Is Big Law a Meritocracy? Why Elite Jobs Still Go to Elite Students…And What to Do About It

Is Big Law a Meritocracy? Why Elite Jobs Still Go to Elite Students…And What to Do About It


– Good afternoon everyone. I’m delighted to welcome
you to the third event in our third annual Speaker Series here at the Center for Diversity,
Inclusion, and Belonging. My name is Kenji Yoshino, and I’m the faculty
director of the center. I’d like to start by thanking the sponsors of our speaker series, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Davis Polk, DLA Piper, Fried
Frank, Kirkland & Ellis, Latham & Watkins, Paul
Weiss, Sullivan & Cromwell, Wachtel Lipton, Weil, and White & Case. Now I’d like to introduce our
distinguished guest today. I’m thrilled to welcome
Professor Lauren Rivera. Professor Rivera is a sociologist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She is an expert on workplace
personnel practices, with a focus on diversity,
equity, and inclusion. Her research has been
featured in The Atlantic, The Economist, The
Financial Times, Fortune, The New York Times, The Wall
Street Journal, and NPR. And most relevantly for today, she published her award-winning book, Pedigree: how elite
students get elite jobs, in 2015. Professor Rivera earned her BA in sociology and developmental psychology from Yale University and her PhD in sociology from Harvard. Please welcome Professor
Rivera to the Law School. (audience applauds) And it’s my particular pleasure, I often moderate these, but for the first time we are elevating our executive director David
Glasgow to this position. David will be speaking with
Professor Rivera for this event. He is executive director of the Center for Diversity,
Diversity, and Belonging, and an adjunct professor here at NYU Law. He received his BA in
philosophy and his law degree from the University of Melbourne, and practiced employee relations
and anti-discrimination law at the international law
firm King & Wood Mallesons. After completing a clerkship with the Federal Court of Australia, David obtained an LLM
from NYU Law in 2014. Before I open the discussion, I’ll mention the process for
the audience Q&A component, which will be about the
last quarter hour, or so of our talk. Instead of taking audience
questions via microphone, we’re gonna do it via index card. You will have picked up an
index card on your way in. Please write your questions on your card as they come to mind
during the discussion. Helpers will then walk through the room and collect the cards, and David will read out
a selection from the pile when we get to the Q&A. Without further ado, I’ll
hand things over to David. Thank you. – Thank you so much Kenji, and thank you Professor
Rivera for joining us. I wanna just start with
the title of your book, Pedigree: how elite
students get elite jobs. What do you mean by the term, elite? – It’s a very good question. First of all, thank you
David, and thank you Kenji for having me here, I’m delighted to be here. So, in terms of elite, there are many ways that
we can conceptualize what elite is. Some people, when they think of elite, they think of the 1%, or the 0.1%. I think of the elite as
individuals in society who have disproportionate power over the means of production. That’s often people who we might consider upper-middle class. The reason I chose to study
the occupations I did, which are, basically, new jobs in banking,
consulting, and law firms, most relevant to this audience, is that these jobs represent the entree into the elite as we
think of it more broadly, and the entree into the 1%. If you think of starting salaries
from law school right now, it’s what, 180 per year, in New York? That’s more than most families
earn in the United States, and that does propel you directly into the top 5% of incomes, and it depends what
type of city you’re in, but oftentimes the 1%. So, I think this is the gateway to the big elite that we talk about now, in terms of the top 1%, the 0.1%, but I do think it’s important
when we think of what’s elite and not to also consider people
who are intimately involved in the production and
reproduction of privilege in everyday life, which are often people we might think of as upper-middle class. – And so you mentioned that you studied three kinds of firms, consulting firms, investment
banks, and law firms. Can you tell us a little bit
about the nature of the project the scope of the project
that you embarked on, and what some of your key findings were? – Yeah, so I started off, and I actually didn’t
think I was going to study these occupations at all. I went to my graduate school, I went to go get my PhD, and had an interest in social status, and thought I was gonna study popularity, high school popularity cliques. I started off doing sundry studies. I did a study of who gets admission to really elite nightclubs, (audience laughs) which I offer all my MBA
students nightclub consulting now that I’ve of my age, and my advice, and information
is no longer valuable. But I decided upon hiring because hiring is basically
the biggest status sort that we go through, and it’s one of the
most consequential ones in terms of people’s incomes,
with their work satisfaction, and their meaning, their health outcomes in a lot of respects. And I wanted to look at elite jobs. Now, I actually wanted to study academics because I thought in my
world, you get a PhD program, the most elite you can get is possibly a professor
at a research university, and I couldn’t get access. My advisor emailed all
of her friends and said, please let Lauren watch, she promises not to
interrupt, or interfere, and everyone said, no thank you, that is way too creepy. So, I thought back to my days about what other elite
populations do I know of? And I was a management consultant prior to going back to graduate school, and at Yale, I knew a lot of people who went through the
finance recruiting process, who went through the
consulting recruiting process, including myself. And what was the other
option in the 1990s, besides doing banking and consulting if you were at an Ivy League school? Law school, right? And some people went to medical school. So, I decided to look at
