Racing the Tournament: Black Lawyers in Corporate Law Firms
David B. Wilkins
Harvard University - Center on the Legal Profession
W.G. Hart 2001 Legal Workshop
This paper uses information from over 250 in-depth interviews with black lawyers in US corporate law firms to critique the widely held claim that the internal labor markets of these institutions are organized as standard economic "tournaments." Although tournament theory fits some obvious features of large law firms, as well as the profession's sense of itself as a meritocracy opened to talent, the economic concept of a rank-order tournament in which firms bestow partnership as a reward to the "best" associates for their past contributions to the firm does not accurately describe the hiring or promotion practices of elite firms in the United States. Instead, these practices define a much different kind of competition - one that looks more like a figure skating tournament, complete with subjective standards, political bias, tracking, seeding, and information control - than the neutral meritocracy suggested by tournament theory.
These rules disadvantage blacks in hiring, promotion, and partnership. Blacks are less likely to be hired by large firms because employers place too much emphasis on "objective" signals (such as law school status and grades) that are at best only loosely correlated with future productivity, while at the same time allowing considerable room for the kind of subjective decisionmaking that accentuates the importance of background stereotypes and preconceptions. Similarly, informal tracking of associates into those who will receive training and those who will not makes it more difficult for black associates to obtain the good work and mentoring that will enable them to develop into successful lawyers. Finally, even those blacks who become partners face structural barriers to participating in the three markets that are essential to partner success: the external market for new clients, the internal market for referrals from existing clients, and the labor market for senior associates. These structural disadvantages, in turn, create incentives for black lawyers to adopt rational career strategies that, paradoxically, further decrease their opportunities for winning the tournament.
Date posted: June 16, 2001
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