Equality at the Starting Line? A Study of Gender- and Race-Related Differences at Law Graduates’ Labor Market Entry


The aim of this study is to examine the critical transition from law school to the labor market in order to better understand the pervasive gender- and race-related social and economic inequalities in the United States. Law school graduates are the focus because their profession is a typical demonstration of the prolonged impact of initial employment on individuals’ long-term professional and economic status. In this study, data from a national longitudinal survey are used to investigate how the number of job offers law school graduates received from private and public employers is related to individuals’ social, cultural, human and economic capitals, and how job offers as an outcome of educational investment influence their income after controlling for other income-generating factors. The results indicated that women and minorities received significantly lower numbers of job offers from private employers than their counterparts after controlling for factors such as law school ranking and finance of education. In addition, the number of job offers from private employers had a strong positive impact on the annual income two years after graduation for both males and females. The significant gender- and race-related differences are a clear indication of hiring practices that systematically reinforce professional and economic inequalities in the legal profession.

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Xu, Y. (2022) Equality at the Starting Line? A Study of Gender- and Race-Related Differences at Law Graduates’ Labor Market Entry. Journal of Human Resource and Sustainability Studies, 10, 753-771. doi: 10.4236/jhrss.2022.104044.

1. Introduction

In recent years, economic inequality in the United States has become one of the greatest in the Western industrialized nations (Rivera, 2015). Such inequality is sustained and further propelled by social stratification that is greatly related to construction of racial categories, uneven gender revolution, and the established educational systems (Campero & Fernandez, 2019; Grusky & Weisshaar, 2014). Attention and efforts to improve equality have been witnessed in academic research as well as social practices; one of which is a collective call to increase diversity in workplaces and professions that are traditionally dominated by White males, such as the high-paying STEM occupations and the legal profession.

In this study, the focal point is the transition of graduates from law school to the labor market. The goal is to examine whether inequality in the hiring process exists and how it impacts the economic and professional progress at the individual level as experienced by students of different gender and racial groups. The study is driven by two underlying factors. First, as Rivera (2015) stated, “the hiring decisions employers make play important roles in shaping individuals’ economic trajectories and influencing broader social inequalities” (p. 2). However, empirical research on employment transition is scarce partly because the subjective nature of hiring evaluation is not easy to evaluate (Campero & Fernandez, 2019). Second, the legal profession in the United States is one of the professions that suffer from great underrepresentation of women and racial minorities. Women and minorities account for roughly 35% and 9%, respectively, of over 1,300,000 licensed lawyers nationally (American Bar Association, 2015), which is a strong contrast to their presence of 50% and 32% in the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). A better understanding of the gender- and race-based differences in the employment transition will shed light on the current practices and needed changes in the legal profession.

To date, the number of empirical studies that examined the professional experience of women and minorities in law schools and the legal profession is very limited. A majority of the studies about gender inequity have focused on job satisfaction and earning gaps in the law profession, whereas the concern about racial diversity has remained mostly anecdotal. The lack of depth and width of scholarly research reflects superficial attempts to improve professional and economic equality in the profession. Within this context, the current study situates the diversity issue of the legal profession within the national concerns of economic inequality and investigates how individual differences in cultural, social, and economic background contribute to setting law students’ professional trajectories (as measured by job offers received and annual income at the start of the career) when they graduate and enter the workforce. Using a national sample of law school graduates, the study will fill a gap in the literature about how social and economic reproductions occur in labor markets when students with similar credentials compete for jobs and the outcomes are analyzed for gender and race-related differences.

Review of Literature

The primary goal of higher education is to help individuals gain knowledge and skills for a rewarding career, independent living, and civic membership. The unfortunate reality is that, during the years in the formal education system, economic, social, and cultural upbringing set students from different family backgrounds on separated paths in terms of accessing resources, navigating the system, and performing in school (Rivera, 2015; Rivera & Tilcsik, 2016). The transition from school to the labor market is a crucial point as it is suspected that the issues related to inequality in education also continue to manifest in a variety of ways through the entry steps into employment. In the extant literature on the school-to-work transition, the dominant interest is on high school graduates (Quadlin, 2018), and more research is needed in order to sufficiently examine the labor market entry of students with more advanced degrees. Although many recent studies in human resources continue to find evidence of employment discrimination on the basis of status characteristics (e.g., gender, race, parental status) and human capital characteristics (Correli, Benard, & Paik, 2007; Pedulla, 2014; Tilcsik, 2011), the understanding is still quite limited regarding how certain status characteristics, such as cultural and economic capital, interact with gender and race to contribute to inequalities at different stages of employment, particularly employers’ hiring decisions (Rivera, 2015).

