What Is the Connection Between Diversity and Privilege in the Law?

Economists have found that many elite US universities – including Brown, Dartmouth, Penn, Princeton, and Yale – take more students from the top 1% of the income distribution than from the bottom 60%. … “American meritocracy,” the Yale law professor Daniel Markovits argues, has “become precisely what it was invented to combat: a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations.” (“The Myth of Meritocracy“, by Kwame Anthony Appiah)

Even more troubling is that once students graduate from school, the set of advantages or disadvantages from growing up wealthy or from a working class background continues throughout people’s lives. In The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged , researchers Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman show that a series of “hidden mechanisms” benefit individuals that grew up wealthy. These hidden mechanisms include unwritten codes of office behavior and informal systems of professional advancement. These hidden mechanisms confer an advantage on individuals that grew up wealthy while simultaneously disadvantaging those with working-class backgrounds. For example, young adults from wealthier families may have their housing subsidized at the beginning of their career or may know about the appropriate rules of office talk or wear. This may make them more likely to be sponsored for promotion.

The effect of the series of hidden mechanisms can be seen in the New York Times article “Elite Law Firm’s All-White Partner Class Stirs Debate on Diversity”. In the article, the announcement of the law firm Paul, Weiss of its new partner class was dissected. The new class of partners was made of 12 lawyers. All lawyers were white. Almost all of them were white men. “More than 20 women and people of color interviewed for [the New York Times] article described obstacles to achieving diversity at Paul, Weiss. Many said that opportunities to be groomed for partner are harder to come by for women and minorities. … they failed to break into the good graces and social circles of the firm’s top lawyers, who must champion those hoping to earn a lucrative spot as a partner.”

The researcher Laurison points out that one way to even the playing field is to “change workplace cultures to be closer to what … working-class people—and women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other historically excluded groups—bring rather than just trying to teach those ‘others’ how to adapt.”

Although inequality in opportunity will likely never be eradicated, we can begin to break down barriers by recognizing our own unconscious biases and working towards overcoming them.

(Views are my own and do not represent the views of any organization.)

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