Short Take: Why Not Black Law Grads?

In an unfortunate, if typical, disconnect, Staci Zaretsky notes that while law school graduates are finally getting jobs at the rate they did before the 2007 recession, black law school graduates are left out of the good news.

[T]he number of graduates employed in full-time, long-term jobs where bar passage was required was 74.3 percent (an increase of more than 3 percentage points), a percentage higher than rates measured before the recession. It’s actually the highest level ever recorded.

This is great, and frankly surprising in light of the pandemic, news. But this great news doesn’t extend to everyone.

But for minority law school graduates, this data paints a much more dismal picture. Despite the fact that law firms have focused on diversity and inclusion in recent years, for the class of 2019, Black and Native American law school graduates had the lowest overall employment rates. In fact, Black graduates were employed in bar passage-required jobs at a rate 17 percentage points lower than their white classmates.

And with the same depth as ATL, NALP Executive Director James Leipold notes the problem.

In a year when the overall class secured jobs and salaries at higher rates than we have seen since before the Great Recession, many subsets of graduates, but especially Black law school graduates, still meet with lower levels of success in the job market than the rest of the graduate pool.

Why? There is likely no time in history when diversity is driving the job hunt more than now, with both law firms and governmental units desperately seeking to be more inclusive in their hiring. Whether that’s because they really want to be diverse or they feel compelled to create the appearance of diversity so their stats look good is a separate question: the fact is that black lawyers are needed, desperately, to avoid criticism and the loss of business that follows a lack of diversity.

This should mean that black law school grads are a hot commodity. They should be in greater demand than white grads. They should be courted for jobs, offered better pay and be in a position to enjoy a buyer’s market. So why is just the opposite happening?

How do we solve the diversity and inclusion issues that remain in private practice? When white law school graduates are finding jobs that require bar passage at a rate of 79.8 percent and their Black colleagues trail behind at 62.4 percent, it’s clear that whatever law firms think they’re doing to improve diversity and inclusion is still not enough.

Before one can answer the obvious quesetion of “how do we solve” the problem, one has to know what the problem is. The facile answer is discrimination, that it must be that law firms are racist because what else can it be? Except that doesn’t remotely square with the efforts being made to recruit and court black lawyers in order to increase the diversity and improve their statistics. Their corporate clients demand it. Their own staff want it. There is no shortage of voices within law firms calling for a more racially diverse and inclusive firm.

Is it possible that discrimination in law firms is so deeply embedded that despite efforts to be more inclusive, the old white men running the joint just can’t manage to find black law school graduates to welcome into the firm? Sure, it’s possible.

But there are also a number of other, less woke, possibilities, not the least of which is the efforts by law school to facilitate minority matriculation such that they’re graduating students who don’t have the ability. And firms, despite their extreme desire to diversify, still won’t hire law grads who aren’t capable of adequately representing their clients.

Which is it? Is it something else? Is it a combination of things? Beats me, but if the point is to figure out how to fix this disparity, then the first step is to ascertain, with cold hard facts, why it’s happening. Assuming the politically correct answer helps no one, no matter how facile and socially just it may be.

36 thoughts on “Short Take: Why Not Black Law Grads?

  1. Alex Sarmiento

    Well! if the premise is that all disparities in outcome have to have an evil underlying source then the likely next step is to embrace some sort of cynical woke world view of aethereal evilness. “The question is not whether racism is there, the question is how can you see it “.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re beginning to try my patience, Alex. If you have nothing useful to contribute, don’t comment. This is worthless crap.

      1. Drew Conlin

        As you likely know Amy Wax at Penn has spoken about this. Not being a law school graduate and admiring all that do make it thru; my instincts are to keep quiet. Though if I ever need a lawyer ….

  2. Kirk A Taylor

    Stupid non lawyer question…

    Does “law school graduate” presume having taken and passed the bar exam? Because failing the bar exam was the first thing that popped into my mind as an explanation…

      1. B. McLeod

        Most pre-exam offers are contingent on bar passage, because functioning as a lawyer requires that. I have heard of a few firms allowing a second attempt, but not beyond.

        These stats are sufficiently post hoc, I think they will reflect actual employment (i.e., uninflated by those who blew the tin on the exam and so lost their offers). It is highly plausible that what we are seeing is the bar exam culling back out a segment of marginally qualified students who were signed up to fill seats and boost “diversity” claims for their law schools. Extra wokey points for the schools, with high debts and unemployment for the students they have “served.”

