Editors’ Note: This article was originally published in October 2008.
Q: I am the primary lateral recruiter for a major regional law firm with a growing satellite office in New York (even in this market we are actively recruiting for certain practice groups). While admittedly our hiring criteria are extremely selective, we do look for well-rounded attorneys. We are also deeply committed to creating a diverse environment but, like many firms, have struggled to make significant inroads. Recently we received the résumé of a Latino male, fourth-year associate with outstanding large firm experience and very good schools (Top 25 undergraduate and Top 15 law school). Here’s the problem: Our minimum GPA requirement for laterals is 3.2. We may consider a 3.0 or 3.1 for an exceptional candidate, but this individual’s GPA is a 2.9. While I am willing to meet with him, the hiring partners are not interested in pursing his candidacy because of the GPA deficit. What should I do?
A: Don’t pursue his candidacy. But don’t represent that the firm is “deeply committed to creating a diverse environment” because it is not. You, may be committed, but the firm is in “la-la” land.
It is utterly preposterous that a lateral candidate who otherwise meets the firm’s objective so-called selective standards will be declined an interview simply because of a .3 deficit on the high end and a .1 deficit on the low end. This would be a stupid result whether the candidate was Latino, white, Asian or the Jolly Green Giant. However, it’s particularly bizarre when the firm claims it is struggling to identify diverse lateral candidates, receives the résumé of a potentially viable Latino male and then thumbs its nose at him for a measly .3 deficit. Ludicrous. (And I don’t mean the rapper.)
True or false: In the world of lateral associates of color, what does a .1 to .3 GPA deficit truly translate into? (1) The clients of the firm flee will flee; (2) The candidate’s prestigious schooling and law firm training will evaporate into thin air; or (3) With a straight face, the firm’s hiring managers will exclude a candidate of color. The smart money is on number three.
A recent Wall Street Journal article (Aug. 26, 2008) reported that the prestigious U.S. News & World Report is considering reworking its law school ranking system to require inclusion of low-scoring, part-time students. The article contends that counting part-timers would “roil the law-school rankings” and “likely reverse gains recently made by a number of law schools.” Law school administrators interviewed for the article suggested that the proposed new ranking system could potentially narrow “a traditional pathway to law school for minorities.”
Our legal community’s obsessive fixation on GPAs, law school rankings and other statistical data associated with qualitative characteristics of current and potential members of the bar must be re-examined if, in fact, it has the unintended effect of artificially reducing the number of overall candidates and results in a discriminatory impact upon people of color. If the chase for numbers strangles the process of attracting and retaining superior legal talent of all shades and genders without a corresponding measurable increase in the quality of the members of the bar, then it is suspect.
Are law school rankings relevant? Most definitely: The combination of administrative, faculty, students and resources creates an environment that is worthy of measurement, and certain schools have stronger reputations than others. Law school grades are also relevant, particularly during the on-campus recruiting process when there is a limited amount of information available to ascertain the potential performance of first-year law students.
However, rankings and grades shouldn’t be exploited as capricious filters to bar otherwise worthy associates and, in this case, an associate of color. When infinitesimal numerical distinctions are used to exclude a lateral candidate whose attributes are otherwise desirable, then the firm’s unwillingness to even speak to the individual is hugely problematic. It’s particularly troubling when there is an alleged “diversity commitment,” and a deep one, no less. Four years of undergraduate school, three years of law school, four years of large law firm experience, all denied for .1 off the GPA: Those numbers don’t jive – not at all.
Katherine Frink-Hamlett, a graduate of New York University School of Law, is president of Frink-Hamlett Legal Solutions Inc.