Reflection on Empirical Research on the Legal Profession

Reflection on Empirical Research on the Legal Profession

A 2L student’s perspective on the human rights components of the empirical research intensive

By: Ellen An (2L)

Photo Credit: Business Law Today: https://businesslawtoday.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/iStock-1160646457.jpg

We all know that the practice of law is highly selective and competitive. Even years before we became law students, many of us worked hard to maintain a stellar academic record, practiced for the LSAT, and crafted impressive personal statements. However, until I took Professor Ronit Dinovitzer’s intensive course, “Empirical Research on the Legal Profession,” the prestigious and exclusive nature of the legal profession remained, to me, a somewhat nebulous narrative rather than a social reality grounded in historical fact . Without diving too deep into the fascinating sociological literature and empirical studies discussed in class, I will lay out my thoughts on the implications of professionalism for diversity in the legal field.

Members of any occupation may decide to establish a professional system of self-regulation to maximize their income, reputation, and practical autonomy. As apprenticeships declined in popularity throughout the twentieth century, bar associations across North America controlled the supply of lawyers by establishing standardized entrance examinations and encouraging law schools to elevate their admission requirements. According to John Sutton, despite traditionally explicit entry barriers based on ethnicity, family ties, gender, and citizenship,, legal education became increasingly available to women and minorities by the 1960s. Nevertheless, in a study following American law students who graduated in 2000, after 12years of practice, about half of African American women experienced some form of discrimination or harassment in the workplace whether it was in government or private firms.

On average, stratification within the legal industry has successfully preserved the dominance of traditional elites despite increasing numbers of women and minorities being called to the bar. Top-tier law firms traditionally hired individuals who excelled in technical competence, exhibited authoritative leadership, and valued work devotion over family commitments. Contrastingly, female lawyers are often presumed to carry the “risks” of motherhood and suffer from a mismatch between their contribution and the type of productivity valued at workplaces that historically idealized the male ethos. Being a “good fit” may be even more challenging for marginalized lawyers, who often alter their lifestyles, change their first names, or ignore discriminatory behaviors simply to appear more likable to the predominantly Caucasian partners at their firms.

In the wake of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, it is sobering, yet hardly surprising, that racialized women are seven times less likely to become an equity partner than white men. As law students, we are told that sustainable change in the law must be done incrementally. As a future lawyer, I wrote down some notes to help myself become part of the social change I wish to see. First, acknowledge that business law and bigger firms are prestigious, but the practice of law is not just a business; it serves and promotes justice. Second, if you manage to “make it” one day as a mentor and advocate for younger lawyers, remember that the only rational purpose for professional exclusivity is quality control, and a person’s work ethic is as unrelated to how much they may look like you as whether they share your preference of tea over coffee. Third, take care of yourself - according to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic.