Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

I just had an interesting discussion with a friend about law firms and the interview process and diversity, basically centered around this question:

Does it matter if, when interviewing with a firm, they make sure you interview with people who are like you (more on what this means in a second; I'm leaving it intentionally broad for now)? And if a firm doesn't normally make the effort to match people up with interviewers who are like them, should they feel obligated to make a special effort when it comes to underrepresented groups, or is that patronizing and stupid?

For me, it really did make a difference in what I thought of firms during the interview process if it seemed like they made an effort to match me up with interviewers who I had something in common with -- who were Jewish, or went to one of the same schools as me, or shared an interest that I'd listed on my resume or expressed in the interview (and of course I had no way of knowing whether a match was intentional or just coincidence -- there isn't a shortage of Jewish lawyers at NY law firms, or people who went to the schools I've gone to -- but I'm going to assume that some firms really did make some sort of effort, however superficial, and some didn't, just for the sake of this discussion). It's not like I automatically had a better connection with these people -- or that I wouldn't necessarily have had a great rapport with people who shared none of my resume-salient attributes -- but just the thought that the firm took some effort to try made a difference. Plus, at least in the case of schools or interests, there was some common ground with which to appreciate the context under which they would say things -- at one firm's callback, I interviewed with 4 people who'd all gone to law school after a fair number of years of working, and went to less highly-regarded schools -- so when they said that working at the firm is so much better than law school was, I couldn't be sure whether they just had a bad law school experience, either because of their school, or just being older than most of the students when they went, or if what they were saying made any sense in my situation. Not that I could've necessarily relied on something someone more similar to me in those respects had said -- and not that I really could have relied on anything people are saying in an interview designed as much to get you to like the firm as it is to see if the firm likes you -- but still, it made me wonder why they'd had me interview with those particular people, and whether I was really learning as much about the firm from them as I might have otherwise.

The context of the discussion I had with my friend was centered more around a situation where, say, an African-American student interviews at a firm that has some African-American attorneys, but doesn't end up meeting any of them in the process. Is that a bad thing? On the one hand, of course just because two people are black doesn't mean they'll necessarily have anything in common. But on the other hand, diversity at a lot of these law firms is not that great, and I would think it's important to get to meet and talk to people who may have something useful to share about diversity at the firm, just given that if you have no other characteristics to go on when matching people up for interviews, why not? I mean, if I'm being honest with myself, even though I'm not particularly religiously observant, it would bother me if I went through an interview process and didn't encounter any Jewish lawyers. I'd wonder if the firm wasn't welcoming, for whatever reason -- some firms have a history, albeit from a few generations ago, of not being particularly welcoming. I can't imagine people who are Hispanic, or Asian-American, or African-American, or female, or gay or lesbian, or interested in pro bono opportunities, or married, or older, or younger, or from a good school, or from a lousy school, or from a big city, or from another country -- or pretty much anything -- don't feel the same way to some degree or another. Obviously to different degrees. And obviously being interested in pro bono opportunities is a much more job-salient characteristic than being Asian-American, and obviously there's no history of discriminating against people from cities like there might be in other cases, but, all else being equal, it would seem pretty stupid for a firm to not make the effort to let you meet people who might be people you might be particularly interested in meeting, and race and gender and school and age and marital status might be proxies for that, as good as the firm can do.

I agreed with my friend that at some point it seems over the top. If there are 5 Hispanic lawyers at a firm of 100, and you're Hispanic, and you meet 5 people in your interviews, if the only people you meet are the 5 Hispanic lawyers, is it too much? But is zero too few? I had a set of interviews at one firm where 3 of the 4 people I met with were Asian-American. The firm was not particularly diverse in that respect; there were not too many more Asian-American lawyers. It crossed my mind that maybe I got mixed up with someone else's schedule. I'm sure it was just a coincidence. But it at least entered my mind. And maybe it shouldn't have and I was just over-thinking. If a female student interviews with 5 men, is that bad? Should the firm make an effort to make sure she gets to talk to at least one woman? I'd think maybe they should, even though there won't necessarily be anything in common, maybe there will be.

Here's where my friend and I disagreed -- he said that if a firm isn't making any efforts normally to match people up in the interviews with people in any way like them -- that it's all just random -- he doesn't think they should then make a special effort for underrepresented groups like women or African-Americans. I said I think they should, even if just because the odds mean that if I go interview and it's done randomly, I'll probably meet at least one other white male. But that means, that for whatever it's worth, and it might not be worth anything, I'll have a better chance of meeting someone who shares my salient characteristics than someone in an underrepresented group. So they should make an effort. Even if just to show they're conscious of it, and they're trying.

Of course, none of this addresses the bigger problem, which is that a lot of these firms are woefully undiverse places, and that's really frustrating and disappointing. I think they all pay lip service to the concept of diversity, and of course it's hard to change things since the pool of students the firms have to choose from is also not as diverse as it could be, but that's the problem a lot more than who people are meeting during their interviews. This is pretty trivial, in comparison. But still, an interesting discussion. And I may be totally off the mark. I'd love to hear other people's thoughts, and I'll gladly post anything people send me in response that seems interesting and that they want posted.