this kind of triumvirate of occupations that were
so economically elite, and that’s how I decided upon them. Surprisingly, even though
I couldn’t get access to academic search committees, in the book, I’m embedded in a firm for about nine months. I will not tell you what firm it is, or any more details about it, but I got access really easily, which I was surprised, I was like, do you know there are
legal things involved here, I might see something illegal? They didn’t care. (David laughs)
So, It was kind of by default, but as I got in the field i really loved, and I’m glad I studied this world, and I’ve spent my life since
then studying this world. Also studying academic
hiring, my original thing. It wasn’t nearly as interesting
as I thought it was, but that’s how I came to this. – And you originally set
out, if I’m not wrong, to study gender in hiring? – Yes. – And then were diverted
onto socioeconomic status as you continued in the project. So what happened there? – Yeah, so I thought
that this was going to be a study of gender. If you look at law firms,
banks, and consulting firms, you see that the representation
of women at the time corresponded to some academic theory about how gender inequalities work, because law schools were, at the time, were about 50-50. We saw different in business schools, and the firms also had
different gender compositions. And so, I wanted to
see how that played out in the hiring process, if we could learn
something new about gender. But being in the field, doing interviews, what I realized, gender is definitely a story, and I’m happy to talk about that, but social class was something
that was so powerful, and something that we
haven’t talked a lot about in the public eye, but
also in academic circles. We don’t talk a lot about class bias, or class discrimination
in workplaces at all, let alone the act of
actually discriminating on the basis of social class. – And so, just to unpack some
of the class aspects of it, the recruitment process
in these firms starts with a resume review process, and you note that the top four
criteria that these firms, and not just law firms, across all the three
firms you studied were, in order of importance, school prestige,
extracurricular activities, grades, and prior employment, particularly the prestige
of prior employment. So, can you tell us a bit more about these four criteria? Why were they the important
ones to these firms? And how does that impact
socioeconomic diversity? – Definitely. So, the most important
criteria across the board was institutional prestige. So, how prestigious is
the undergraduate school, in the case of banking,
consulting, or MBA program, or the law school? And that manifests in two ways. One is when firms
designate lists of schools they will and will not go
for on-campus recruiting, where they’re actually
diverting bodies and dollars. Then there’s the secondary screen, was even within that, how do we consider of all the people who are actually gonna look
at their resumes which, some firms, if they didn’t have
a dedicated recruiting team dedicated to a particular school, and you sent in a resume
to a generic email address, unless you had someone who was
going to push that through, so someone would look at it, in firms that were less resourced, that just got thrown away. There was not a formalized system. And this has improved in
the past several years, maybe as a result of my work,
maybe not, maybe randomly, but I think that firms are paying a little bit more attention to people outside core and target schools. But at the time I was doing the research, if it was a non-targeted,
non-connected resume, see you later. But even within the
people who are applying through on-campus recruiting
from core and target schools, there was another screen based off of university prestige. This could be certain firms allotted, had quotas for different schools. So, every year we’re
going to interview 50 kids from NYU Law School regardless of if there’s
one qualified student, or there are 100 qualified students. But as you mentioned, when people were actually
evaluating resumes themselves, they further said, okay, how prestigious is this school? And I think that people did
it for a couple of reasons. Number one was, we have
this notion in the US, and it came out very clearly
in the interviews that I did that we think school prestige
signals intelligence. We have this very elaborate
process that we go through to get into undergraduate,
to get into law school, we have the testing, we have
letters of recommendation. It’s very quote-unquote meritocratic in a lot of people’s heads. And so, a lot of people trusted that relative rank on, say,
US News & World Report, was that they’d basically rank candidates by what they would call
intellectual horsepower. So, I think that’s one of the reasons. The other reason is that
people saw admission to especially an elite
undergraduate institution as evidence of superior
time management skills, and then interestingness. The idea that elite
undergraduate institutions admit partially based off of not only intellectual achievement, but also social, and
extracurricular endeavors. People would often reflect
upon their own classmates, many of these people were
graduates of elite schools, and said, you know, there were lots of
smart, interesting people, the best people I ever met in my life were from that time period. So, in addition to this
university prestige being a signal of intellectual horsepower, it was also a basic, is this an interesting person
who can manage their time between academics and other things? Now, you might think that that is great, and a lot of people do think that. But what we know is that
it’s not that students at the most elite schools are
the smartest, by any means. When it comes to superlatives, what we know is students at
the most elite law schools, most elite undergraduates, are the wealthiest. That is the huge differentiator. And there’s a lot of
research on this issue, on social class biases in
the admissions process. And so, when people are
