To investigate the significance of race in the careers of black lawyers, and to document the achievements of Harvard Law School’s black graduates, in 2016–2017 the Center on the Legal Profession (CLP) surveyed virtually all living black HLS alumni about their careers since graduating from law school. The survey, which was officially launched in the fall of 2016, covered a wide range of issues, including law school experiences, first jobs post-HLS, current jobs, career trajectories and transitions, levels of satisfaction, and attitudes on the state of race relations. Together, the survey results offer a wealth of information about the career paths, obstacles, and successes of HLS’s black graduates from across more than six decades. In the full report, Harvard Law School: Report on the State of Black Alumni II, 2000–2016, we examine the data using three core approaches:
- Across the entire sample, which offers an overall snapshot of the professional and personal experiences of black HLS graduates across time
- Across decade-based cohorts; for example, comparing those graduating between 1990 and 1999 (the “1990s cohort”) with those graduating between 2000 and 2009 (the “2000s cohort”)
- Across era-based groups, comparing “pre-2000” and “post-2000” graduates (with those graduating in 2000 included in the latter group), allowing us to examine the careers of black graduates on each side of the new millennium
In using decade-based cohorts and era-based groups, we examine graduates both within each grouping, providing insights into the similarities and differences in career patterns of graduates within each decade and/or era, as well as between the groupings, thereby allowing us to examine how graduates have built careers at different periods of time.
If black law graduates, whether from HLS or any other law school, encounter more challenges and have fewer opportunities than their nonblack colleagues, that has a profound impact on American society.
We also included a gender variable to each of these groups, which we focus on for this lead story of The Practice. As HLS graduate Kimberlé Crenshaw’s pioneering research on intersectionality makes clear, otherwise distinct social characteristics such as race and gender can combine and intersect in ways that produce a new category of classification with its own systems of discrimination and disadvantage. Indeed, separate discussions about either minorities or women ignore the important reality that the majority of minority law students are women. Minority women lawyers experience many of the same issues that face white women lawyers and minority male lawyers—plus a complex set of challenges that flow from the intersection of these two forms of identity. If the legal profession and society are going to make progress on either gender or racial diversity in 21st-century workplaces, we all must acknowledge and better understand the importance of intersectionality in the lives of minority women lawyers. (For more on Crenshaw’s understanding of intersectionality, read her seminal 1989 article on the topic here.)
Although this is only a study of black HLS graduates, we believe the results have wider implications for those interested in race in the American legal profession. By focusing on black HLS graduates specifically, the study examines a group of high-achieving individuals who enter the legal marketplace with largely similar qualifications. In other words, by studying black graduates of a single prestigious law school, divergences in career paths are more easily associable to things other than qualifications, which is particularly relevant given the legal profession’s traditional reliance on “qualifications” as a measure of quality. Second, while law schools are often very good at knowing where their graduates end up one, two, or three years after graduation, they are much less equipped to know where they are 10, 15, 20 years or more after they graduate law school. Because our survey of black HLS alumni includes respondents from as far back as the 1960s all the way up to graduates from the class of 2016, we can study law graduates at diverse stages of their careers and begin to understand how race comes into play for graduates from different generations. And while our sample exclusively comprises HLS graduates, our findings are relevant to all of those who care about the role of law in society. Lawyers and those with legal training play critical roles across all segments of American society, whether in the judicial system itself or in government, business, nongovernmental organizations, or other important institutions. Therefore, if black law graduates, whether from HLS or any other law school, encounter more challenges and have fewer opportunities than their nonblack colleagues, that has a profound impact on American society. Our study limits its survey sample to graduates of just one law school, HLS, to get a clear view of this picture.
This article, which is based on the findings presented in the full report, focuses specifically on issues of intersectionality by highlighting key areas in which gender differences among black law graduates are particularly salient. As the following sections demonstrate, while much progress has been made, black lawyers continue to face significant obstacles in their legal careers. Moreover, that black women continue to face particularly high barriers is of paramount importance given that the majority of black law graduates are women. Together with “The Education of Black Lawyers,” which examines how law schools are attempting to both grow their black student populations and provide new forms of support and mentorship, and “The Legal Profession in the Age of Obama,” which looks at the role of race in lawyers’ careers in the context of the election of the first African American president who was himself a lawyer and former law professor, this issue of The Practice offers a multifaceted view of black lawyer careers during the first 16 years of the 21st century.
Careers in Comparison
The 2016 survey was designed to be comparable to a series of other CLP career study projects. First, and most notably, the 2016 survey is highly comparable to the 2000 HLS black alumni survey, in most cases utilizing identical questions. As we revisit below, because the survey questionnaires are largely identical, we can compare the responses of the more recent black HLS graduates to those of their predecessors, as well as observe how the careers of pre-2000 graduates have continued to change over time. The 2016 survey also allows us to capture the critical changes that have occurred since 2000, including the election of the first black president, himself an HLS graduate and lawyer. In that respect, the 2016 survey includes a set of questions not present in the 2000 version, most notably on the impact the Obama presidency has had on the legal profession.