Job Offers and Equal Opportunities

In this study, the legal profession is chosen as a case study based on several considerations. First, in the legal profession, jobs can be divided into two general categories: for-profit private practice and non-profit government or other public interest (Kornhauser & Revesz, 2000). Within the for-profit category, a division exists between large law firms (often regarded as “elite”) that serve corporations and small firms that serve personal clients. Such categorization implies economic and professional status in a way that is rare in other occupations (Rivera & Tilcsik, 2016). Second, lawyers are divided into separate professional categories early in their careers, and law school graduates with different cultural, social, and educational backgrounds are offered and accept different types of legal jobs at the entry level (Dinovitzer & Garth, 2007; Kornhauser & Revesz, 2000). Ample evidence suggests that the initial job a graduate obtains has career-determining consequences and plays profound roles in shaping one’s economic success (Rivera, 2015). The legal profession is chosen to validate this point given the trend that individuals who obtain corporate positions tend to remain on the higher earning track that services corporate clients, while those who were initially employed in small private practices or in not-for-profit positions tend to have lower earnings, serve individual clients and occupy lower paid government positions (Tamanaha, 2013; see also Dinovitzer & Garth, 2007).

Finally, as previously stated, the legal profession continues to exhibit great disparities in terms of gender and racial representation. National statistics show that elite corporate law firms are still “White boys’ clubs” whereas women and minorities are overrepresented in not-for-profit public interest positions (Dinovitzer & Garth, 2007; Rivera & Tilcsik, 2016). While law firms seem to be under growing pressure to hire and retain more women and minorities (McDonough 2005; Rivera, 2012; Wilkins, 2004), a variety of factors beyond human capital evaluations may influence the dynamics of decision-making during hiring as well as the types of employment opportunities available to law school graduates (Rivera, 2015; Rivera & Tilcsik, 2016). For instance, graduates from elite law schools appear to receive comparatively more offers, yet among them, women and minorities still face their “fair” share of obstacles (Rivera, 2012). Inevitably, socioeconomic status plays a role in this process because the overwhelming majority of elite law school graduates come from affluent family backgrounds that provide advantageous social access (Dinovitzer & Garth, 2007; Rivera, 2015). In comparison, those from low-ranking law schools are more likely to be from modest family backgrounds, receive fewer offers upon graduation, have a lower likelihood of working in elite law firms and earn lower salaries. The available evidence, though limited, suggests that social, economic, academic, and structural factors all come into play in the process of job-seeking and offer-making at the labor market entry, though systematic investigation of this matter has been scant in the literature.

It is worth mentioning that notions still exist that minorities and women choose to opt out of employment opportunities in elite law firms for reasons such as different preferences in lifestyle (Dinovitzer & Garth, 2007; Kornhauser & Revesz, 2000); however, an analysis of longitudinal data by Kornhauser and Revesz (2000) found that men and women in the general legal profession showed an increasing convergence in their initial job choices and career paths. It is fair to argue that self-selection bias in the choice of employment types seems to be a phenomenon of the past. From a different perspective, it is important to realize that there is an essential difference between whether employment opportunities are available versus whether opportunities are taken. In other words, it is important to investigate whether individuals of comparative credentials have equal access to the same employment opportunities before discussion of their preferences to such opportunities becomes necessary.

Gender and Racial Disparities

The focal point of the current study is law school graduates’ employment outcomes and how those outcomes are influenced by the cultural, social, economic, and human capitals of individuals. The goal is to understand the profound impacts of the hiring transaction because strong evidence indicates that women and minorities experience professional and economic disadvantages as results of biases, traditional stereotypes, isolation and marginalization starting from the entry point into the legal profession (Nance & Madsen, 2014; Quadlin, 2018; Rivera & Tilcsik, 2016).

From the perspective of gender equality, a positive trend has been observed in that the number of women has increased steadily within the law schools and legal profession. However, the near convergence between the presence of women in the legal pipeline and their presence in the general population does not necessarily translate into gender equality (Kornhauser & Revesz, 2000). On the contrary, findings in the literature consistently suggest that 1) women are far more likely than men to be unemployed or to work part-time after earning a law degree (Tamanaha, 2013); 2) for those having full-time positions in law firms, female lawyers do not achieve the success accorded to their male colleagues, even when they have comparable human capital investment in their careers to the same extent as males (Hagan & Kay, 1995; Mossman, 2005); 3) women are more likely to be in positions characterized by lower earning potential and fewer opportunities for promotion; as a matter of fact, the projected earnings for women in the legal profession are 25% lower than men’s because of pay differentials and other career factors, and 4) women at elite firms are significantly less likely to be promoted to partner and leave their jobs at a higher rate than men (Dinovitzer & Garth, 2007; Kornhauser & Revesz, 2000; Patterson & Maven, 2009). According to the theories of gendered organizations, gender inequality is built into the structure of work organizations (Campero & Fernandez, 2019). Therefore, the likelihood is high that employers’ hiring practices are not immune to such inequality.

In comparison, the status of racial minorities in the legal profession appears even bleaker. Numerically, not much progress has been witnessed for racial minorities (Payne-Pikus, Hagan, & Nelson, 2010). Statistics have consistently shown that racial and ethnic groups are vastly underrepresented in law schools and the legal profession in America (see also Reynoso & Amron, 2002). Despite efforts to diversify the profession, racial and ethnic minorities represent less than 15% of all lawyers. As a matter of fact, the legal profession is less racially diverse than any other American profession (Reynoso & Amron, 2002). Decades of data indicate that racial minority lawyers are overrepresented in positions of lower earning and limited opportunities for promotion, similar to women (Kornhauser & Revesz, 2000). Despite the severe inequality, studies about racial diversity have remained scarce and anecdotal, and even the very limited number of empirical research has focused mainly on race-conscious affirmative action in law school admission (e.g., Lempert et al., 2000). The lack of research on minority lawyers is disturbing because it implies a lack of attention and effort to improve their equal opportunities for employment and advancement, equal compensation rates, and an equal contribution to discussions and decision-making (Nance & Madsen, 2014).

To better understand the dynamics sustaining the gender and racial inequalities in the legal profession, this study is designed to examine the number of job offers obtained by law graduates based on data collected from a nationally representative sample. Further, gender- and race-based differences in private versus public job offers are examined from a theoretical perspective that highlights individual differences in cultural, social, economic, and human capital. In addition, the sustained impact of job offers on individuals’ annual income was analyzed, controlling for other income-generating factors. The theoretically oriented examination of the school-to-employment transition and its impacts on economic status will fill in a gap in the literature and provide guidance on potential interventions to reduce inequality in the legal labor force.

Theoretical Framework

Human capital theory (HCT) is the dominant framework in sociology studies of employment and economic inequality and research of the legal profession are no exception (e.g., Kay & Hagan, 1998; Payne-Pikus et al., 2010; Rivera, 2012). HCT is a neoclassical economic theory that views individuals as rational actors who make educational and occupational decisions based upon a calculation of associated monetary costs and benefits (Melguizo, 2011; Xu, 2015). This theoretical perspective regards education choices (e.g., types of law school) and work experience (e.g., type of employer, full-time/part-time status) as investments, and explains differences in professional outcomes, such as job offers, earnings, and status attainment as gains from past investment (Becker, 1964; Kay & Hagan, 1998).

Although education and skill investments are useful for predicting earning and professional status, HCT falls short in explaining inequity (Kay & Hagan, 1998). For instance, empirical research has repeatedly shown that women obtain lower returns for the same investments in human capital than men do (Dinovitzer et al., 2009; Xu, 2015). Moreover, HCT fails to take into consideration that individuals’ decision making goes beyond the econometric formulation of material self-interest; rather, social, cultural, and structural norms also affect one’s choices by providing incentives that can change their values and expectations (Huber, 1997). In fact, evidence is ample that gender and racial inequalities result from a combination of individual, structural, and organizational attributes (Kay & Hagan, 1998; Xu, 2015). As Rivera (2015) observed, literature on education and employment inequality highlights how economic, social, and cultural capital reproduce privilege in schools. Therefore, along with HCT, this study also takes advantage of Bourdieu’s theorization of cultural, social, and economic capitals to guide the examination of the extent individual capital interacts with the structural norms in the legal profession to impact law students’ economic and professional outcomes.

