In “John Robinson Wilkins and the Resources of the Law,” David B. Wilkins tells a complex story of how family legacy, race, talent, and drive helped shape the careers of the lawyers who came before him—his uncle, John Robinson Wilkins, a Harvard Law School graduate who rose to serve as general counsel for USAID before joining the faculty at Berkeley Law School; his father, Julian Wilkins, a Harvard Law School graduate who became the first African American partner at a major Chicago law firm; and his grandfather, J. Ernest Wilkins, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School who went on to serve as undersecretary of labor in the Eisenhower administration, the first African American appointed to a subcabinet position in the federal government. In “Portrait of an Artist,” Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, an emeritus professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, outlines her “portraiture” methodology—one characterized by thick, narrative-based accounts of individuals that combine empiricism with aesthetics to produce revealing stories in the micro and the macro. In many ways, Wilkins’s account demonstrates the granular details—and the types of connections one can draw between them—revealed by Lawrence-Lightfoot’s portraiture method.
In this article, we hold on some of the themes presented in Wilkins’s lead but approach them with a more quantitative analysis. Namely, we consider whether having a lawyer as a parent impacts individuals’ decisions to become lawyers themselves, otherwise known as “occupational inheritance.” (Wilkins, after all, is a lawyer and law professor who is the son of a lawyer who was himself the son of a lawyer.) In the process, we ask two broad questions: First, what does empirical research reveal about the role of occupational inheritance in the legal profession? And, second, how is that occupational inheritance complicated by factors such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status?
We consider whether having a lawyer as a parent impacts individuals’ decisions to become lawyers themselves, otherwise known as “occupational inheritance.”
In addressing these two questions, it is worth acknowledging at the outset that research has continually shown that the socioeconomic status of one generation helps shape the prospects for the next. As one recent study summarizes, “Research on social status inheritance consistently reports that children benefit from greater parental resources, which are measured in terms of education, occupational status, and income.” Notwithstanding the validity of these types of analyses, as we will see below, questions about occupational inheritance require a somewhat different approach. Indeed, evidence suggests that occupational inheritance is not inextricably linked to socioeconomic inheritance but instead appears to operate—at least in some ways—as a phenomenon unto itself.
According to General Social Survey data, funded by the National Science Foundation and run out of the University of Chicago since 1972, we are roughly twice as likely as the general population to have a given occupation if a parent had it, too. The numbers get steeper when you focus on specific occupations. We are 362 times more likely to become fishermen, 106 times more likely to becomes librarians, and 27 times more likely to become lawyers, if that was what our fathers did for work. We are 281 times more likely to become military officers, 78 times more likely to become human resource managers, and 48 times more likely to become travel agents if our mothers did the same. In short: what parents do for work influences the probability of—but of course does not completely determine—what sons and daughters go on to do for work.
The phenomenon of individuals following in their parents’ professional footsteps, sometimes referred to as “occupational inheritance” or “occupational following,” has long been a focus of study among economists and sociologists. By and large the takeaway is that children are generally likelier than others to enter an occupation if one of their parents once did the same. But there are also some nuances. For instance, in a 2017 study of Swiss primary-school teachers, researchers found that while the children of teachers might be more likely to become teachers themselves, they actually appeared less likely to remain in the teaching profession than the children of nonteachers. The researchers note “that not only parents’ professions but also differences in parents’ sequences of jobs and positions over time affect children’s first vocational choices.” As they explain, as compared with some other professions, the children of teachers may be less tied to the teaching profession writing:
[B]rand-name loyalty and physical assets are simply non-existing for teachers, and parents’ business contact network is almost completely irrelevant for them. Therefore, opportunity costs to leave the teaching profession are arguably substantially lower than they are for other professions.
We are 362 times more likely to become fishermen, 106 times more likely to becomes librarians, and 27 times more likely to become lawyers, if that was what our fathers did for work.
Nuance aside, the study does confirm that teaching is “prone to occupational inheritance.” Similar studies have observed occupational inheritance in other professions like medicine and even in industries like agriculture. Some researchers even suggest that a similar “following” dynamic can be found on a more granular, task-based level (referred to as “task following”), sometimes crossing occupational lines. As we see below, the legal profession is yet another example of a profession where the apple is not so likely to fall far from the tree.
Born lawyers or persuaded at the dinner table?
There is strong evidence that similar patterns exist among lawyers. A key 1992 study by economists David Laband and Bernard Lentz sheds light directly on occupational inheritance in the legal profession. Using data from the longitudinal Project Talent Survey—which collected data on hundreds of thousands of U.S. high school students in 1960, with follow-up surveys conducted five and 11 years after they graduated—Laband and Lentz argue that the children of lawyers are significantly more likely to become lawyers themselves. According to the data, more than 11 percent of lawyers in the sample had at least one parent who was also a lawyer. This number is very much in line with 2004 After the JD data that found “[a]bout 12 percent of the lawyers in the sample are the children of lawyers, and another 36 percent had some other close relative who was an attorney.” In fact, the lawyers in Laband and Lentz’s Project Talent sample were even more likely to have one or more parents who were also lawyers than those in other occupations, such as doctors (7.89 percent) or accountants (4.26 percent), were to have one or more parents in their occupation (see Table 1). Put differently, lawyers were more likely to be following in at least one of their parent’s footsteps as they embarked on their careers. Moreover, sons of lawyers who had no previous proclivity toward the legal profession—those that did not expressly “like” the law or expect to become lawyers per the survey—became lawyers at a significantly higher rate (28 percent in the sample) than those from nonlawyer/parents (just 0.32 percent).