screening so heavily on institutional prestige, they are also screening strongly on parental income,
and parental education. So, that’s number one. Two is extracurricular activities, and I mentioned that these kind of overlap because people are thinking, especially at the undergraduate level, these well-rounded people are going to places like
Princeton, and so forth. But in and apart from that, people were also screening off of that interests line on your resume, as well as participation in formal and informal
extracurricular activities. People saw that as a measure
of, again, time management, the ability to manage multiple things. Work in law firms, work in
banks, work in consulting firms is very demanding, and they wanted to see that people could handle
a demanding schedule. There was also a very innocent,
but not so great reason, which was looking at
resumes is really boring, and so people were looking for things that could distinguish some of your, you’re looking at 100 resumes,
they all look the same, oh, but this person does fly fishing, that’s really interesting. Or, you know, I’m a fly fisher. And we know from research that people, we prefer people who are like ourselves, and we also think that
they have more merit. So, those are some of the
justifications people had. But just like university prestige, we know from research
that the biggest predictor in involvement in structured
extracurricular activities, particularly those that
begin at young ages, and this is the case
even for varsity sports at elite colleges, the number one predictor
is, again, parental income. So again, you’re screening
off of university prestige, which creates all of these class biases, and then you’re doing a double screen on extracurricular activities, which further narrows the
pool based off of income. And then, grades was really interesting. There was variation by industry, and of course, grades
actually matter a lot more in law firms than they do elsewhere, although it did depend by school, the grade threshold was
very, very different depending on the school. But even among law firms, there was a lot of subjectivity in this, and whose grades do we count? I found that people who had
themselves been high achievers, in, for example, law school, were very big believers
in the use of grades. People who did not do as
well, in their opinion, were not big, and so they would do things to kind of, I’m gonna discount that despite
my firm’s stated policy. There’s a question of socioeconomic biases in first-year grades given how early law firms recruit. I’m a little bit less nervous about grades because at least it’s something
that’s not fly fishing, or whether or not you started fly fishing, or being an Olympic-class swimmer when you were age five. But it’s still, these are
all subtle class signals. The first two of them, I think, are a little bit more
problematic than the grades one ’cause research does suggest that grades are actually a decent way to get some information about
future on-the-job performance. – And so, once people have made it through this resume screening process, they then get to the interview. And so, what’s expected of candidates in terms of how they present
themselves during an interview? And how do those expectations interact with socioeconomic status? – There are a couple of them. It’s gonna vary by industry, so I’m gonna focus on law,
because that’s our audience. Of the three industries, interviews were least
structured in law firms, which was interesting. These were basically
open-ended conversations about what the interviewer
wanted to talk about. Some firms provided guidelines about what kinds of
questions someone should ask, but no one was looking
over someone’s shoulder, enforcing that we all
stick to the same script. But in these conversations
that were very open-ended, interviewers got to use
their own pet questions of what they thought
would be a good metric of whether or not someone is intelligent, or would be good at analytical thinking, or would be good in front of a client. And sometimes people had
very bizarre questions, sometimes people had very good questions. But in terms of what was
expected for the candidate, there were a couple of things. One is people were looking
for evidence of polish, which was how they described social and interactional skills. This had a very classed component, and a very, actually,
racialized component too, about what constitutes
professional communication. We found for both African
American and for Latino students, they never seemed to
be able to be perceived as having the right polish. You are always too quiet, or Asian American candidates as well, you’re always too quiet, too
loud, too dominant, too scary. I mean, when I heard these conversations, both in the firm I observed,
but also in interviews, it was quite striking. But that idea of being polished was one. The second was fitting. Fit was one of the most important criteria that interviewers look for. In law firms in general, at least the places where I interviewed, there was not a check on fit, there wasn’t that fit can
only sway 20% of the decision, it can sway 100% of the decision, especially if people
didn’t take the initiative to ask more, specifically
job-relevant questions, and that was basically, do you have a sense of
connection, or rapport with the interviewer. And it was often, does the interviewer feel
similar to you in some ways? Do we have something shared in common? Sometimes it was a shared alma mater, sometimes it was a shared
interest off the resume, sometimes it was just, and one example in the book of, an interviewer brought out his laptop, and he had pictures of
Harley-Davidsons on it, and the interviewee, he was also an attorney
who interviewed candidates, but he was telling me the
story about he got his job, and he was talking about, oh he asked him, oh, you like Harley-Davidsons? And they just started
talking about Harleys, and their beloved Harleys. And you know, it’s this