Cultural Capital can be interpreted as an individual’s cultural background and parent-related factors that define one’s class status (Rivera, 2015; Xu, 2013). It refers to the heritage, knowledge, and traits an individual possesses in order to compete in a social structure dominated by the values of the majority (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977). According to Bourdieu (1986), individuals’ cultural capital is converted into educational credentials and, ultimately, occupational success. Empirical studies have found that cultural capital contributes to college students’ academic mastery (Goyette & Mullen, 2006), accumulation of social capital (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977), and career attainment (Stoecker & Pascarella, 1991). Recent studies confirm that the class of origin has long-term effects on children’s educational, occupational, and economic attainment (Stephens, Markus, & Fryberg, 2012).

The role of cultural capital in legal education has remained implicit but assertive. For instance, law schools place a high reliance on LSAT scores, turning down a disproportionately large percentage of racial minority applicants, even though studies have found that LSAT scores have little predictive power of later success in legal profession (Olivas, 2005; Reynoso & Amron, 2002). Nonetheless, empirical evidence is scarce regarding how cultural factors, such as parents’ education and family background, contribute to individuals’ persistence and success in legal profession.

Social Capital is “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network” (Bourdieu, 1986). Social capital is essential to legal professionals because the practice of law is organized around networks (Patton, 2005). For law school students, social capital consists of the ability to draw on relationship networks for establishing or expanding support and increasing professional opportunities in the future. Studies have found that students’ institutional experiences and connections contribute to personal gains, persistence in academic programs, and career attainment (Griffith, 2010; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). However, women and minorities continue to experience a hostile social environment and difficulties integrating socially (Reynoso & Amron, 2002).

Economic Capital refers to the financial resources and physical materials that can be directly convertible into money. Given the drastic rise in law school tuition and the resultant student debts, it is critical to understand the role of economic capital in students’ persistence and valuation of a legal education. During the period of 1990-2009, on average, private law school tuition rose by 5% - 9% a year (Ehrenburg, 2013). About 90% of law students borrowed to finance their education, which led to average debts rising from $70,147 in 2001 to $124,950 in 2011 for private law school graduates, and from $46,499 to $75,728 for those in public law schools over the same period (Tamanaha, 2013). In the last decade, similar increases have been reported. High tuition and the resulting debt in legal education have increased economic pressure and lowered opportunities for students from low-SES backgrounds, the vast majority being racial minority students (Morrissey, 2006). In addition, high debts may have negatively impacted women and minorities’ progress in law education and the legal profession to a much greater degree given that they are distributed disproportionately in less prestigious positions and have lower earnings than their White male counterparts (Reynoso & Amron, 2002).

Cultural, social, and economic capitals are interconnected and their functions in individuals’ educational and professional developments are conditioned by the residing structural environment and dominant organizational norms. In a broad scale, cultural, social, and economic capitals “contribute to social reproduction by steering individuals toward social, educational, and occupational paths consistent with the economic class in which they grew up” (Rivera, 2015: p. 8). Even though in Bourdieu’s conception there are important connections between social structures and different forms of personal capital, little attention has been given to how these factors function together to influence the professional progress of law students.

Given the segmented job markets in the legal field, securing employment with professional and economic potentials is a critical step to a successful career path and has a long-term impact on one’s earning trajectory. Therefore, the study will address some of the unanswered questions by measuring the number of job offers law graduates received from public vs. private employers, comparing how initial job offers received differ by gender and race, and examining the prolonged impacts initial employment offers have on an individual’s economic status. Specifically, the two research questions are:

1) How is the number of job offers students received from private and public employers at law school graduation influenced by individuals’ social, cultural, economic, and human capitals? Job offers are delineated as private sector or public interest because evidence is strong that there is a tremendous earning gap between lawyers’ salaries in the two types of legal system employment (NALP Bulletin, 2019).

2) How do job offers as an outcome of law education influence individuals’ income after controlling for individual differences in cultural, social, economic, and human capital?

