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Does class bias affect law firm hiring? A recent study finds that it does. How does class bias affect our hiring processes and what should we do about it?

At the risk of stating the obvious, reviewing résumés is tedious work. Law firm hiring committees strive to eliminate improper bias from the screening process. Even so, screening for objective criteria such as successful law school careers, high grades and class rank, prestigious alma maters, and relevant prior experience often leave the reviewers with far too many applicants to recommend for interviews. What makes a particular résumé stick out to the busy reviewer, who is likely eager to get back to casework?

The astute applicant finds ways to distinguish her résumé. One way to do so, often encouraged by career development professionals, is to list extracurricular activities and hobbies on a résumé. A shared interest might create a preliminary affinity between the reviewer and the applicant that results in an interview. Hobbies may also suggest a certain class background: an interest in skiing infers access to ski resorts and expensive equipment; sailing, access to water, marinas, and boats; and polo, well, enough said.

Does it actually influence results? Yes. Socioeconomic bias in large law firm hiring has been the subject of a recent study, “Class Advantage, Commitment Penalty: The Gendered Effect of Social Class Signals in an Elite Labor Market,” published in the American Sociological Review last October. The study, which is framed against the current backdrop of income inequality in the United States, uses a combination of random résumé audit, survey, and interview studies to understand how social class bias operates in the entry into the prestigious and competitive large law firm market. The researchers sent applications from fictitious students to 316 large law firms in 14 different U.S. cities. The résumés were identical except for randomly assigned class and gender signals. Class signals included last names, undergraduate activities, athletics, and lifestyle markers, such as hobbies and musical tastes, which research had shown are traditionally linked to upper- or working-class backgrounds. For example, the last name Cabot, along with sports such as polo or sailing, and an interest in classical music, signaled an upper-class applicant.

The results of the study, perhaps unsurprisingly, reveal that large law firm recruiting favors upper-class men, who received the most callbacks, at 16.25 percent. Excerpts from the follow-up interview studies are telling:

“Consistent with the findings of our survey experiment, [the reviewers] perceived the higher-class candidates as a better fit with their firm’s culture and clientele. Gene remarked that the higher-class female ‘would fit in very well. … Polo, sailing, classical music … she has outdoor interests and outside interests that help her talk to people. … Those types of experiences really serve people well.’ Similarly, Mark said of the higher-class man: ‘If you look at the interests, it’s classic cultural capital. It would help with being around people who [he pauses] work hard.’ Conversely, respondents expressed greater skepticism about the lower-class candidates, specifically their client appeal. Betsy believed the lower-class woman would be ‘immature on the phone’ and would not convey to clients that ‘these are my ideas and they’re worth listening to.’ Likewise, Ivan said of the lower-class man, ‘There may be a concern about skills in interacting with clients and partners and being polished.’”

The résumé audit study, however, revealed that upper-class women actually faced a disadvantage to both upper-class men and lower-class women applicants. Only 3.8 percent of the higher-class women applicants received callbacks. The interview studies revealed that upper-class women face a “commitment penalty” in the large law firm hiring market, a perception that the candidate would not remain committed to the firm. The interviewed attorneys remarked that upper-class women candidates were perceived to be “‘looking for a husband’ or ‘biding time’ until she would leave the law to ‘become a stay-at-home mom.’” Conversely, lower-class women applicants were perceived to be “hungry” and “have mouths to feed,” and, therefore, experienced a higher likelihood of interview invitations. Lower-class men, however, faced the greatest bias, largely due to concerns about client relatability and fit within the firm culture.

What should be done? Reviewers should be mindful of implicit responses to class identifiers. Law firms might consider implementing a process by which résumés are scrubbed of such class markers before review, to ensure true equal opportunity for all qualified applicants. Blinded résumé review, focused on truly objective criteria, would equalize applicants’ opportunities to “get in the door.” The ability to connect could then be gauged within the interview process, by observing how the candidate interacts with the interviewers and other law firm personnel. Until such practices become commonplace, the enterprising applicant should take note. What makes an interest or hobby? Do a few sailing lessons and a couple of a coffee-table books on sailboats count? Who are we to say otherwise?

In all seriousness, if we are truly committed to diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity, we should work to eliminate such biases from our hiring process. We simply cannot pretend that the American dream is open to all, while holding the door shut to those who seek its rewards. Stereotypes based on “fit” and a perception of “relatability” can drive a firm’s culture and determine how we frame an applicant’s career path, even before he or she walks through the door. More importantly, these “soft skills” can easily be developed in an individual who has already shown the potential to succeed, through coaching, mentorship and personal invitations. Love sailing, skiing or polo? Invite an uninitiated young lawyer from your firm to join you on these extracurricular adventures. But first allow that lawyer equal opportunity to share in the joys, struggles and rewards of our primary pursuit: the practice of law.