Second, the 2016 (and 2000) black alumni questionnaire shares many similar characteristics with the Harvard Law School Career Study (HLSCS), which surveyed four HLS classes: the classes of 1975, 1985, 1995, and 2000. Conducted in 2010 by CLP, the HLSCS focused primarily on how gender impacted the professional and personal choices of HLS graduates, the full results of which were published in 2013 in Women and Men of Harvard Law School: Preliminary Results from the HLS Career Study. It is important to note that due to data limitations, specifically the relatively low response rate of minority students from the target classes, the HLSCS did not systematically address race-based issues. However, given the high comparability of the questionnaire with the 2000 and 2016 black alumni surveys, in the sections below we can compare the experiences of black HLS graduates to those of the school’s alumni more generally.
Finally, the results of the 2016 survey are comparable to what is known about black lawyers’ careers nationally, including results from the After the JD (AJD) study. AJD is a longitudinal study that tracks the professional lives of more than 4,000 lawyers who entered the bar in or around the year 2000. The first wave of the study, AJD 1, was conducted in 2002–2003 and provides information about the personal and professional lives of AJD respondents two to three years after passing the bar. The second wave of the study, AJD 2, was conducted in 2007–2008 and provides data about the same respondents seven to eight years into their careers. The third and final wave, AJD 3, was conducted in 2011–2012 and provides data on these same respondents 10 to 12 years into their careers. AJD findings, along with other sources of publically available data, allow us to draw comparisons between the experiences of black HLS graduates and a more national population of black lawyers.
Law school enrollment
We begin our story at law school, where the ratio of black women to black men at HLS has increased significantly since gender and race numbers were first tracked in the 1980s. In decade-based cohort terms, more than half (54.8%) of the 1980s cohort were black men at HLS. With the 2000s cohort, that number had dropped to 40.2%. By comparison, the percentage of black women at HLS was just under half (45%) for the 1980s cohort; however, with the 2000s cohort, it had ballooned to 60%. This trend continues and appears to be accelerating for the yet-unfished 2010s cohort, where the percentage of women has increased to almost 64%. Put differently, in the 2010s, nearly two out every three black students at HLS was a woman.
Table 1. Distribution of gender by cohort
Moreover, between 2000 and 2016, in every individual class (as separate from the decade-based cohorts just discussed) apart from 2012, the percentage of black women at HLS was higher than the percentage of black men. (Indeed, looking further back in data not shown here, apart from the class of 1992 and 2012, black women have outnumbered black men in every individual HLS class since gender records have been kept.)
Table 2. Black 1L enrollment at HLS: 2000-2016
HLS is not alone in having higher percentages of black women than men. For instance, at Howard University School of Law, which has graduated more black lawyers than any other school, nearly two-thirds of its black student body are women. National data also supports this finding. According to 2009–2013 ABA data on full-time J.D. enrollment across all ABA-approved law schools, black women make up, on average, 61% of all black law students and black men, 39%. To add context, black students constitute just 7.4% of all law students.
It should be noted that the higher proportion of black female law students tracks a more general trend of increased gender parity at law schools, both at HLS and nationally. At HLS, the class of 1975 was 85% male and 15% female. In 2013, it was 52.4% male and 47.6% female. For the class of 2019, women outnumber men at time of enrollment—51% to 49%. Nationally, in 2016, the number of women J.D. students at ABA-accredited schools outnumbered men—55,766 to 55,059, with female 1Ls representing 51% of new students and male 1Ls 48.6%. This trend is not limited to the United States. In Norway, as The Practice has previously reported (see “Women in the Global Legal Profession”), women now make up 64% of graduating law school classes and have made up more than 60% for more than a decade. The case is similar in many other countries around the world. Thus, the fact that black women outnumber black men is not necessarily surprising given the more general increase in the number of women going to law school. Nevertheless, three points should be stressed.
First, as Figure 1 graphically illustrates, while the number of black women continues to outnumber the number of black men at HLS, there has been a steep decline in the overall number of black students at the school since 2013, with a 3% drop between 2015 and 2016. This decline impacts both black men and women; however, in the most recent years black women represent the greatest drop in numbers (perhaps due to their greater starting numbers). More research must be done to determine what is driving this drop at HLS.
Figure 1. Black 1L enrollment at HLS: 2000-2016
Second, law schools and the profession need to be cognizant of the gender gap when it comes to black law students and, in particular, the increasingly low numbers of black men entering the profession. (For more on black law school enrollment and experiences, see “The Education of Black Lawyers.”)
The overwhelming majority of black HLS graduates—71.9%—entered private practice for their first job post-HLS.
Finally, precisely because substantially higher numbers of black women are graduating from law school, the profession has a serious problem to the extent that they face significant challenges based on their race, gender, and the intersection between the two in building successful and meaningful careers. We turn to examine this issue and the careers of black women lawyers on the basis of our survey data.
Black Alumni Survey II
Our survey sample includes 687 black HLS graduates representing 31% of those surveyed. For the purposes of this analysis, we focused exclusively on graduates with a J.D. (including joint degrees). This is due primarily to the low responses rates from LL.M. and S.J.D. students as well as the likely difference between the careers of this group and those with J.D.’s.
As an additional check on the representativeness of our data, we conducted an analysis of respondents and nonrespondents using information from HLS records on black enrollment by cohorts and gender. Based on this analysis, and to account for any differences between the population and the survey responses, data was weighted for each cohort by gender. This weighting allows us to reach conclusions from our sample that are more representative of the population as a whole.
The majority of tables contain the following structure:
- An overall column (shaded gray), which signifies all respondents in the sample
- Male and female columns, which signify the responses from male and female respondents respectively from across the entire sample
- Pre- and post-2000 era columns, which signify the responses from those who graduated from HLS on each side of the new millennium. Those who graduated in 2000 are included in the post-2000 era.
