law review. The only variables were gender and extra-curricular activities that hinted at their economic status.

The upshot? "Even though all educational and work-related histories were the same, employers overwhelmingly favored the higher-class man," write the authors. "He had a callback rate more than four times of other applicants and received more invitations to interview than all other applicants in our study combined."

Hail to the rich (and probably white) guy!

Okay, maybe that's not news. But what's striking is how firms dissed well-heeled women, even though these women have no problems fitting in culturally. The reason: Firms regard them as "the least committed of any group" for a demanding job—"including lower-class women." In fact, firms perceived wealthy women to be "flight risks" who were likely to opt for a less pressured job or leave work entirely for "family" reasons.

Is all this based on stereotypes? You bet. "That's clearly a bias" says Merle Vaughn, who heads the law firm diversity group at Major, Lindsey & Africa. But she says that bias is dying. "That's a bias based on people currently in power but that's rather old school."


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