sense of commonality that was kind of unpredictable, but interviewers were looking for it. The last thing that I’ll talk about is having the right personal story. Interviewers were looking for candidates who told a very specific narrative of where they were going, why were they interested in this job, and what they saw their future was. And it was a very specific
plot-line that was linear in terms of continuous
record of achievement, I had a goal from whatever age, and I took this step, and then this next school
I chose, and the next job, progressed upon that, and things like this,
in a very linear fashion that was driven by internal demands like, I had a passion for this,
I have an interest in this. Any type of discussion of
external constraints like, I had to work because I needed money, I need to send money home, things like this, these were buzzkills that could detract, unless someone was able to
weave these things together into a kind of rags-to-riches story, is where we talked
about very extreme cases of upward mobility. – And so, you’ve talked quite a bit about this similar-to-me bias. So, to what extent is the problem with the recruitment processes themselves, and to what extent is it
just a problem with the fact that these firms have
so many elites in them that the way similarity bias is operating is that its replicating elites? So, if as a raw demographic fact, there was more socioeconomic diversity, and everyone’s still
applying similar-to-me bias, they’d presumably be replicating a more diverse bunch of people. Would you still be concerned about the way they’re doing their hiring? Or is that okay, and the problem is just
who’s inside these firms? – So, it’s both. Unfortunately, the
answer isn’t as simple as just diversify, and then
use similar-to-me biases to make things even better. Because what we know from research is that when you have members of historically underrepresented groups who then are in positions of authority, they often display the same preferences of people from majority groups. So, you still get a
preference for dominant groups even when you diversify. So, it’s better than nothing, but I don’t think that’s the problem. I mean, human psychology is
such that we prefer people who are like ourselves, similarity is the biggest,
besides proximity, is the biggest predictor
of if you like someone. So, it’s not that we could
actually harness that, we just wanna harness
it towards better ends. But I don’t think that
we can just reproduce, a firm that is diverse won’t actually create a
mirror image of itself, you’ll actually see it skew back towards a dominant group
without intervention. – And so, law firms, although you studied three kinds of firms, law firms did stand out in your analysis in a couple of ways. So, one was that you mention they offer the least interview training of the three kinds of firms, and they also relied
more than the other firms on the concept of
cultural fit as a metric. Why do you think law firms
stood out in that way? – I think that the two
things go hand-in-hand. I think the more discretion
you give interviewers, and the fewer structured tools you use to measure merit in an interview, the more fit is going to carry the day, because that’s what people have to go on. So, the emphasis on fit was still strong in consulting and banking, but in consulting, for example, the majority of a consulting
interview is a business case, where you are orally solving a
problem with someone together with numbers on a page, for 30 minutes. And in that case, similar-to-me biases also work in the assessment of those cases, and those cases are not perfect, and I’m happy to talk about them, but you have more data to go on than just, I see where you went to undergrad, I see this is, are you on
law review, are you not? This is what you like to
do in your spare time. Tell me about a paper you wrote, maybe. You know, with these
open-ended conversations, that’s what you’re gonna get. And also, it’s not always
necessarily malicious on the part of interviewers. We think that we’re really
good at spotting talent, and if we just sit and talk
with someone in a room, we’re gonna get it; we’re actually really bad at it. We talked at lunch, there’s this study that was written by a group of researchers that was featured in The
New York Times a while ago. They did an experiment where
they set interviewers up with a job candidate, and in one half of the cases, the interviewees gave
well thought out responses to what the interviewer had asked. And in the other case, they were just instructed
to say random things that sounded business-like in response to different questions, and the interviewers
preferred significantly the people who were just
saying random stuff. (audience laughs) So again, we think that
we’re really great at this, that we can just sit, and, but what we end up doing is we’re making a lot of decisions based off of biases that we have, whether someone’s similar to us, things like how straight their teeth are, how tall they are, how white
they are, how pretty they are, things like this. – And so, on the cultural fit metric, you point out that it’s not
often related to work style, it’s much more about play style, and I think interacts
with similarity bias, where there’s the famous airport test of would I wanna be stuck
in an airport in Minneapolis in a snowstorm with this person? Just to play devil’s advocate, isn’t there a sense in which because of the long hours that
you’re working with people, you do want people who are
gonna make that experience more enjoyable for you, and isn’t it fair for
them to look for people that they’re gonna be able to
be stuck in the airport with, in Minneapolis? – Yeah, I think that it’s totally fair, and I think that it’s important to distinguish collegiality
from a photocopy of yourself. ‘Cause there are people
who can be collegial, and who can be interesting to talk to without sharing a lot of
commonalities with you. In fact, a lot of the most
interesting conversations are with people where you learn something, where someone’s different, and we’re X-ing out that
possibility by doing that. The other thing, I think,
that people discount is that, especially when you’re
working in close quarters with someone over long hours is the power of shared context, is that, when you think of people who, if you went to college