It is important to note that despite containing graduates from similar years, the “pre-2000 era” is distinct from the sample contained in the 2000 CBA report, which surveyed black HLS graduates through 1999. While we refer to the original CBA report below, the individuals contained in the 2000 survey are not necessarily the same individuals contained in the pre-2000 era grouping of the 2016 survey. In addition, those pre-2000 graduates who participated in both surveys were at a different stage in their career when they filled out the 2016 survey. Both of these factors help explain why some of the findings contained in this report for those in the pre-2000 era may differ from what was reported in 2000.
For the sake of brevity, decade-based cohort breakdowns are not displayed. These breakdowns were, however, produced, and we refer to them when they contain important findings.
We also performed statistical significance testing on many tables. An indication of “p<.05”—denoted by *—means that we can be 95% confident that the observed difference between the variables in question reflects a true difference in the underling population and not simply a sampling error. An indication of “p<.01”—denoted by **—means that we can be 99% confident that the observed difference between variables reflects such a true difference. The standard minimum confidence level for statistical significance for research of this kind is 95%.
Significance testing was run to determine whether there were statistically significant differences between men and women, between decade-based cohorts, and between eras. For example, do men present differently from women, or does the pre-2000 era differ from the post-2000 era? We have not yet conducted significant testing or other forms of regression analyses to determine whether there are interaction effects between these various groups—for example, differences between pre-2000 men and post-2000 women. We anticipate conducting this more complex analysis in the coming months.
Finally, sums may not tally exactly to 100% due to rounding. Also, seven respondents did not identify their gender and therefore have been excluded from comparisons between men and women, but their answers have otherwise been counted in the response totals for all other purposes.
First jobs post-HLS
As Table 3 illustrates, the overwhelming majority of black HLS graduates—71.9%—entered private practice for their first job post-HLS. This trend holds across eras, with 72.2% of pre- 2000 graduates entering private practice as their first job post-HLS and 71.5% from the post-2000 era. These percentages are slightly higher than the 68% of black graduates who reported beginning their career in this sector in our 2000 report. It is also marginally greater than the percentage of all HLS alumni reported in the HLSCS, which found that, across all cohorts in the sample, 61% went to a private firm as their first job post-HLS. Finally, the percentage of black HLS graduates beginning their careers in private practice as reported here is substantially higher than the percentage reported in AJD 1, where only 57.3% of black lawyers were working in private law firms of any size two to three years into their careers.
Table 3. First job post-HLS
When a gender variable is added, the picture becomes more complicated. Overall, male and female respondents reported entering the private sector at largely the same rate (71.2% of men and 72.8% of women). However, this overall similarity masks some interesting cohort and era differences. In the 1970s, the percentage of men entering private practice (69.6%) was higher than the corresponding percentage of women (40%). By the 1980s, however, these percentages had flipped with 72.2% of men entering private practice, as compared to 85.7% of women in this cohort. These percentages held stable for the 1990s with 73.7% of men and 85.6% of women entering private practice, before arriving at virtual parity for the 2000s cohort (71.9% men, 70.9% women), and then switching back to the pattern of the 1970s, where men outnumber women in private practice (this time by 82.1% to 63.5%) in the partial 2010 cohort.
The fact that the percentage of women entering private practice as their first job out of law school exceeds the comparable percentage for men is consistent with what we found in the first black alumni survey in 2000. As we reported in the study, 72% of the women in our sample began their career in private practice, as compared to only 64% of men—a gap that was even larger (81% to 64%) for the 1990s cohort. Viewed from this perspective, the results for the post-2000 era in our current survey constitute a significant development.
Although our data does not allow us to fully explain these shifting patterns, the fact that the percentage of women who started their careers in government in the 1970s was more than three times greater than the percentage of men who did so (25% to 7.2%), while the percentage of men entering this sector is greater than the percentage of women for every other cohort except for 2010 (where no men went directly into government service), undoubtedly plays a role. At the same time, the percentage of men who began their careers in business where they are not practicing law is almost three times that for women whose first job is in this sector, although the percentage of women who start their careers this way has increased nearly 10-fold (from 0.6% to 5.6%) between the pre- and post-2000 eras.
Overall, our data shows a dramatic migration out of private practice and into other employment sectors—71.9% (first job in private practice) to 26.6% (current).
With respect to those entering the public interest and legal services sectors as their first job out of law school, the picture looks similar to what we found in 2000. In the 2000 survey, approximately 9% of our sample was initially employed across these two sectors. This is almost identical to the 8.6% of respondents whose initial job was public interest or legal services in our current sample. Moreover, there is virtually no difference between the pre- and post-2000 eras on this point, with 8.9% of pre-2000 era respondents and 10.5% of post-2000 respondents initially joining this sector. Given all the changes in the world during the six decades covered by this study—including changes in the cost of HLS and the introduction of programs specifically designed to boost the percentage of students going into public interest and legal services—the constancy of these percentages suggests that other factors besides student debt and law school programs are influencing whether graduates begin their careers in these fields. Having said this, women continue to be more likely to start their careers in public interest and legal services jobs than men—a difference that, unlike what we found in 2000, where the difference between women and men starting in these areas had largely disappeared by the 1990s cohort, does not appear to be going away, according to our new study. This is particularly true with respect to public interest, where shockingly none of the men in the post-2000 era who responded to our survey began their career in this sector.
