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New Data on Racial Disparities in Lawyer Hiring Is ‘Wake-Up Call’ for the Profession

By Karen Sloan for

The sunny news about the J.D. class of 2019’s overall 90% employment rate—the highest in a dozen years—obscures the troubling reality that white law graduates secured jobs at a significantly higher rate than their Black and Native American classmates.

New data from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) highlights the racial disparities in employment outcomes among new law graduates, after the organization this summer expanded the demographic analysis of the jobs data it collects annually.

That analysis found that in 2019, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders had the highest overall employment rate 10 months after graduation at 93%, followed by white law graduates at 92%. In contrast, Native American and Alaskan Natives, as well as Black law graduates, had the lowest overall employment rate at 85%.

When zeroing in on jobs for which a J.D. is required, the disparity deepened. Nearly 80% of white law graduates secured those jobs in 2019, compared with 62% of Black law graduates, a 18 percentage point difference.

“When I look at these numbers, it is hard for me not to conclude that we have prioritized outcomes for white people over Black people in the legal profession, that whether explicitly or implicitly, whether deliberately or inadvertently, there has been systemic preference and advantage for white law school graduates over Black law school graduates, and for white lawyers over Black lawyers,” said NALP Executive Director James Leipold. “The legal profession has not sought to exclude Black lives, but the profession has not prioritized Black outcomes, has certainly not prioritized Black outcomes over white outcomes.”

Leipold said that the legal profession’s focus on prestige as an indicator of merit and achievement—that is, the reputation of firms, law schools, and the pedigrees of individual lawyers—is the single biggest factor holding back diversity efforts in legal employment and beyond.

“White-led institutions have been the gatekeepers to the profession, and those institutions have at every turn set up gates that prioritize success for white people,” said Leipold, noting the over-reliance on standardized tests in the law school admissions process, the reliance on rankings throughout the profession, and the disparities in how work is allocated, how lawyers are trained, and how they advance.

Similarly, the legal profession has prioritized outcomes for men over women, Leipold said. The new data show that women in the Class of 2019 had a higher overall employment rate than men at nearly 91%. But their median salary of $70,000 was $5,000 less than the median $75,000 salary reported by men.

NALP in June pledged to step up its efforts to combat racism in the legal profession, in line with anti-racist commitments many law schools and firms took following the killing of George Floyd by police and subsequent protests. Using the organization’s research to call out racism in the profession is one of eight specific actions the group vowed to take. NALP also said it would develop a pipeline to attract more people of color to the legal profession and its membership; ensure that diverse voices are included in the group’s programming and publications; and create a single portal on the NALP website where members can share resources and policies on diversity and inclusion.

When making that commitment, NALP noted that representation of Black associates at law firms has suffered years of decline, and only recovered to 2009 levels in 2019.

NALP’s newly expanded data collection also includes, for the first time, information on job outcomes for nonbinary law graduates. It found that employed nonbinary 2019 law graduates were four times more likely to take a public-interest job than other graduates, with nearly 31% taking such positions. (Just 8% of all employed law graduates went into public-interest work.) Employed graduates who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual were also twice as likely to go into public-interest work, at 16%.

“I find it particularly discouraging this year to have to report employment findings that highlight stark disparities by race and ethnicity, among other demographic markers, but this should serve as a wake-up call to everyone involved in legal education and the legal profession,” Leipold said.