and lived in the dorms, you had this intense bond in terms of the shared environment, the shared physical environment, you go through the same things. Sometimes people come away
from these intense experiences and they say, how did I get along with that person, they were so different from me? But shared context actually, and interacting with someone
on a day-to-day basis can actually produce a lot of bonds that I think people forget. They assume that we have to be similar at the beginning, at the outset to actually talk, and get along. And the research on diversity shows that you might have to
do a little more work at the beginning, but you actually, people do learn, and grow, talking to people who
are different from them. And I also think that
the types of similarities that people were looking at
as evidence of cultural fit in the absence of any intervention about this is what organizational fit might be, or this is what job fit might be, was things like
extracurricular activities, what sports teams do you root for? Do you like wine or beer? I mean, little things that
you can always make a case for maybe that’s job relevant, but is it really at
the crux of what we do? Probably not. – One of the things I found
most striking in your book was the comparisons that people made between the hiring process
and the dating process. So, people would say things like, would say they were looking for candidates who made them feel passionate, riled up, or fall in love with them. But candidates could also go too far by giving off a desperate or creepy vibe. (audience laughs)
– Yeah. – And so, why was this
emotional arousal metric used? – Yeah, so it’s actually interesting. I have a whole paper on this about the different emotions,
and things like this, and it was interesting ’cause the men would
describe it as passion, and the women would describe
it in terms more romantic, but that’s a different
story for a different day. But I think there are a couple of reasons. I think that part of it
is an American thing, it’s a US thing. We know that people in the
US value positive emotions more than almost any other culture, and the emotion that we
value the most is excitement. That is completely gratifying to people in the United States. So, I think there’s something
very national about this, that that’s what we seek everywhere, it’s exciting, this is exciting, rather than calm, or things like this. So I think that’s one of the things. I think the other is that there
is just a more general trend in social interaction. There’s a sociologist who’s
wonderful, and very theoretical who talks about this
feeling of excitement, and I would say in the United States, as being the primary driver of what we actually decide to
attune to, and what we don’t. Do we watch a program because it’s boring? No, we wanna tune into what’s exciting, or what captivates us, that kind of thing. So, I think that’s part of it. I also think that interviewers, you’re all working very long hours, in jobs that are not always very exciting, and people are looking
to fill up their stores, and pump themselves up, and if you’re really
excited about a candidate, at least it kind of re-energizes you. But the passion, the falling in love, I think that it really is, we like to think of hiring
as this very systematic thing that’s extraordinarily measured; in most firms it’s not. But it is fundamentally an
interpersonal interaction that’s about attraction. We know from research that the biggest predictor
of if you’re gonna get hired is if someone likes you. – And how much of this do you think is a conscious or an unconscious process? So, are firms trying to
replicate themselves with elites, or are they striving for
merit-based decisions, but just going about it in the wrong way? – Somewhere in between. So, I think that everyone wants to think that their process is meritocratic. I think that people aren’t necessarily reproducing socioeconomic
biases intentionally, ’cause that’s not on a lot
of people’s radar screens. I do think that some people might be aware that they might be reproducing themselves. So, I had a surprising
number of people talk to me, like one person actually
opened the interview by saying, everyone just hires themselves, this is not an objective process. So, I do think some people are cognizant that we tend to gravitate
towards people who are similar in biography, work
history, et cetera, to us. So I think it’s in the middle. I think that people kinda
know that there might be bias towards certain candidates, but I don’t think that
they necessarily are aware that the social class bias happens, and I don’t think that people
are intentionally trying to completely tilt the playing field. – And not every candidate, of course, who gets into these firms is elite. So, can you tell us a bit about
the exceptions to the rule, like the students that were
from non-elite background’s who got hired? And what got them through the door? – Yeah, so I have a chapter in the book on people from non-traditional backgrounds ’cause some people read
the book, or hear me talk, and they say, but I know someone from a
working class background who was in my firm, or, I am from a working class background. And we were talking at lunch, that’s part of systems of inequality, and reproducing them so
that people don’t revolt, as if there were no people
from these backgrounds, it would be illegitimate. We’d say, oh, this isn’t meritocratic, and in the United States we value this. But there are people, and people can point
to evidence of that as, oh, things are okay. But what I found is that the people from working class backgrounds who entered these firms tended to be, they had at least one foot
already in elite worlds. So, many of them had attended elite undergraduate institutions, they’d participated in
programs like Prep for Prep, which is one here locally in New York City that attaches people from
underrepresented backgrounds to elite prep schools that are feeders to Ivy League schools. Another pattern was that people had a, they somehow had an in, they had one person