Initial firm size
For those black graduates who began their careers in private practice, the overwhelming majority did so by joining large law firms, with 82% in firms with more than 100 lawyers and 61.7% in firms of 251+ lawyers. There is a significant cohort and era effect, with more than 92% of the post-2000 era starting in large law firms (82.6% in firms of 251+ lawyers). Results are parallel to the 2000 report and the HLSCS.
Table 4. Firm size (first job post-HLS)
As we found in 2000, black women are significantly more likely than men to begin their careers in the largest law firms, with 70% of women joining firms of 251+ lawyers or larger and only 53.3% of men joining firms of the same size—a highly statistically significant difference. Moreover, this gender difference is increasing over time. In the 1990s cohort, roughly equal percentages of women and men joined law firms of 251+ lawyers (similar to what we found in 2000). For post-2000 era graduates, women were joining such firms at significantly higher percentages than men (87.5% women to 76.2% men). It is important to note that these percentages are the inverse of national studies such as the AJD, where black women are significantly less likely than black men to start their careers in private firms.
The fact that black women are both graduating law school at higher rates than black men and starting their careers in the largest law firms at higher rates than black men is important context as we examine the percentages of black women who remain in private practice, obtain partnership, and enter firm leadership.
Overall, our data shows a dramatic migration out of private practice and into other employment sectors—71.9% (first job in private practice) to 26.6% (current). That’s a 63% decrease. This finding confirms what we know about lawyers’ careers over time, but it should be stressed that black HLS graduates (both men and women) migrate out of private practice at much higher rates than both white and black lawyers nationally. Thus, the AJD study found that 38% of black lawyers in private practice in AJD 1 had left the sector by AJD 3—10% more than the 28% of white lawyers who did so, but a full 22% below our finding here.
This, of course, raises the question of where black HLS graduates are migrating to when they leave private practice. Again, our data confirms what we know about HLS and national legal careers more generally. The largest movement was toward business (practicing law)—from 1.6% initially to 14.9% for current jobs. There was also significant migration into government (7.2% to 17.5%), education (2% to 12.1%), public interest (4.7% to 6.9%), and business (not practicing law) (6.9% to 10.1%). Legal services (2.4% to 2.2%) remained relatively stable.
Figure 2. Current job
Adding in the gender variable, male respondents were significantly more likely to remain in private practice—33.8%—and business (not practicing law)—12.9%—as compared to female respondents (19.6% and 7.3% respectively). This difference is statistically significant. These trends remained true across the pre- and post-2000 eras. Thus, while both men and women migrate out of practice over time, women do so at greater rates than their male colleagues. Men are also more likely to be in business (not practicing law) than women. Both findings are supported by the HLSCS and the AJD study, offering evidence that these trends hold for black and nonblack populations.
Nationally, black lawyers of both genders continue to be underrepresented in large law firms, particularly among the partners in these institutions.
At the same time, both in the aggregate and across the pre- and post-2000 eras, female respondents were more likely to be in public interest (10.4%) and legal services (4.4%) at the time of the survey than their male colleagues (3.4% and less than 1% respectively). Women were also represented at higher rates—14.3%—than men—9.9%—in education.
Table 5. Current job
Current firm size
For those respondents who reported being in private practice for their current job, we see a distinct shift regarding the size of their firms relative to the size of firms reported for first jobs post-HLS. The majority of both male and female respondents who went into private law practice right out of law school joined firms of 251+ lawyers, with only 7.6% going into firms with 2–50 lawyers and less than 1% into solo practice. By contrast, the firm size of respondents who reported currently being in private practice was bimodal. On the one hand, 49.4% reported working at firms of 251+ lawyers. On the other hand, almost an equal percentage—41.3%—reported that they were either in solo practice (13%) or in a firm of 2–50 lawyers (28.3%).
This pattern is largely the result of age, with a higher percentage of respondents from older cohorts reporting that they were in solo practice or small firms, while those from more recent cohorts report being in the large law firms where they typically began their careers. Thus, respondents from the 1970s were heavily skewed toward solo practice and smaller firms (27.8% in solo practice and 50% in firms with 2–50 lawyers). The 2010s cohort, by contrast, reported 73.4% in firms of 251+ lawyers, although the 23.2% in firms of 2–50 is still greater than the percentage of this cohort who started out in firms of that size. The 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s cohorts generally follow this pattern, which is clear from the era-based differences.
Respondents from the pre-2000 era reported being in solo practice 24.9% of the time and at firms with 2–50 lawyers 33.9% of the time—for a combined percentage of 58.8%. By contrast, 69.8% of respondents in the post-2000 era reported being in firms of 251+ lawyers. All these differences are highly statistically significant.
Table 6. Firm size (current job)
Law firm partnership
Nationally, black lawyers of both genders continue to be underrepresented in large law firms, particularly among the partners in these institutions. Available data from the National Association of Law Placement (NALP) underscores the extent of the problem. Thus, the average black partnership rate between 2005 and 2016 is just 1.7%, with a peak of 1.81% in 2016 and a low of 1.55% in 2005. As dreary as these percentages are, those pertaining to black female partners in these institutions are even worse. In 2016, for example, African American women constituted just 0.64% of all partners in the NALP sample, up only slightly from the 0.59% of black female partners reported in 2006. One of the goals of the survey project is to see whether black HLS graduates are doing better than the picture painted by these bleak statistics.
