Post date: New Findings Shed Light on Legal Profession
August 1, 2002
A new survey demonstrates that black Harvard Law alumni have achieved impressive professional success despite the fact that discrimination—based both on race and gender—remains an obstacle in today’s workplace. The research, conducted by the Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession, also indicates that black Harvard Law alumni devote a larger amount of time to pro bono work than the typical American lawyer.
"Our study demonstrates that black Harvard Law graduates are not only successful in their careers, but are also extremely civic minded, giving significantly more time back to the community than others," said Harvard Law School Professor David Wilkins, director of the Program on the Legal Profession. "At the same time, this research shows that black lawyers still face obstacles because of their race."
According to the findings, black Harvard Law graduates have achieved success despite barriers and isolation posed by their race. Of respondents currently working as lawyers, more than a quarter are the only black lawyers in their workplace, and another 21 percent have only one black colleague. This trend remains true in larger firms (101-250 lawyers), where 19 percent are the only black lawyer in the office.
Respondents also believe that racism is still a problem for black lawyers. More than half report facing racism from coworkers, clients, or public officials, and 88 percent think that black lawyers face significant discrimination in the workplace.
Despite any racism that they have faced, a slight majority of the respondents (54 percent) are optimistic about the gains made by black lawyers generally. Respondents felt the most important factors for advancement within their firms—getting good assignments and having an influential mentor—were the same for all lawyers regardless of color. However, 87 percent said "doing better work than most whites" was a factor in advancement, and 64 percent said "working longer hours than most whites" was important.
The study found significant gender differences in respondents’ advancement, income, and employment—an increasingly important area of inquiry given that a sizable majority of today’s black law students are women. Among those currently in private practice (34 percent of men and 36 percent of women), men are significantly more likely than women to be equity partners. Of 1980s graduates in private practice, 74 percent of men are equity partners compared to 48 percent of women. Men also are more likely than women to hold corporate general counsel positions. Among all graduates in corporate law departments, 57 percent of men are general counsel, compared to 19 percent of women.
Black women also earn substantially less than black men. For example, among 1980s graduates in private practice, the average salary among men is $324,190, while the average for women is $184,683. According to the findings, women are also more likely to work in public interest organizations.
Respondents indicate they perform an average of 90 hours per year of pro bono work. By contrast, a 2001 study published in the Fordham Law Review estimated that the typical American lawyer gives 24 hours per year of legal service to the poor. And according to a study by the Judicial Council of California published in The American Lawyer, attorneys at the nation’s most financially successful firms perform a mere seven hours of pro bono work per year.
The study of the career paths and attitudes of Harvard Law School’s black graduates was conducted from March through December 2000 and included responses from 656 of 1,440 black alumni surveyed, a 46 percent response rate. The project was supported by the Goldman Sachs Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.
Harvard Law School has played a unique and important role in the training and development of black lawyers in the United States. George Lewis Ruffin, the School’s first black graduate, entered Harvard Law School just two years after the conclusion of the Civil War. Fifty-five years later, Charles Hamilton Houston graduated from the Law School and began a career as one of the most effective civil rights attorneys and leaders of 20th century.
In 1965 Harvard Law School developed the first program specifically designed to encourage black students to attend historically white law schools. In the succeeding decades, the Law School has produced more black lawyers than virtually any law school other than Howard University. In September 2000, the Law School held a Celebration of Black Alumni that brought approximately 600 black alumni back to campus. During the celebration, the living members of the Brown v. Board of Education legal team were reunited and presented with the Harvard Law School Medal of Freedom.
The Harvard Law School Program on the Legal Profession was created in 1981 to promote research, scholarship, and teaching about the norms, structures, and functions of the legal profession in the United States and around the world.