who could push for them if they were at a non-targeted school, like a connection, or someone who could teach them the ropes. So, I had one person who was a vet, it was not in law, it was in banking, and he was first gen, and from
a working class background, and he did not know how
to get into this world, so he drew upon his veterans network, and basically I describe in the book, I’m gonna get the details, I’m just gonna give you general details ’cause I can’t remember
exactly, verbatim what he said, but to paraphrase, he described calling any vet he could find in the New York area who
worked at an investment bank, and then interviewed them about what the interview
process would be like, and then he asked what the
most common questions were, and had them give their responses. He recorded all of these conversations, and then he memorized them. And so, when he got similar questions in the banking interview process, he would give their responses. I had another guy who was a lawyer, he said that he just
imagined his best friend, who was from a wealthy family, he just imagined what he would say, (audience laughs) and he just completely
just went into that mode, and just acted like him,
just play acting would do it. But you have to have
contact with elite worlds to understand the rules of the game, or to have those social connections to teach you what you need
to do in the interview, or to put you in touch
with the right person. Because one of the surprising things about all these interviews if
you are not from this world is that what’s valued is a conversation, and it’s almost, a good interview
feels like a conversation. It flows, it’s a conversation
almost among equals. And that’s very weird if
you’ve never been in this world ’cause this is not a
situation among equals. This person has a job, and you want it. (audience laughs) And if you grew up in a
working class background, chances are, research would suggest, your perception of that situation, and how cultural norms in
classrooms, and things like this, would suggest that that
person asks you a question, you will answer that question, and then you will wait for
the next question to come. And so, you’re gonna ask
a question, I answer, and it’s not this conversation,
that we start talking about scuba diving in
some foreign country, it’s an interview that
is precisely targeted at whatever the interviewer is saying, which, to an interviewer from this world feels incredibly cold, incredibly awkward, and not like someone you wanna
be stuck in the airport with. So, you need that coaching. So it was often, people
had institutional ties, or people had interpersonal
ties to elites. And then the US Military, I gave that one example of the vet, did seem to be one institution
that could compensate for a non-elite background. Part of it was through
the social connections, the other is that people
saw military experience, but it had to be US military experience, and they thought it gave
them that emotional boost that was often lost through, oh, what sport did you play? I have nothing in common with you, but you were in the army, that is cool. That is dangerous, that is cool, I appreciate your service, it filled with positive
emotions that could compensate. – So, I just wanna remind everyone to write their questions down on a card. We’re gonna have our
wonderful assistant Shirley go around and start collecting questions, and I’ll move to the Q&A portion soon. But in the meantime, your book is mainly about
socioeconomic status, as we’ve been talking about, but you did mention their
are some intersections with other aspects of identify, right? Socioeconomic status is not protected under federal anti-discrimination law, but race, sex, and national origin are. Can you talk a little bit
about those interactions. Was it a double whammy if you were from a lower
socioeconomic background and also a woman, or also
from a racial minority? – Yes, so I’ll talk about
the gender one first, which is not in the book, but it was a follow-up study that we did. And I say we because I have
a co-author, Andras Tilcsik who’s at the University of Toronto, at the Rotman School of Business. So, from the book, I was thinking, hey, we have all these biases in favor of students from
higher class backgrounds, but research suggests we have
all these biases against women and part of being a good cultural fit was participating in very
stereotypically masculine things. This was strongest in banking, but you also saw it outside of banking, where people used athletics,
and sports as a measure of fit. I love student athletes, and people had justifications
for why athletes were superior that I’m happy to challenge in the Q&A. So, I was wondering, okay, what do we do? I couldn’t parse out just through watching what the interaction between
gender and social class was because I was thinking, what wins out? So, my colleague and I, what we did is we did an audit study. So, for those of you not familiar for audit studies in the room, audit methods are considered
to be the gold standard for studying discrimination, and it comes from a long tradition of studying housing discrimination, racial discrimination in housing. And they’d send testers to
real estate offices and say, I wanna see a house in X neighborhood. They see, do we show
it to the white person? Do we show it to the black person? And we can measure
discrimination that way. And so, this has taken off. There’s something called
a correspondence audit where you do this all by paper. And long story short, what people do for employment
and hiring discrimination is they send fake
resumes to real employers and see what happens. So, we did this study in the legal world. In order to make this work for applying for law
school, for associate jobs, we had to look outside
of on-campus recruiting, so we didn’t go to top-25 schools. But we sent the exact same resume, that was presumably
either a high class resume as signaled through
extracurricular activities, or a lower class resume, or I should say, relatively
lower class background, as signaled through