There are reasons to believe that black HLS graduates may indeed be more likely to become partners in law firms than these averages suggest. As indicated above, more black HLS graduates begin their careers in large law firms than what data from the AJD study suggests is true for black graduates nationally. Moreover, a study of all black partners listed in the 1992–1993 edition of the American Bar Association’s Directory of Partners at Majority/Corporate Law Firms indicated that nearly half (47%) of all the black partners listed obtained their law degrees from either Harvard or Yale, with more than three-quarters (77%) having attended one of the country’s 12 most prestigious law schools as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Anecdotal reports from interviews with black lawyers underscore that attending HLS or another similarly elite school dramatically improves a black lawyer’s chances of succeeding in a large law firm—or any other sector of the legal profession.
Nearly three-quarters—73.9%—of the respondents who reported being law firm partners reported being equity partners. Although obviously high, this percentage is still nearly 10 points below the 82% of HLS graduates as a whole who reported being equity partners in the Harvard Law School Career Study.
Data from our 2000 survey provided additional support for the hypothesis that black HLS graduates are making partner in larger numbers than the overall statistics cited above would suggest. In that study, we found that among those who were in private practice at the time of the survey, 42% were partners, with 37% reporting being equity partners. That study also revealed, however, that in one important respect the careers of HLS black graduates appeared to mirror national trends: controlling for cohort, black men were far more likely than black women to report being partners. For example, among those in the 1980s cohort who were still in private practice, 74% of men reported being equity partners, as compared with only 48% of women—although this latter percentage is still large compared to the negligible percentage of all equity partners who are African American women nationally.
Our current survey echoes these prior findings. Of respondents still in private practice at the time of the survey, 40.4% reported being either equity or nonequity partners in law firms. Not surprisingly, there is a significant era impact, with only 8.9% of respondents in the post-2000 era reporting being partners, compared to a stunning 72.8% of those in the pre-2000 era.
There is also a strong gender effect, with male respondents more than 1.5 times as likely to be a partner (47.3%) than female respondents (28.6%), suggesting that whatever the firm size, black women continue to be especially disadvantaged by the partnership process. This is particularly troubling to the extent that the majority of black law graduates are women, and black men and women are entering law firms at largely the same rate (indeed, black women at a slightly higher rate than black men) for their first jobs post-HLS.
Moreover, in assessing these findings, it is important to remember that while many in the pre-2000 era may be partners, a significant percentage of these lawyers are likely to be partners in small or midsize firms. As we indicate below, a large number of the black graduates who begin their careers at the largest law firms end up leaving well before they become eligible for partnership. This impacts the above finding in two important respects.
First, although the percentage of respondents from the pre-2000 era who remained in private practice and reported being partners is quite high (including considerably higher than the 42% who reported being partners in our 2000 survey), the actual number of lawyers in this category is relatively small since, as we also indicate below, many of the lawyers have left the private sector and now work in jobs in the public sector or have left the workforce entirely. Of the 369 lawyers in our sample who started their careers in private practice, fewer than one-third (120) were still in private practice at the time that we asked them about their current jobs.
Second, of those who were still in private practice at the time of our survey, many had migrated to small and midsize firms where they have become partners, often equity partners. As Table 6 indicates, of those currently in private practice, 44.4% are in law firms with fewer than 100 lawyers, with 41.3% in firms of 50 lawyers or fewer. As a result, the high partnership percentages do not necessarily tell the whole story about whether black HLS graduates are making partner in large law firms in significantly greater numbers than black graduates from other law schools.
Table 7. Partnership (current job)
Overall partnership levels also mask important differences in the power, prestige, and pay garnered by partners who have equity in the firm and those who do not. To test whether black partners were disproportionately represented in the nonequity category, we asked those who reported that they were partners whether they had equity in their law firm. Nearly three-quarters—73.9%—answered yes, describing themselves as equity partners in their firms. Although obviously high, this percentage is still nearly 10 points below the 82% of HLS graduates as a whole who reported being equity partners in the HLSCS. Interestingly, a higher percentage of female respondents reported being equity partners (40.1%) than male respondents (21.1%); however, this difference was not found to be statistically significant, primarily because the overall number of black equity partners (33) is so small.
Table 8. Partnership (current job, equity or not)
As we reported in the HLSCS, research on the legal profession makes clear that in today’s law firms, making partner is just the beginning of a new competition to become a “partner with power” within the organization. To that end, we asked respondents who indicated that they had been an equity partner in a law firm at any point in their career whether they had been actively involved in the management of their firm (e.g., served on a firm committee or in a leadership role, such as department chair or office head), and if so, on which committees and in which roles (e.g., member of the compensation committee, chair of the diversity committee, office managing partner, etc.). As indicated above, the number of respondents eligible to respond to these questions—those who had ever been equity partners—is relatively small, with most coming from the pre-2000 era. Nevertheless, even with these caveats, the results are instructive. Overall, nearly 80% of respondents indicated that they were involved in firm management at some point in their careers.
Our survey found that 92% of all black HLS graduates to ever serve as managing partner or as a department head have been men.
