Why ‘Cultural Fit’ Hiring Is Detrimental to Law Firm Diversity

Published: Jun 08, 2015

Topics: Job Search       Law       Workplace Issues       

Last week my colleague Derek Loosvelt aptly discussed the dangers of “cultural fit” hiring, drawing on some examples from Vault’s surveys of banking and consulting professionals as they relate to Lauren Rivera’s opinion piece in last week’s NY Times. When I read Rivera’s article, based on the findings of her extensive research on the hiring practices of banks, consulting firms and law firms, I was struck by how alive her conclusions were in the words of the associates who took Vault’s law survey this year. (Plug: law rankings will be released later this month, along with updated profiles of the nation’s top law firms.)

The vast majority of associates told us that their firms prize “personality” and “fit” when making hiring decisions. These factors frequently trump all else once the candidate has met a certain threshold of academic achievement. Yet at the same time, there is a serious diversity problem plaguing the world of BigLaw. While most associates acknowledge that their firms are “trying” to hire more diverse candidates and to foster a more inclusive environment, the running theme is that retention continues to be a major problem. And nobody is happy about that; yet they don’t question the firm’s practice of finding people who “fit in well with the firm’s culture.”

A few sharp and observant associates have caught on to the connection between “fit” hiring and the dwindling number of diverse attorneys at the upper levels. We asked associates to rate and comment on their firms’ diversity efforts in hiring, promotion and mentoring with respect to women, minorities, LGBT individuals, individuals with disabilities, and military veterans. We told them to “[f]eel free to discuss issues relating to hiring, retention, promotion, child care, maternity/paternity leave and mentoring opportunities.” As one attorney told us:

“We have all been trained to be conscious of racial/gender-based stereotypes and do a good job of keeping such bias out of our thinking (at least overtly). But as a matter of cultural fit, there are many conversations in which it is assumed that everyone's parents took them to museums, symphonies, etc. when they were young, or that everyone expects to receive a bequest of some sort from their parents, or that we all have at least a passing familiarity with certain parts of Connecticut or the Hamptons. Some young associates manage these subtle challenges well, but it's clear that some of us need to work harder than others to fit in.”

That, in a nutshell, is what Rivera is talking about when she found that “[d]iscovering shared experiences was one of the most powerful sources of chemistry, but interviewers were primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies matched their own.” Until law firm hiring committees realize the implicit bias that the search for “fit” entails, they will continue to struggle to create a heterogeneous workforce. The promotion process must also be scrutinized; much like hiring, this system is likely to suffer from the misgivings of the “airport test.”

And back to the hiring process. Everyone knows that these days, few firms are interviewing outside of the top schools, or the top 10% of the class at middle-tier law schools. But as one associate remarked, this starting point in and of itself is the first roadblock to building a diverse team:

“The firm is trying, but it needs to do better.  It is difficult to remind those who have arisen through a ‘merit-based’ system that such a system is not oblivious to difference--it's preference for straight, white men is a necessary aspect of it.”

How does the selection of candidates for “cultural fit” impact diversity at your company? 

Read More:
Does Hiring Based on 'Cultural Fit' Encourage Discrimination?
Announcing the Best Law Firms for Diversity 
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