extracurricular activities, and then we just changed the name, whether it was John or Julie. And what we found is there was significant discrimination in favor higher class men, and I think were four times
more likely to be called back than anyone else. What was interesting
is that we didn’t see, upper class women did really poorly, and we trying to figure out why, so we did some online experiments, and things where we
can send more measures. What we found is this, is that upper class
men and women are seen, at least when they participate
in some sort of sport, are seen as equal fits, they’re equally good fits for a law firm. But what we see is that women
don’t reap the advantages of being a good fit because upper class women
around presumed to be future, and one of our interviewees said, future soccer moms in the making. So, there’s this idea
that upper class women are going to drop out of the law, or drop out of the labor force entirely. Now, think about this for a second, because we’re interviewing associates who might be 24 years old, 25 years old. Most of them do not have children, many of them are not married, but that was not salient
in these individual minds. We call it a pre-motherhood penalty, it was this idea that you one day could, potentially be a mother, and therefore I don’t really want you. Working class women,
or middle class women, people had very different perceptions. So, in terms of how do
gender and class interact, you’re doubly advantaged if
you’re a higher class man. If you’re a higher class woman, if you’re from a non-elite school, you have some challenges. In terms of race, it was
really, really interesting because people assumed the
qualitative, in the book, that anyone who was a racial
minority was low income. And one of the ways that
this was really interesting in terms of how it’d
play out for candidates, is that one of the ways into the firm for people from
underrepresented backgrounds was to present this
bootstrapping narrative. I came my way nothing,
and I worked myself up, it was only me, and things like this. But people expected minority candidates to have bootstrapping narratives, so they assumed that they would tell this dramatic rags-to-riches story. And when you got middle
class minority candidates, who were not telling these narratives because that was indeed not their story, they were penalized because people said, ugh, there was just something
off about that interview, I didn’t think they were really ambitious, or they just disappointed me, things like this. So, we see the intersection
of class and race operating in a different way. So, I think that there’s a lot
that could be teased out more but those are just some initial. – Great, so let’s talk a little bit about recommendations for reform. So, your book understandably focuses on what law firms can do, primarily to reform their hiring practices. So based on your research, what would you recommend to law firms? – Structure. I think that first of all, there has to be a desire
for doing something to change anything in
the recruiting process, that’s number one, is having that desire. But two is finding ways to make
the process more structured and nudge people towards using
more job-relevant criteria. So, part of that can be if you’re scoring resumes, having some sort of scoring rubric that is very well laid out, that goes beyond university prestige. In interviews, which I
think are the real problem in law firm recruiting, I think that resumes are
actually a bigger problem in consulting, but in interviews, it’s about having people simulate whatever the skills
you want them to do are in the interview itself. We know that’s the best predictor of on-the-job performance, ’cause my problem with
unstructured interviews is not only that it’s a free-for-all in terms of class bias,
race bias, gender bias, but they’re actually really, really bad at predicting how good
someone is on the job. So, I think you could actually
solve two problems at once by creating ways to test the skills that you would want to see an
associate in this interaction. And that’s gonna involve, basically, standardizing questions
across interviewers, and across candidates, it involves creating scoring rubrics, so that we don’t just leave
people up to their own biases to decide if you did well, we actually have specific
behaviors we can point to to score. I see firms doing this
a lot, where they have, rate someone’s social skills,
a scale from one to five, that’s scientific. It’s not if you don’t
specify the behaviors that correspond to each level. – And so, we sometimes get pushback from firms that we speak with on the structured interview point because firms will tell
us that they’re worried that it’s gonna come across as very chilly, and
robotic, and mechanical to do structured interviews, wherein they’re not just
assessing candidates, they’re also trying to
recruit them, right, and give across a certain vibe of warmth and approachability. And so, how could you serve the goal of structured interviews, while also retaining that
warm, approachable feel? Or do you see those as in
tension, or in conflict? – I don’t see them as in tension. I think when most people think
of structured interviews, they think of putting
a lot of interviewees in a room together with a pencil and a Scantron sheet, and that’s what a structured
process looks like. If we do these things interpersonally, there are a lot ways to
actually make them quite warm. If you look to consulting,
with these case interviews, when I said there’s a 30-minute case where people go back and forth, I saw mouths go, really? There are ways that some of
your competitor industries are doing this, and
they’re doing just fine. In fact, students are really happy going to consulting firms at the moment for a number of reasons. But second, the execution matters. You can make someone very comfortable doing very strange tasks
by just welcoming them, being warm, friendly, approachable. But third, and I think
this is the most important, is that when you leave
people to their own devices, they are saying weird things
to your job candidates behind the scenes, that actually might be more of a turn-off than actually having