Table 2, below, extends on this generalized finding by isolating for specific variables, among them having a “lawyer/parent.” Specifically, when the lawyer/parent variable is turned off—a “0” value meaning that the children did not have a parent who was a lawyer—the probability of being a lawyer drops below .15 (columns 4 and 5, row c). As soon as having a lawyer/parent is turned on—a value of “1”—the probability of being a lawyer jumps to .492 at the lowest, .654 at the highest, and .597 in the middle (the higher the number, the higher the probability), when controlling for other factors such as family income, frequency of parents talking to children about their future careers (more on the “Parent Talk” variable below), and the professional background of the parent. It is important to stress that having a “high family income” (defined as “being greater than $12,000/year in 1960”) appeared much less impactful to whether a child ended up being a lawyer: a person with a high family income but without a lawyer/parent had a .144 probability of becoming a lawyer as compared with a person without a high family income but with a lawyer/parent who had a .597 probability. While we return to these other factors below, it is clear that the simple fact of having a lawyer/parent is the most important variable.
Few studies have looked as directly at occupational inheritance since Laband and Lentz published their findings, particularly in the legal profession specifically. However, a 2019 study by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, based on the Labour Force Survey in the United Kingdom and 175 in-depth interviews across four elite occupations, did find that the likelihood of a person becoming a lawyer is 17 times higher if either of their parents preceded them in law—the second most inheritable profession behind medicine (children of doctors were 24 times more likely to become doctors than those coming from nondoctor families). In the study, Friedman and Laurison expose disparities in access to top jobs across social classes but also progress and advancement within them—what they call, the “class ceiling.”
Evidence suggests that occupational inheritance remains pertinent even when controlling for factors like race and gender. For instance, a seminal study of the Chicago bar in 1975 found that 19 percent of minorities (including Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics of both genders) and 19 percent of white women had a lawyer/father, outpacing both white non-Jewish men (15 percent) and Jewish men (11 percent). When the study was updated in 1994, minorities with lawyer/fathers had dropped to 6 percent and white women with lawyer/fathers dropped to 11 percent, while Jewish men (13 percent) and white non-Jewish men (12 percent) changed relatively little. As we see below, more research is needed to isolate precisely what caused this drop.
The role of occupational inheritance is also seen in the Harvard Law School Black Alumni Survey, which controls for not just race but also for law school—all respondents were Black alumni of Harvard Law School. According to the survey data, around 9 percent of respondents reported that their father or mother had a JD (the majority reporting their father). A slightly smaller percent—8 percent—indicated that their father or mother practiced law professionally as they were growing up.
Complicating the picture
On the basis of this data, it might be easy to come away with a “like father, like son” narrative (as we see below, the gendered nature of the findings are themselves revealing). However, drilling down deeper on observed occupational inheritance presents a more complicated story. As Laband and Lentz conclude, having a lawyer/parent appears to be particularly impactful on an individual’s likelihood of becoming a lawyer. Beyond this top line takeaway, interesting differences occur within lawyer/parent families. For instance, Laband and Lentz emphasize the frequency of conversations between parent and child pertaining to the child’s career plans (what they label “Parent Talk”), which has a sizeable impact on an individual’s probability of becoming a lawyer in their sample—even more so than being from a high-earning household. Specifically, among those respondents who reported having at least one lawyer/parent, the “benchmark” individual (column 1 in Table 2), to borrow Laban and Lentz’s phrase, had discussed their career with at least one lawyer/parent five or more times and came from a family with a high income. This yielded a probability of becoming a lawyer at .654. The individual with at least one lawyer/parent who had five or more conversations about career choices, yet came from a lower-income family (column 3 in Table 2), has a higher probability (.597) than the individual with at least one lawyer/parent who had only four conversations about career choices but came from a higher-income family (column 2 in Table 2). In short, Parent Talk appears more predictive than high family income, assuming that one comes from a family of lawyers.
The two highest reported percentages of occupational inherences in the 1975 Chicago lawyers project were minorities and white women—not white men.
There are, of course, limitations to the data. For one, “five or more” Parent Talks is far from a concrete figure and could represent five, six, or seven conversations just as it could represent 50, 60, or 70 conversations. And, to be clear, we do not know how or where or to what extent the probability of becoming a lawyer changes at each point within that virtually limitless range. Likewise, it was up to the students filling out the survey to estimate their annual family income—namely whether it was above or below a certain threshold. Nevertheless, the point is clear: the more Parent Talk interactions where children discuss their career plans with their parents, the more the child’s likelihood of becoming a lawyer to the extent that one’s parents are lawyers.