        1. SHG Post author

          I kinda hoped you would have some actual thoughts on the actual issue raised by the report and in the post rather than just tinkering around the edges.

  3. DaveL

    I note that the gap between overall employment between white (92.1%) and black (85.4%) law school graduates is less than half the gap seen in employment requiring bar passage (79.8% vs 62.4%). This suggests that the discrepancy in jobs requiring bar admission is what’s behind the gap in overall employment.

    But the set “law school graduates” is not the same as the set “law school graduates who passed the bar”. So what were the passage rates for each group? Am I the only one who finds it odd that this statistic was left out?

    1. SHG Post author

      Bar passage tends to be a condition subsequent to hiring, so while it’s an important stat, it’s not necessarily relevant to hiring.

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        What happens if you get hired and then never pass the bar? Would you eventually get fired? Would that not affect the employment rate?

        1. SHG Post author

          Most firms give a new hire two tries to pass the bar. After that, they get a hearty thank you and the boot, but that comes a year later so it’s not incorporated in the initial stats.

          1. B. McLeod

            These stats are the stats for classes of 2019 and 2018. NALP is compiling slightly more than a year after the Fall bar so they can include employment for everyone who has a job 12 months after graduation. Graduates who are jobless due to bar failure are probably not being treated as “employed” in these counts.

          2. Chris

            Are there proxies that can be used to predict bar passage such as grades, LSAT or even which law school you went to?

  4. Chris CC

    The NALP release doc is, well, it’s a document. I am mildly curious if NALP did a State-by-State analysis. Alas, there’s a paywall and my curiosity is too weak to desire it for satiation. If NALP did not pursue SLDS data to supplement the analysis, I would be disappointed. I’m not sure I could take the disappointment this early in the morning. It’s bad enough seeing there were no comparisons between sample sizes and only coffeeshop casual inferences are tossed about.
    High level numbers in the release doc are great for stirring the pot, worthless for moving forward. From the price tag, I would expect decent research, but from the release, I expect pandering drivel calling for support of a failing government program.

  5. Skink

    I always seek the data when an article provides a summary. How else can I know whether the article is factually reliable? This study claims to have pertinent information on 97% of 2019 law grads regarding hiring and pay. That’s a mighty suspicious number, and I damn-near stopped reading . Aside from being compelled to provide information on the threat of bar suspension, which is obviously not the case, how could there be such a high response rate?

    1. SHG Post author

      Meh. This is a group particularly committed to providing this info to NALP. I’m surprised it wasn’t 100%.

  6. Biglaw Hiring Committee

    If I read you between the lines correctly, my anecdotal experience is pretty much what you surmise. We are desperately trying to add diverse law grads to the firm. There are strong Black, Latino, Indigenous and women candidates, and we do everything we can to recruit them, as do our peer firms. The competition is fierce, to the point of almost being ridiculous.

    But there aren’t enough. The watering down of admissions and coursework to matriculate and keep minority law students means that the numbers coming out do not reflect the number of candidates whom we find capable of doing the quality of work we minimally require. It’s not that we don’t want them, but they still have to possess the skills necessary to serve our clients. Numbers don’t tell the story. Quantity isn’t quality, and no matter how hard we try to recruit Black law grads, quality remains the constraint. No matter what their race or gender, they must still have the capacity to be excellent lawyers.

    1. SHG Post author

      I received an email “comment” that suggested part of the problem is that they might be shooting for the wrong jobs, perhaps looking for the biglaw paycheck when they should have been aiming a little lower based on their law school qualifications.

  7. Harvey Silverglate

    I don’t think that this phenomenon — the problems that black and native American law grads have in getting hired — is limited to law firms. I think that students generally who benefitted from affirmative action have difficulty getting good jobs because employers don’t really, deep down, think that beneficiaries of affirmative action are as good as those who made it into and through school without such a boost. What we are seeing is the downside of affirmative action. it is an argument in favor of abolishing affirmative action because it is a form of racial discrimination that hurts as much as, if not more than, it helps its intended beneficiaries. I have long argued that rather than affirmative action, our society would do well to improve our public educational system from kindergarten thru high school, thereby producing graduates — including minority graduates — who are able to compete on their own merits without a discriminatory boost.