A similarly large percentage of respondents reported serving on one of the eight common law firm committees—management, compensation, recruiting, associate evaluation, work assignment, diversity, ethics/conflicts, and pro bono—that we identified in the survey. Although the highest percentage of respondents reported serving on the recruiting committee (81%), which is not considered to be an especially powerful committee in most law firms, a significant percentage reported serving on committees that are widely considered among the most important in law firms, including the management committee (71.6%) and the compensation committee (62.1%). Indeed, a far greater percentage of respondents reported serving on these important committees than on committees such as diversity (58.5%), ethics/conflicts (32%), and pro bono (25.4%), which, though undoubtedly important, are not thought to produce important career advantages. Moreover, of those who served on the most important committees, a very high percentage reported that they had at one time been the committee’s chair. Thus, 62.1% of those who had ever served on the management committee and 47.2% of those who had ever served on a compensation committee reported that at some point they served as that committee’s chair. When one adds the fact that nearly two-thirds of respondents (64%) reported serving as either a department chair or the firm’s managing partner, it appears that HLS black graduates have managed to break through the “concrete ceiling” that so many black lawyers have found in large law firms.
But just as was true with the partnership rates discussed above, these percentages are likely to mask important differences. As indicated above, many of those in our sample who have become equity partners have done so in small and midsize firms. As a result, many of those who report having served in leadership positions are likely to have done so in smaller firms. However, three pioneers, all from HLS, have broken the “concrete ceiling” by becoming managing partners of top law firms: John W. Daniels Jr., managing partner of Quarles & Brady, 2007–2013 (currently chair emeritus); Benjamin F. Wilson, managing partner (2007–present) and chair (2017–present) of Beveridge & Diamond; and Maurice Watson, chair of Husch Blackwell (2012–present). For more, see “The Legal Profession in the Age of Obama.”
Moreover, regardless of firm size, the overall percentage of black lawyers in leadership positions obscures very significant differences between the opportunities and experiences of men and women in virtually every leadership category we investigated. Our survey found that 92% of all black HLS graduates to ever serve as managing partner or as a department head have been men. Similarly, 79.1% of those reporting that they have been on the management committee and 89.3% of those reporting having served on the compensation committee are male. Indeed, these percentages hold for every committee we identified—and become even more skewed toward men with respect to leadership on committees. For example, 87.5% of all those reporting that they have chaired the management committee were men. Clearly, the disadvantages faced by black women attempting to move into leadership positions in law firms apply even to women who have obtained a prestigious law degree from HLS.
In addition to looking at mobility generally, the survey also attempts to track whether HLS black graduates are changing sectors as well as jobs. To investigate this question, we looked at the current jobs of all the lawyers who started their careers in private practice (consisting of solo practice and law firms of all sizes) and public service (including government, public interest, and legal services). Of particular interest for this article are those who started in private practice.
As Table 9 demonstrates, only 28.5% of all black HLS graduates who started their careers in private practice were still working in that sector at the time of the survey. This is down dramatically from the 71.9% of our sample who began their career in this sector. Not surprisingly, there is a large era effect, with 40.7% of post-2000 graduates remaining in private practice, as compared to only 20.8% of those who graduated in the pre-2000 era, a difference that is statistically significant at the highest confidence level. Interestingly, this latter figure is also much lower than the 39% of graduates who started their careers in private practice who were still in this sector as of the time of our first survey in 2000, suggesting that older cohorts have continued to move out of private practice in the 16 years since we conducted that initial investigation.
For the more than two-thirds of respondents no longer in private practice, the most common destination for their current employment was business (practicing law), which typically means in-house legal departments (17.7%). This result, which holds relatively constant across both eras and cohorts (with the exception of the partial 2010 cohort where, not surprisingly, relatively few have moved into in-house legal departments), reflects the general trend found both in the AJD study and the HLSCS of lawyers moving from private practice to positions in corporate legal departments. It is also consistent with what we found in 2000 where 18% had moved from private practice into in-house legal departments. The pattern of movement from private practice to other areas (e.g., public interest, education, business) remains remarkably stable between the 2000 and 2016 surveys, with the exception of business (not practicing law)—which encompasses everything from investment banking to selling insurance, although black HLS graduates are more likely to be doing the former than the latter—which actually declined as a destination of those starting out in private practice from 14% in 2000 to 8.6% in 2016.
There are, however, important gender differences that underscore the difficulties faced by women in general, and black women in particular, in private practice. The survey found that men are much more likely than women to still be working in private practice at the time of the survey (36% to 20.9%), a difference that is highly statistically significant. The fact that barely 20% of all the black HLS women who started out in private practice remain in this sector as their current job will certainly come as bad news for those who seek to increase the diversity of large law firms. Conversely, black women who started work in private practice are significantly more likely than their black male counterparts to be currently working in the public interest sector (8.6% to 2.8%), providing further support for the view that women are more likely than men to be involved in various kinds of public service, a finding supported by the HLSCS.
Table 9. Current job (initially in private practice)
Race and career advancement
Both scholars seeking to study the legal profession and activists seeking to improve it have long struggled to understand how race impacts legal careers. To investigate this critical issue, we asked questions designed to explore different avenues in which race might affect career opportunities for black lawyers. More specifically, we asked respondents to rank a set of factors internal to the workplace (Table 10) and in the external environment (Table 11) that other studies have suggested may influence career opportunities for black lawyers. With respect to both questions, respondents ranked the factors listed on a seven-point scale, where 1 is “not important at all” and 7 is “extremely important.”
Table 10 examines the interaction of race with several issues that are common to the typical legal workplace. As an initial matter, this table confirms the view that the issues black HLS lawyers believe to be most important to their careers are similar to what research tells us is important to the advancement of any lawyer’s career. Thus, black HLS graduates ranked having an influential mentor or sponsor and gaining access to difficult or prestigious assignments as the two most important factors in their career success, and the only factors that crossed the line into being “extremely important” on our seven-point scale. Table 10 also underscores, however, that there are internal areas where black HLS graduates believe that race plays a distinct role in their career advancement—areas that are seen differently between women and men, and between black lawyers in the pre- and post-2000 eras.
The data reveals important differences in satisfaction levels across practice areas, cohorts, and eras, as well as between women and men.
With respect to gender, black HLS men were significantly more conscious about “not making mistakes,” while black HLS women were significantly more focused on the “quality” of their work, concentrating on the necessity of doing higher-quality work than their white counterparts rather than simply avoiding mistakes. Female respondents were also acutely aware of the social dimensions of their jobs, paying significantly more attention than their male counterparts to networking with other black professionals, practicing in a racially diverse community, and socializing with their white peers.
There were also interesting differences across eras, as black lawyers from the post-2000 period ranked having an influential mentor or sponsor and socializing with white peers as important at higher levels than their pre-2000 counterparts—though both view these factors as key. Those in the pre-2000 cohort, on the other hand, are more focused on getting access to difficult assignments and not making mistakes. Although admittedly speculative, these results are consistent with the view expressed by many scholars and diversity advocates that the battle ground has shifted from combating pervasive stereotypes about black intellectual inferiority (through, among other things, doing difficult assignments and not making mistakes) to being able to “fit in” with white coworkers who can sponsor your career.
Table 11 applies this same kind of analysis to a range of factors external to the workplace. As this table starkly demonstrates, the most important factor that has impacted the careers of the black HLS graduates in our sample is the law school’s prestige. This “H-bomb effect,” as one of the study’s coauthors has heard countless black alumni refer to the benefit of their HLS degree, is the only factor that rises above neutrality among the list of things commonly mentioned by scholars and career counselors as being career enhancing. Even connections with HLS alumni—including black alumni—barely registers as an important career-building factor among HLS black alumni. Interestingly, while employer diversity initiatives do come close to being viewed as “moderately important” by respondents, client- and bar association–sponsored initiatives and government “set aside” programs were not. This view that formal diversity and affirmative action programs have not played a significant role in advancing the careers of the black HLS graduates in our survey is consistent across eras, cohorts, and gender, and is very similar to what we found in 2000. These findings provide support for the work done by Professor Frank Dobbin indicating that formal diversity efforts are often largely ineffective, and sometimes even counterproductive.
Table 10. Importance of internal career advancement opportunities
Table 11. Importance of external factors to career advancement
It is the hope of every law school graduate that he or she will be able to build a satisfying career. The survey therefore asked a series of questions designed to investigate whether HLS black graduates believe that they have been able to achieve this goal. Specifically, we asked respondents to rank on a seven-point scale, where 1 is “extremely dissatisfied” and 7 is “extremely satisfied,” their level of satisfaction with their current job and their decision to become a lawyer. We also asked whether, knowing what they know today, they would still attend law school. Of those who were dissatisfied with their decision to become a lawyer, we asked whether their unhappiness with the profession was due to race. Finally, we asked respondents whether they would recommend to a young person that he or she enter the legal profession, and if not, whether that decision was because of race. When taken as a whole, the data provided by these questions underscores that HLS black graduates are very satisfied with their careers, a conclusion that should not be surprising given their talent and accomplishment. The data also reveals, however, important differences in satisfaction levels across practice areas, cohorts, and eras, as well as between women and men. These differences have important implications for those seeking greater racial diversity in the legal profession.
Table 12 reports respondents’ overall satisfaction with their careers by employment sector. As the data indicates, black HLS graduates tend to be highly satisfied with their current jobs (an overall average of 5.7), with only a modest difference between the satisfaction levels reported by men (5.8) and women (5.6). This finding is consistent with the AJD study, which found that more than 70% of lawyers are moderately to extremely satisfied with their careers.
More than 85% of respondents reported that they would still get a law degree today, but only 70% would recommend law to a young person, which does not bode well for the profession’s future.
When we look more closely at particular employment sectors and eras, however, important differences in career satisfaction begin to emerge. While average satisfaction across all employment sectors is above 5 on our seven-point scale, private practice has the lowest average (5.3) of any sector, substantially below the levels of satisfaction reported by those in public sector careers (which range between 5.7 for government lawyers to 5.8 for those in public interest and legal services) and in business (5.7 for both those practicing and those not practicing law)—let alone the average satisfaction level of 6.4 for those in the education sector. Moreover, the average satisfaction level of those in private practice has been steadily falling over time, with those in the post-2000 era reporting satisfaction that is a full point lower than their pre-2000 counterparts (4.8 for post-2000, 5.8 for pre-2000). Indeed, those in the most recent classes to graduate from HLS (2010–2016) expressed the lowest satisfaction with private practice of any cohort in our study (4.3), which was more than two full points below the average satisfaction of those who graduated in the 1970s (6.4). Given that the overwhelming majority of those who are in private practice in the 2010s cohort are still in large law firms, the fact that on average these graduates are barely satisfied with their careers to date does not bode well for diversity efforts in these institutions.