Occupational inheritance is also related to broader questions around socioeconomic inheritance, though, again, it should be stressed that the two are distinct from one another. While socioeconomic status is not reducible to a single data point, researchers often look to factors like income and parental education as proxies for socioeconomic status and as rough metrics of available social capital. And yet, these factors do not fully account for the unique influence of occupational inheritance when it comes to predicting future career paths. For instance, the two highest reported percentages of occupational inherences in the 1975 Chicago lawyers project were minorities and white women—not white men—despite both groups presumably having significantly less socioeconomic power and status at the time. Moreover, as noted, according to Laband and Lentz’s data, having a lawyer/parent is far more predictive of whether or not one becomes a lawyer than family income.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the majority of lawyers do not have lawyer/parents, and therefore broader socioeconomic determinants are incredibly powerful influences on whether one becomes a lawyer as well as on one’s progression in law. Indeed, socioeconomic background remains a strong indicator of a person’s overall progress and success in the marketplace generally and in the legal profession specifically. After the JD (AJD) data confirms these sorts of disparities are also true among lawyers. For instance, as Ronit Dinovitzer and Bryant Garth note in a 2007 paper, AJD data shows that higher parent education—whether in law or not—corresponds to entry into more prestigious law schools. “[Our] analyses disclosed that these rankings are well correlated with the measures of the AJD lawyers’ social backgrounds,” Dinovitzer and Garth write. “Fathers of students attending top ten schools have occupational prestige scores that are significantly higher than those from the fourth tier schools, ‘with reports of fathers’ occupational scores declining in a linear fashion along with law school tier.’” This matters because we know that attending more prestigious law schools also translates into better first jobs post-law school, longer-term earnings in the profession, and other markers of “success.”
All of these markers are also undoubtedly conditioned by race, gender, and other demographic factors. We know, for example, that aspects of an individual’s racial or ethnic background add nuance. As a recent study by researchers at both Harvard University and the U.S. Census Bureau finds, “Black and American Indian children have substantially lower rates of upward mobility and higher rates of downward mobility than white children,” going on to state that “[t]he black-white gap—the largest gap among those we study—is driven entirely by sharp differences in the outcomes of black and white men who grow up in families with comparable incomes.”
Further, it is critical to recognize that much of the data offered above is highly skewed toward the historically largest segment of the U.S. legal profession: white men. For instance, while Laband and Lentz’s analysis technically contains women, it is explicitly framed around fathers and sons. After clarifying that some parts of their data relies on all-male samples, they go on to add, “Although the wording is male oriented, it should be clear that the analysis generalizes to women, both mothers and daughters.” Today, women constitute the majority of all law school graduates in the United States and in many other regions in the world. A similar story can be told about race, albeit not as dramatic. Per the American Bar Association, in the 1987–88 academic year, total minority enrollment in approved U.S. law schools stood at 13,250. By the 2012–13 academic year, the number had risen to 35,914.
While there is no doubt that having a lawyer/parent may be correlated with the background socioeconomic indicators traditionally associated with career success, there is nothing determinate in this connection.
Indeed, as the Chicago study of lawyers illustrated, there were higher levels of occupational inherence among minorities and women in the 1975 study as compared with the 1994 update. One plausible reason for the high percentage in 1975 is the importance of the role of lawyers in the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement—the very lawyers who are the parents of the 1975 cohort. There is also some evidence that the importance of occupational inheritance has waned over time among minority lawyers. As noted above, when the 1975 study was updated in 1994, the percentage of minority lawyers with lawyer/parents decreased to 9 percent. Likewise, we may see evidence of this from the Harvard Law School Black Alumni Survey. While not a direct comparison, when asked if they would go to law school again knowing what they know today, more than 87 percent of the sample responded “yes.” However, when asked if they would recommend law to a young person, such as their sons or daughters, the number drops to 66 percent overall. Moreover, inclination to recommend law school is lowest among both younger respondents—only 58 percent of those graduating post-2000 (as compared with 87 percent pre-2000) and among black women (62 percent) as compared with black men (70 percent). This is particularly problematic to the extent that black women make up the majority of black law students. Combined with Laband and Lentz’s point about the importance of family talks as well as the drop noted in the Chicago study, there appears to be some evidence that the importance of occupational inheritance may be lessoning among minority lawyers. There are any number of potential reasons that this might be the case—for instance, one possible explanation is that the playing field, while not fully leveled, has been leveled to such an extent that young minority individuals might be more likely to find attractive opportunities outside their parents’ specific professional networks; however, further research is needed along these lines.
The trend of occupational inheritance in the legal profession is real—albeit complicated. On the one hand, there is strong evidence that having a lawyer/parent increases the likelihood of one becoming a lawyer—irrespective of race or gender. On the other hand, the impacts of occupational inheritance are distinct and should be studied separately from broader questions on the impact of socioeconomic factors on long-term success. While there is no doubt that having a lawyer/parent may be correlated with the background socioeconomic indicators traditionally associated with career success, as Laband and Lentz point out, there is nothing determinate in this connection. Going forward, it is critical to learn more about both the impacts of occupational inheritance, particularly as the demographics in the legal profession are changing, as well as how those numbers change on the basis of race and gender and intersect with broader socioeconomic factors that contextualize and structure those findings.