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Class Clues Can Backfire on Your Resume, Study Says
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Summary: A new study has found that law firm hiring managers favor higher-class white men over all other candidates. 

While law firm hiring managers would never admit that they discriminate against applicants, a new study published in the American Sociological Review said that subtle class hints on resumes lead to prejudices that can make or break an applicant getting an interview.


Lauren Rivera of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and András Tilcsik of Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto audited the resumes of some of the nation’s most elite law firms. To do this, they created hundreds of fictitious resumes and sent them to 147 top law firms in 14 cities, applying for a coveted summer associate position.

All fake applicants were on the law review and in the top 1% of their second-tier law school. The researchers only changed factors that could possibly give away gender, race, and socio-economic background. Rivera said that it was important for the team to make the applicants from second-tier law schools because first-tier law school students are typically recruited on campus, not through resume submissions.

“Based on prior research showing that hiring in top professional services firms is highly skewed toward applicants from wealthy families, we expected that an applicant’s social class background would play a decisive role in determining interview invitations. And indeed, we found that, in contrast to our national lore that it is individual effort and ability—not family lineage—that matters for getting good jobs, elite employers discriminate strongly based on social class, favoring applicants from higher-class backgrounds. But our research uncovered a surprising — and disturbing — twist: coming from an advantaged social background helps only men,” Rivera wrote in the Harvard Business Review. 

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The report found that employers favored higher-class white men, who were called in for an interview at a rate of four times as much as the other groups. The researchers used socio-economic clues such as extracurriculars like polo and classical music to signal wealth. Rivera said that one reason for this favoritism was that most elite law firms are filled with higher-class white men who view similar people as more likely to fit in with company culture.

Conversely, higher-class women’s resumes were rejected by law firms, even though this demographic would also fit in with company culture. This bias ties in with a previous study that found most women from top law schools tend to drop out of BigLaw because they “had the luxury of choice,” i.e. they marry well or have wealthy families who don’t require them to work. Rivera said that law firms view higher-class women as “flight risks” and thus don’t give them an initial chance.

Rivera said that lower-class applicants and minorities are viewed as “misfits” who cannot fit in with law firm culture, and Rivera said that some attorneys actually steered diverse candidates to more public interest and lower-paying jobs such as government and nonprofit roles.

The report’s findings echo what those in the business have been saying for years. For instance, Harrison Barnes of BCG Attorney Search, one of the nation’s leading legal job placement firms, has seen firsthand how law firms tout their commitment to diversity but are actually only paying lip service.

“A true commitment to diversity would require that these firms actually appreciate and hire people who are truly diverse, but these firms do not do this,” Barnes said in his blog post “Law Firm Diversity: They All Talk the Talk But It’s Harder to Walk the Walk.” “I know that they do not do this because I have been in this business for many years and time and time again I have witnessed law firms hire candidates who conformed to law firm norms and failed to hire candidates who did not conform to those norms. When it comes to diversity, there are good intentions on the one hand and business realities on the other hand.”

So what can candidates who are not higher-class white males do to get ahead? Rivera suggests removing certain class elements such as extracurriculars from a resume as well as blinding gender by using initials instead of a feminine first name. Barnes has also made similar suggestions, which can be found in his post titled, “6 Things to Remove from Your Law Firm Resume.”

Source: Harvard Business Review

Photo courtesy of Greenhouse

What do you think about this study? Let us know in the comments below.


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