2. Methods

Data from a longitudinal national survey, After the JD (AJD) Study, are used to investigate the experiences of students of different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds during the transition from law school to the legal profession. AJD is the first national survey of law graduates in the U.S. The initial sample was representative of the national population of lawyers who were admitted to the bar in 2000 and graduated from law school during the time period from June 1998 to July 2000. The first wave (AJD1) of data was collected in May 2002 and completed with a response rate of 71% and a total of 4538 valid responses. The data collection “provided a snapshot of the personal lives and careers of this cohort about three years after they began practicing law” (ICPSR, 2014). The survey collected information about respondents’ demographic characteristics, financing of legal education, law school and the transition to practice, practice settings, income, and satisfactions with different job dimensions.

A second wave (AJD2) was designed to follow up after approximately seven years in practice, and the third and last wave of data collection (AJD3) took place in 2012 from individuals who had previously responded to either AJD1 or AJD2 (ICPSR, 2014). For the purpose of this study, only data from AJD1 are analyzed. After data preparation and removal of cases missing critical information (e.g., income, gender, and race), this study has a weighted sample size of 4,537, of which 44% were female and 17% were racial minorities. In all three waves, the sampling design used a two-stage process. The first stage was to divide the nation into eighteen strata by region and size of the new lawyer population, from each of which one primary sampling unit (PSU) was chosen. During the second stage, individual lawyers were sampled from the PSUs based on a design that would lead to a weighted sample representative of the national population. As such, the sample includes new lawyers from 18 legal markets—ranging from the 4 largest markets (New York City, District of Columbia, Chicago, and Los Angeles) to 14 other areas consisting of small metropolitan areas to entire states. As such, data used in this study were weighted in the descriptive and inferential statistical analyses.


In order to answer the two research questions about job offers within the aforementioned theoretical framework, variables from the AJD data were employed in the following manner:

1) Cultural capital is measured by race/ethnicity, parents born in the U.S., and highest educational attainment of parents (Rivera, 2015; Xu, 2013). Due to the extremely low number of participants from certain racial groups, race was dichotomously coded into White vs. minorities.

2) Due to the lack of direct measures, social capital is quantified with two proxies, including whether a respondent actively participated in organizational activities in law school, and whether family members, friends, and/or alumni helped the individual find a job (Griffith, 2010; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). In particular, social participations in law school were captured by the total scores of self-reported participations in organizations such as school government, political advocacy group, gender-based organization, and college alumni/ae association, etc.

3) Economic capital is quantified by total law school education loan amount, and the percentage of funding from personal resources.

4) Since all respondents have a law school degree, their differences in human capital investment are measured by the ranking of the law school attended, participation in legal-related activities and organizations in law school (e.g., American Bar Association—Student Division, and public interest law group), and personal evaluation about the importance of past experiences in legal services toward obtaining the first employment.

5) Demographic information includes gender, age, marital status, and number of children.

6) Structural experience is captured by the type of position (part-time/full-time, practicing lawyer) held by an individual and whether they experienced discrimination at work. These two variables are used in the analysis of annual salary only.

7) Career outcome at the entry level served as the dependent variables, which were captured using the number of job offers received from public and private sectors by a respondent, and annual income (total salary/bonus) at the job held two years after graduation.

Analytical Procedures

Comparisons across groups were first completed with descriptive statistics to offer an overview of gender and racial differences in the major measures used in the study. To answer the first research question, two multiple regression models of identical structure were constructed, one using the number of job offers from private employers as the dependent variable, the other using the number of job offers from public sectors as the dependent variable. Findings of the two models would shed light on the different factors contributing to the job offers received by individuals. To answer the second research question, another two regression models, one for males and the other for females, were constructed to understand how job offers impact incomes of male and female legal professionals differently after controlling for other variance-contributing factors.

3. Results

Descriptive information of the major variables is presented in Table 1 to show the differences across the four groups defined by gender and minority status. This nationally representative sample of entry-level legal professionals consisted of 53.4% males and 46.6% females. Among them, about 16.6% of males and 20.4% of females were racial/ethnic minorities. The sample was very close to the national statistics of law professionals in gender and racial distributions. Given the large sample size, a conservative α = .005 level of significance was used for the following tests. First, there was no statistical difference between genders with regard to the average rankings of the law school they attended; the average ranking of law schools attended by minority students appeared to be better than that of White students, but the difference was statistically nonsignificant (p > .05). Second, minorities, in particular minority women, had significantly higher amounts of educational loans after completing law school (p < .001). Third, women had a significantly lower likelihood to be employed fulltime; for those who were employed fulltime, women had significantly lower average incomes (p < .001) in comparison to their male counterparts. Finally, male law school graduates received significantly higher numbers of job offers than their female counterparts (p < .005), whereas individuals of racial/ethnic minority backgrounds had a significantly (p = .004) higher number of public offers (.71) than their White counterparts (.60).

Table 1. Descriptive information by gender and racial background.

Notes. 1. All statistics are based on weighted samples. 2. Individuals who reported an annual income lower than $5000 are excluded from the income calculation.

With the observed differences in job offers and other factors, further findings from two regression models are presented in Table 2 that highlighted which cultural, social, human and economic capitals contributed significantly to the number of job offers received by law graduates. According to the model, factors that contributed positively to the number of job offers received from private employers included being a male (p < .001), being Caucasian (p < .001), having graduated from law schools of higher ranks (p < .001), having had more active participation in legal-related activities in law school (p = .004) and having graduated with a higher education debt (p < .001). In comparison, factors that contributed negatively to the number of private job offers included that both parents were US-born (p < .001) and having had a higher percentage of law education costs financed through student loans (p < .001). In comparison, the number of job offers from public employers was significantly higher for individuals who are racial minorities (p < .001), with both US born parents (p < .001), were more active in participating in both social (p < .001) and legal (p < .001) activities/organizations in law school, obtained their law degree from less prestigious schools (p < .001) and had a stronger personal belief that past legal experience was important in obtaining their first job after graduation (p < .001).

Table 2. Regression models of job offers received from private and public employers.

Notes. 1. Variable coding. Sex: F = 1, M = 2; Marital status: Married/partnered = 1, single = 0; Race: White = 1, minority = 0; Parents US born: both yes = 2, one yes = 1, both no = 0. 2. Given the very large sample size, a conservative α = .005 is used for level of significance.

Finally, two more regression models, one for males and the other for females, were constructed to examine the continuing effect of job offers on individuals’ annual income two years after graduation. The annual income was transformed with a logarithm function in order to improve its linear relationships with the independent variables. Regardless of gender, the number of job offers from private employers had the strongest positive impact on individuals’ annual income (p < .001; β = .298 for males, and β = .315 for females), whereas the relationship was negative between the number of job offers from public employers and annual income (p < .001), net of the influences from individual differences in cultural, social, economic, and human capitals and organizational experience. Other gender-consistent patterns include the positive impact on individuals’ annual income from having graduated from law schools of higher rankings, having foreign born parent(s), lack of participation in social organizations in law school, having had lower reliance on student loans for financing law education, and being employed fulltime. However, there are several differences between genders. Being a practicing lawyer significantly improved women’s income (p < .001), but not so for men (p = .39). Yet, the annual income tended to be higher for men who had fewer personal resources for financing their law education (p < .001) and accumulated more debts at the time of graduation (p < .001). Although the two models in Table 2 only explained less than 10% of the variance in the number of job offers, the regression models in Table 3 explained roughly 30% of the variance in annual income, which is at a level comparable to other studies of salary and gender equity.

4. Discussion

In the legal profession, the common notion appears to be that the kind of job offers received by law graduates has career-determining consequences, but theoretically oriented investigation of initial employments and their long-term impact are extremely rare in the literature. Inspired by a study of lawyers in Chicago, in which researchers found individuals who started with positions in large law firms tend to remain on the higher earning track, while those who served individual clients and public interests tended to have lower earnings (Tamanaha, 2013), as well as the findings about how employers had differential treatments of job seekers on the basis of social class signals by Rivera and Tilcsik (2016), this study separated job offers into private and public categories, and investigated gender- and race-related differences in job offers from a theoretical perspective supported by Bourdieu’s framework of cultural, social, and economic capitals. Overall, this study of the legal profession confirms that individuals’ cultural, social and economic backgrounds had significant influence on the job offers they received, and indeed “both attaining an occupational status and securing an income are contingent on” the job offers (Rivera, 2012).

Factors Contributing to Job Offers

The results suggest that the number of job offers received by law school graduates is a function of many different factors. First, the regression models support

Table 3. Regression models of annual income (log-transformed) by gender.

Notes. 1. Given the large sample size, α = .005 is used for level of significance. Variable coding. Marital status: Married/partnered = 1, single = 0; Race: White = 1, minority = 0; Parents US born: both yes = 2, one yes = 1, both no = 0. Employment status: Full-time = 1, part-time = 2; Practicing lawyer: yes = 1, no = 2.

the findings of other studies that graduates of elite law schools received more job offers and were more likely to be employed by private law firms (Dinovitzer & Garth, 2007; Kornhauser & Revesz, 2000). This pattern may be interpreted as support for the HCT because individuals who made greater investment by going to higher ranking law schools are rewarded with employment opportunities that offer better economic returns, while those whose law degrees were from less prestigious schools were more likely to receive lower returns from government positions that serve public interests; nonetheless, this is further reinforcement of social inequality because students in elite law schools are dominantly from higher social classes (Rivera & Tilcsik, 2016). Second, active participation in legal practice/activities in law school, if treated as personal investment in profession-related experiences, also contributed to significantly increasing the number of job offers received from both private and public employers. Arguably, individuals may also grow their professional networks and increase social capital through active participation in legal practice/activities in law school, which indirectly improve their chances of obtaining job offers. Nonetheless, active participation in social organizations in law school was only related to a greater number of job offers from public sectors. The speculation is that students only had limited time for participating in legal practice and/or social organizations in law school. Those who were more concerned with social justice and public interests may have chosen to spend more time participating in social organizations, which improved their readiness for bidding for employment from public employers, but not from private law firms.

Third, economic capital appears to have a relationship with the number of job offers received as well, but the relationship is not easy to decipher. On the one hand, individuals with higher educational debt after degree completion seemed to have more offers from private law firms. Possibly, their effort to compete for positions with higher earnings in private firms would make it easier to pay off the debts (Rivera & Tilcsik, 2016). On the other hand, individuals whose debt was more in the form of student loans received significantly fewer job offers from private employers. This difference may be related to socioeconomic status because stronger reliance on student loans is an indicator of insufficient economic backup from family and other personal resources. Signals of insufficient economic resources, such as an applicant’s experiences, extracurricular activities, and self-presentation styles may lead to fewer job offers from elite employers due to a lack of “cultural similarities” (Rivera, 2012).

Fourth, the family’s cultural background, quantified by racial background and whether parent(s) were foreign-born, impacted the number of job offers net of other factors that have already been discussed. Having foreign-born parent(s) was related to more job offers from private employers but fewer job offers from public employers. Without evidence to support causation, it is possible that individuals with a foreign background are more likely to perceive employment opportunities in corporate law firms as a path to upward mobility and confirmation of establishment in socioeconomic status. That is, the reward goes beyond economic benefits for people with an immigrant background. However, what would be a plausible explanation for the significantly lower number of job offers from private law firms, but significantly more job offers from public offices for racial minority graduates? Kornhauser and Revesz (2000) found that, controlling for other relevant factors, African American and Latino students were more likely to be in not-for-profit positions than their White counterparts. However, no particular reasons have been offered for this difference. As shown in the descriptive analysis, racial minorities graduated from law schools of comparable, if not higher, ranks, and they had accumulated higher loans waiting to be paid off. The findings may simply imply discrimination at hire because minority law students were not offered the same opportunities by private law firms.

Last, but definitely not least, controlling for differences in cultural, social, economic, and human capitals, women received significantly fewer numbers of job offers than men from private employers. This finding is consistent with a recent study by Rivera and Tilcsik (2016) that women are often rated less favorably in hiring evaluations than otherwise equivalent men. This finding is disturbing because it adds evidence to similar conclusions of recent studies that found women are less likely to be hired because they are perceived as less committed to full-time, demanding careers than are male applicants of comparable credentials (Quadlin, 2018; Rivera & Tilcsik, 2016). As shown next, the significant gender inequality in employment opportunities offered by private law firms has prolonged impacts, particularly on individuals’ economic status.

