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The Law Profession Taboo: Why Race and Class Hold Law Firms Back

law profession racism

Is there really an important issue that is kept hidden within the legal profession – where issues of class and race will keep lawyers from reaching the top of their profession.  The answer is “Yes” according to one of America’s biggest law recruiters, Harrison Barnes who wrote about the issue in his firm’s website.

Barnes notes that two of the most successful attorneys of our generation were both out of lower and/or working class backgrounds: Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

Clinton was an outstanding student and advanced despite his social class. Barack Obama was also from a lower and/or working class background. We do not know what sort of student Barack was because no one has ever seen his grades and he refuses to release them, but he was likely an excellent student as well. What we do know about these two, though, is they never practiced law. They both became professors where they could think, write, organize communities and be politicians.

By Harrison Barnes*  Legal Recruiter

Issues of race and class are two of the most explosive issues in American society. Class is even more taboo of a subject than race for many people: Bring this up and people immediately become angry, walk away and attack the messenger. No one wants to be categorized or feel that they are less than another.

Americans are largely groups of people who came over to the United States to escape the rigid class distinctions of Europe and their own countries. Americans want to believe that there are no class distinctions and everyone is equal. In this society, at least, this is incredibly important to people because their relatives and others came to America to escape the whole idea of class distinctions that held them back in their own countries.

No one wants to believe they are lower class, for example, and upper class people often do not want to be told they are upper class either. People who are middle class are more likely to refer to themselves as “upper middle class” than middle class because it makes them feel better about themselves. Just as people are not supposed to talk openly about racism and how it holds (or does not hold) people back, people are also not supposed to talk about social class. This article will upset a lot of people because I am going to talk about both and show you what is going on inside American law firms.

When someone talks about class the tendency is to attack the person who points out the fact that class distinctions exist. By attacking the messenger the attacker does not have to confront who they are and the fact that these distinctions exist. They do exist, they are important, they impact what happens to people inside of law firms and they are all around us. Attacking the messenger is not something that changes this fact because these things will not go away and they have always been—and always will be—with us.

Class and race both have a profound impact on who gets hired and who stays hired in large law firms. I am not a social scientist—I am a legal recruiter—and I am certainly not an expert in anything other than how law firms hire and advance people. Because I am an observer, I also am making observations here and these observations are the product of working with tens of thousands of attorneys throughout my career.

I am also about to say some shocking things; however, my intent here is to show you rules that can help any attorney succeed—upper class, lower class, middle class, black, white and so forth. Without understanding the rules of the game many people fail. My showing you the rules is meant to help, because I care very deeply about what I do and I care about attorneys who really want to get hired and get ahead.

*Harrison Barnes is a widely respected legal recruiter who holds a law degree from the University of Virginia and is the founder of BCG Attorney Search.

Source: BCG Attorney Search


When the British arrived on the Fijian Islands, they had an impossible time getting the native Fijians to work. The Fijians’ lives had always been simple and did not require hard work. If they needed something to eat, they picked up a coconut or speared a fish. Then it was time for a nap.

Fed up with the differences in work culture, the British brought over Indians from India to work. The Indians quickly set up shops and worked hard, showing they had the work ethic and drive to get things done. Many hard-working people of Indian descent still call the South Pacific home and they are resented by local Fijians because they are now in positions of power and comprise the majority of professionals, business owners and middle class in large parts of the country.

What is interesting about this, of course, is that the British (who we might term “the upper class”) certainly did not want to do the work. They wanted to live off the fruits of others’ work. Simultaneously the local Fijians (whom we might term “lower class”) did not want to do the work either. They wanted to live off the fruits of nature’s work instead. So the British went searching for people who wanted to be middle class and do the work.

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