Perhaps most critical, the black women in our sample consistently reported being less satisfied with their careers in private practice (4.8) than their black male counterparts (5.6). Once again, women in the post-2000 cohort are even less satisfied with their private practice careers (4.3) than their pre-2000 counterparts (5.6), who report average satisfaction levels that are close to those reported by men (5.8). Women in the 2010s cohort reported the lowest satisfaction levels (4.1) of any cohort in our study. Given that black women graduating from law school significantly outnumber black men, including at HLS, the low levels of satisfaction with private practice—and large law firms in particular—reported by HLS black female graduates post-2000 should be particularly concerning for those seeking greater diversity in this sector.
Table 12. Career satisfaction (current job)
Notwithstanding these differences in satisfaction levels with their current jobs, the overwhelming majority of respondents expressed high levels of satisfaction with their decision to become a lawyer, reporting an average of 5.9 on our seven-point scale. As the above would suggest, those in the pre-2000 era expressed significantly greater satisfaction with this decision than graduates from the post-2000 era (6.1 pre-2000, 5.6 post-2000). Men were also significantly more satisfied than women with this decision (6.1 men, 5.8 women), again particularly troubling given that black women constitute the majority of black lawyers.
Table 13. Satisfaction with decision to become a lawyer
When asked whether, knowing what they know today, they would still obtain a law degree, as Table 14 documents, the overwhelming majority of respondents (87.7%) answered yes. This result is remarkably consistent over time. Indeed, those in the post-2000 era actually expressed slightly higher support for obtaining a law degree than their pre-2000 counterparts (90% post-2000, 86.3% post-2000), with those in the 2010s cohort expressing agreement at a level that is nearly identical to the average for the sample as a whole (87%). Given that many in this last cohort are still in large law firms, where, as indicated above, many are only marginally satisfied with their careers, this underscores that the black lawyers in our sample do not conflate the value of getting a law degree with the satisfaction that they have so far found with their first legal job in a large law firm. These results are consistent—indeed, even slightly more positive—than our findings in the HLSCS, where 85.7% of all HLS graduates reported that they would still obtain a law degree today.
The data tells a similar story with respect to gender. Notwithstanding the many differences in the satisfaction levels—and the underlying professional opportunities that no doubt contribute to satisfaction—between women and men documented in this report and other similar studies, the overwhelming majority of HLS black female graduates (86.4%) would still obtain a law degree today, even knowing everything they now know about the disproportionate burdens that black women are likely to encounter in the profession. The fact that women in the post-2000 era are even slightly more positive about their decision to go to law school than their pre-2000 counterparts (87.4% post-2000, 85.6% pre-2000), and that there is only a modest decline in agreement for women in the 2010s cohort (82.4%), underscores that as challenging as law may be for black women, many still believe that it is a better option than the available alternatives. Moreover, even for those women and men who would not choose to go to law school today, very few reported that race would be their reason for not doing so.
Table 14. Would still attend law school
Finally, we asked respondents whether they would recommend law to a young person seeking advice about potential careers. Here, the results are less encouraging for the profession (Table 15). Although nearly 90% of respondents indicated they personally would still obtain a law degree, only 66.3% reported that they would recommend doing so to a young person seeking career advice. Moreover, like career satisfaction in general, the percentage of those who would recommend law as a career has been declining over time. Indeed, only 57.9% of graduates in the post-2000 era would encourage a young person to go to law school, as compared to more than 70% of those graduating in the pre-2000 era, a statistically significant difference. And as was true with satisfaction generally, those in the most recent 2010s cohort reported the lowest percentage of those willing to recommend law as a career, with just a little more than half (54.6%) reporting that they would do so—a far cry from those graduating in the 1970s and 1980s, where 75.3% and 77% of black graduates respectively would encourage a young person to go to law school. Once again, this data—which is similar to what we found in the HLSCS, where more than 85% of respondents reported that they would still get a law degree today, but only 70% would recommend law to a young person—does not bode well for the profession’s future.
Nor does the fact that male respondents were much more likely to recommend law to a young person—70%—than female respondents—62.1%, again a statistically significant result. Moreover, female respondents from the post-2000 era are even less likely to encourage a young person to go into law than those in the pre-2000 era (59% post-2000, 64.6% pre-2000), with women in the most recent 2010s cohort even less likely to do so (55.1%). This drop over time is particularly worrisome. Although very few of those who would not recommend law to a young person cited race as the primary reason for not doing so, these results nevertheless underscore just how difficult it is going to be to make progress on achieving diversity in the legal profession if those who have arguably been among the most successful black lawyers are not enthusiastically encouraging young black women and men to follow in their footsteps.
Table 15. Would recommend law to a young person
What the future holds
As the presented data demonstrates, black women lawyers constitute the overwhelming majority of new black lawyers in the United States—nearly two-thirds—but also face challenges due to their race, their gender, and the intersection between the two. This problem is particularly evident in the law firm sector. Moreover, there is evidence that the issues facing black women are particularly challenging. As the numbers about recommending law to young people demonstrate quite starkly, black women from the most recent era and cohorts displayed the highest negative view about the profession of any group.
Yet, there is reason for hope. First, this issue has climbed to the top of the agenda for leaders of law firms, in-house departments, and the profession in general as evidenced by the substantial resources being devoted to diversity initiatives. Moreover, as “The Education of Black Lawyers” notes, law schools are creating new programs designed to promote the long-term successes of black lawyers, both women and men, many of which are showing signs of early success. And, as both “The Legal Profession in the Age of Obama” and “We Have Been Here Before” make clear, black lawyers continue to push for increased opportunities and progress on these critical issues—just as they have always done.