The Long-Term Impacts of Job Offers Received

Concerns about the inequality in employment opportunities from private employers, as materialized by the number of job offers, are legitimate because there is a substantial earning gap between lawyer salaries in the private sector and public employers (NALP Bulletin, 2019). As found in other studies, wage differences between the sectors of the profession have a larger effect on job choice than debt, and have multidimensional impacts on individuals’ career choice, especially for those who graduated from less elite law schools (Dinovitzer & Garth, 2007; Kornhauser & Revesz, 2000). Data of this study clearly showed that there is a significant earning gap between male and female lawyers right after their career entry. Results of the regression models, controlling for law school ranking and other salary-related factors, indicated that the number of job offers from private employers had an impact on annual income two years after graduation that was even stronger than the ranking of law school attended for new lawyers, regardless of gender. In contrast, the number of offers from public employers had a negative relationship with annual income, meaning that more public job offers led to a lower income two years into the legal profession.

This finding confirms that the hiring transaction propels gender and race-based inequalities when taking into consideration that 1) women and minorities received a significantly lower number of job offers from private employers than their White male counterparts, as previously discussed; and 2) a public interest lawyer with a modest salary expectation generally borrows the same amount to finance their law education (Matasar, 2010). The debt service on their loans would be markedly high in relation to their salaries. Taken together, the findings suggest that women and minority lawyers would experience greater difficulty in paying back their loans and managing other living expenses and suffer economic disadvantages in the long run.

The transition from law school to the legal profession is critical for the career developments of young lawyers. Clearly, the number of job offers they receive, as an indicator of employment opportunity, is not only a function of academic training and preparation, but is also associated with other differences in social, cultural, and economic background. Furthermore, jobs offers, as materialization of employers’ hiring decisions, substantially shape individuals’ economic trajectories (Rivera & Tilcsik, 2016). During the transition from school to employment, the significant gender- and race-related differences are a clear indication of systematic hiring practices that reinforce professional and economic inequalities at the societal level. This study, as one of the first to systematically examine initial employment opportunities and their prolonged impacts, serves as a reality check of the structural barriers and the marginalizing work culture in private firms that traditionally favor the “old White boys’ club.” With Rivera (2015) and Rivera (2012) studies that provided deeper understanding of the decision-making of elite employers during the job-offering process, the road map is becoming clear regarding how to identify and correct potential factors that lead to unequal treatment of applicants who are female and/or racial minorities from different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds.

5. Limitations

First, the data used in this study were collected in 2002 and the experiences of women and minority lawyers may have changed in the past fifteen years. However, the AJD is the first national survey of law graduates in the U.S. that offered comprehensive information and made this study possible. Replication of this study with more recent data, when available, is desirable in order to benchmark progress of diversity in the legal profession. Second, within the private employer category, differences exist between large law firms that serve corporations and “small” firms that serve personal clients. Unfortunately, data on job offers in the AJD did not allow further differentiation beyond the private and public categories. Third, in some places, proxy measures of social, cultural, economic, and human capital had to be used due to limited information in the AJD data set. Finally, the regression models of job offers explained less than 10% of the variances in the number of job offers, which suggests that there were other factors related to job offers unaccounted for in the models. Future studies of job offers may add depth to our understanding of obtaining job offers using different and more complete data sources.

6. Conclusion

Eliminating barriers and bias against people on the basis of their race, gender, and other social identities in employment opportunity and career progress not only promotes social justice at a personal level, but also improves social equality and economic growth at a national level. For the legal profession, hiring decisions based on skills and ability will lead to a work force sufficiently representing all groups of American society in the long run. Equal opportunity and leveled economic growth of all groups are keys to the diversified legal workforce needed to sustain a judicial system that ensures democracy and equal rights for all citizens (Robbins & Matthews, 2014). By investigating the differences in job offers and their impact on the income of law graduates, this study identified gender- and race-based disparities that need to be addressed in order to improve equal opportunity and diversity in the legal profession. The goal of this study, along with many others on diversity and equality, is to ensure that women and racial minorities are provided with a fair chance to gain professional growth and economic stability proportional to their educational and occupational investments. The effort to increase equality and diversity in the legal profession will help to “elevate historically underserved communities and thereby contribute to the strength of the nation’s economic and social life” (Reynoso & Amron, 2002).

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest regarding the publication of this paper.


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