    1. SHG Post author

      You raise an important point, that there are many “barriers to entry” starting long before one gets into, or out of, law school, and we can’t “fix” the problem by change at the top until the change at the bottom enables people to be well-equipped to succeed in college and law school.

    2. KP

      “employers don’t really, deep down, think that beneficiaries of affirmative action are as good as those who made it into and through school without such a boost. ”

      Even worse, it destroys the chances of those blacks who got through law school on their talent alone. This form of racism has been adopted all over the Western world, and the outcomes are always to water down the worth of the minority members who didn’t use the handouts/lower entry requirements/easier exam passes.

  8. Erik H

    Seriously, NALP? I don’t even have a PhD but I’ve read/written enough studies to instantly note the missing words in this sentence:

    “In fact, Black graduates were employed in bar passage-required jobs at a rate 17 percentage points lower than their white classmates.”

    Those missing words would–should–be something like this:

    “…after correcting for class rank, GPA, local market, and law school rank”


    “…as shown via pair-matching on GPA / rank, and as persisting across law schools of various rank”

    or anything else. ANYTHING, really, which would demonstrate at least a college-senior-level attempt to eliminate the most obvious confounders.

    It’s like they ran a bunch of low level statistics correlations in their “Key Statistics Based on Graduate Demographics” section and reported only the ones which were both significant and politically relevant. That isn’t how things work.

    1. SHG Post author

      Not that NALP does such corrections, but if they’re going to raise the point at all, that would at least make it a head to head comparison.

      But even so, it still doesn’t answer a lot of salient questions about what’s going wrong here.

  9. Falconnetti

    I found the string of comments here to be quite revealing. The article, while ostensibly mentioning, then summarily dismissing the issue of racial bias in legal hiring, conveniently goes down the same well paved roads that have been built and traveled by the American legal profession for almost 160 years. Similarly, It appears that most on this thread believe that the “great experiment” called affirmative action has failed the legal profession first by lowering law school admission standards and coursework, then subsequently graduating black students of “low ability” who are unable to perform professional legal work.

    However, there is substantial evidence that refutes this claim. To clarify the point, the term “Affirmative action” refers to a set of policies and practices within a government or organization seeking to include particular groups based on their gender, race, creed or nationality in areas in which they were excluded in the past such as education and employment. The existence of inherent bias, by definition, must be present in any situation where such a policy and/or practice is used. But the most insidious aspect of discounting the viability of black law graduates is the unspoken exercise of white privilege within America’s law schools, in addition to the legal profession as a whole. Black law students often find themselves in unwelcoming environments from the time they enter legal study. In fact, they are routinely marginalized and excluded by white classmates, on the basis of race, from study groups. Black students law students are also not privy to class outlines and past examinations that are passed down from class to class by white students giving them unfair advantages. Black law students are rarely embraced by law faculty and staff as well; bringing their individual racial bias with them when addressing, engaging, and evaluating these students. In addition, the idea that every white student admitted to law school is actually “qualified” to be there is problematic. Each year, America’s law schools admit a fair number of white students upon other basis than their grades and test scores. Yet this reality is rarely spoken of. The bottom half of every law school class are predominately white students, but their “low ability” is infrequently spoken about when discussing legal hiring.

    As far as hiring goes, many of the same issues faced by black law students within law schools are present in legal hiring practices. A large part of the “problem” has to do with the culture of law practices, or racial biases held by clients and/or stakeholders. Many black candidates are evaluated using factors that are not used when reviewing the qualifications of similarly situated white students. A significant number of white candidates personally know,,or are acquainted with, someone inside government agencies and private firms. Law professors are also inclined to recommend those students they have a relationship with; which is in most cases, nonexistent when it comes to black students. Yet, despite all of this, examples abound of black attorneys and scholars shattering the myths of black law graduates inherent inability to perform high level legal work. I know many, non law review, multiple bar exam taker, bottom half of their law class whites that find meaningful employment in law than their black classmates.

    This is by no means saying that all black law graduates will become quality lawyers. What it is saying, however, is that many black law graduates are not even given a chance to show what they can do by whites who control legal hiring, because of other factors not associated with law school performance. Until it is recognized that the legal profession is not a true meritocracy, then we will find ourselves going down the same path 50 years from now. Very sad.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s unfortunate that you didn’t post this comment when this was a fresh post. Do you know which of the commenters here that you’re lecturing are black lawyers? No, of course you don’t. We’re familiar with college sophomore level critical race theory. We’re just past it.

  10. Falconnetti

    I’m an African American attorney. Been so since 1990. What I said wasn’t theory, it’s fact. Your reply is indicative of what’s wrong. You want to theoretically deconstruct issues that are very real. You say you’re past it. It appears you never stopped there long enough to learn anything.

    1. SHG Post author

      Putting aside your failure to use the reply button, bullshit. I don’t “theoretically deconstruct” anything, and no one who uses such meaningless language gets taken seriously. I spent way too many years working with way too many killer black lawyers to tolerate this simplistic victim whining. I was there when they were being discriminated against. And by the way, when I started, white shoe firms didn’t take Jews either.

      There has been no time in the history of this country or the law when firms didn’t desperately try to get black lawyers on board and keep them. I know. I tried like many others to recruit black lawyers and I couldn’t come close to the offers they were getting from big firms. So sell that crap to people who don’t know any better.

      1. Falconnetti

        Scott, no one is “whining”. First you asked and answered whether I knew which commenters I was “lecturing” were black lawyers? I explained to you that I was an African American lawyer, and had been one for 30 years. You then brought up being familiar with and now past college sophomore level critical race theory. Since you opened the door, I took that as you analyzing or deconstructing what I said through a sophomoric application of critical race theory. While I applaud your “being there” while the “killer black lawyers” you knew where discriminated against, I have personally been subjected to such bias, and know hundreds of black attorneys that have, and still are being discriminated against by the legal profession. As for your statement, “ There has been no time in the history of this country or the law when firms didn’t desperately try to get black lawyers on board and keep them.”, I can only say that in all my years on Earth, I have never heard such malarkey! Similarly, while many Jewish lawyers weren’t hired by majority firms, Jewish firms were afforded the opportunity to serve many large corporations and financial institutions. Very few Black firms have ever been given the chance to do the same. In my opinion, the legal profession doesn’t really want black lawyers. If they did, they would hire the ones available, instead of holding on to the excuse that they’re not as qualified as white candidates. America has always said blacks couldn’t compete with whites. But there are a plethora of examples that show it’s a lie. Trying to measure our fitness using a yardstick they developed for themselves is self serving. We all know there is no meritocracy in the legal hiring, only preferences. Not one newly minted lawyer is going to hit the ground running on all cylinders without assistance, no matter the race, gender, or ethnicity. If a black lawyer graduated from law school and passed the bar, there is a good chance as any that they will progress as far an any other hire; if they receive the same guidance, direction, and commitment from the hiring power. To come up with some other convoluted excuse to exclude them due to their perceived lack of qualifications shows that it was never about meeting the so called demand for diversity from the beginning.

        You say you tried to recruit black lawyers but couldn’t because you couldn’t compete with Big Law. But I estimate that half of all new black law grads that have passed the bar won’t receive any offers from law firms or government agencies. If this sounds like whining to you, then I don’t know what else I can say.

        1. SHG Post author

          I’ve mentored quite a few black lawyers. Still do. One sent me a lovely handwritten note the other day. I would tell you what it says, but that’s between us. Point is, he’s doing great, as a trial lawyer, building a great rep and making money. If you were treated like shit, don’t blame me. I would have treated you as well or as poorly as you deserved to be treated. I would hope you would have done the same for me.

    2. Old White HP

      I’m a hiring partner. Maybe ten years ago, black lawyers were tokenized, brought in to dress the place up but otherwise ignored or left to figure it out on their own while promising white lawyers were mentored and prepped for partnership.

      No more. Like my peers, we are desperate for greater diversity and compete bitterly for good candidates. And when we’re lucky enough to recruit lawyers of color, we treat them like gold because we want them to succeed. Their success is our success.

      Oh, and our clients demand that their legal teams be inclusive or they go elsewhere, so no, it’s absolutely false that clients don’t want Black lawyers. They not only want them, but insist upon it.

      1. SHG Post author

        I’ve heard this from numerous people, but this doesn’t (as I’m sure you already know) address the disparity problem.

        1. Old White HP

          HYS only graduates so many law students. More seriously, raw numbers without noting the schools, rank, grades, etc., don’t tell the story, notwithstanding Stacey the ditz.

          The competition for good students from good schools is fierce, but nobody is fighting over CUNY law grads, no matter which boxes they check.

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