someone do a focus task relevant to being a lawyer. I mean, the job candidates I talked to, they would welcome the chance
to demonstrate their skills, and welcome the chance to
not have an interaction about what novel they would read if they were alone on a
desert island for 32 days, and one eye was going
out, or things like this. (audience laughs) Interviewers have these bizarre questions that are often well intentioned, in terms of why they’re asking. If you look at Glassdoor, they have all these reports of the wackiest interview questions,
or the most common ones, there’s actually some overlap, but I do think you
actually can save yourself, you can increase students’
perceptions of you by taking out some of that awkwardness, and some of that awkwardness is also going to help you with diversity because we know that the targets of a lot of those awkward comments are women and underrepresented
racial minorities, as well as individuals who are openly gay, or suspected of being gay. So, I think that that is, I think that it actually helps a lot. – So, we have some wonderful
questions from the audience. So, I wanna get started with a couple that relate to law schools, ’cause we’ve been talking
a lot about law firms, but obviously these problems
start earlier, right? So, one person asks, doesn’t this need to start
with law school admissions? If more elite law schools
accepted and provided scholarships to low income students, then the school prestige
factor would be eliminated. Another person asks, are careers services professionals of law and other graduate schools failing to prepare their students
to interview successfully? So, we have a question about admissions, and then also a question about, once we have people in the school, are the careers services
professionals doing their best? – So, I think that law school admissions are one place you have to start. The more diverse of a population
we have to recruit from, the harder it is, especially with racial
diversity and gender diversity, social class, again, it’s
not a protected status, and it’s also not reported on NALP. But when you have a more
diverse student body, it’s harder to justify
why you are not hiring in a way that represents,
that mirrors the school. I think that how human psychology works is even if we had more
diverse law schools, you’d see other justifications for not hiring people from
working class backgrounds, especially in the interview process, with fit, and things like that. But I think that’s an
important starting point because we do know that
the power of networks, and being in an elite institutional
environment does matter. But again, I don’t think
that’s the end all, be all. I think that a lot of the other criteria, other than the school you go
to are very, very classed, and I think, secretly this gets to your prior question, I do think that people
feel more comfortable around people who are
similar to themselves, including from similar class backgrounds, so I think people would
find ways around it. So, I think that you need
interventions in law schools, but you also need interventions in firms. And your second question about, I forgot the second question. – So, the second question was, are careers services professionals at law and other graduate schools failing to prepare their students
to interview successfully? – It’s hard to say because I think that different
schools do different things. I think that they are
probably preparing students in a very homogenous way, like all students need the same skills. But I think certain groups of students are expected to perform differently, and certain groups of students might need a little bit more knowledge about the recruitment process, so I think that it needs to
be tailored a little bit, but I also think that careers
services is complicit in this in some respects. Many schools force their students to write their interests and
extracurricular activities on their resumes. You guys have power, you could say, we’re not doing that at NYU, and that would make it a lot harder for firms to make these fine distinctions on the basis of social class. Also, there are clues
are often about gender, often about race, or often
about sexual orientation, that people could also use as reasons to discriminate
against someone. So, I do think the
careers services offices do have some power. But yeah, the other thing that
I just wanna say about that is that there’s something about knowing what the rules of the game are, and being natural at
it, that are different. So, that interview I told you about, when he just memorized what
everyone said, and said it back, he was very lucky ’cause that strategy could have failed. If that seemed robotic, or if it seemed, he didn’t practice it to the point where it seemed natural in conversation, it could have failed. So, I think that careers
services can do some training, but I think there are more
institutional problems that we also have to solve. – So, another question is, what advice you would give to people that don’t have an elite background. So, this is, I guess, from an
individual student side advice moving away from the institutional. – So, I hate this question
because I feel like, I wanna say we should change this system so you don’t have to do these things. But then, in the interest
of getting a job next week, you should do these things. So, I think that, are we talking about a
student at an elite school, or a non-elite school? – They didn’t specify, so you can take it however you wish? – A student at a non-elite school has to, you have to network like crazy to find someone, an alum,
who happens to be at a firm and will pass on your
resume, and get it attention, and who will vouch for you. If you’re at a place like NYU, I think that grades are,
of course, one thing, being involved in whatever
extracurricular activities, both in and out of
school that people value. I mean, law review, law firms, as you guys know, a big deal, which is different at every school. But I think a lot of it has to
do with the interview process and making sure you find a way to connect with your interviewer. I give one example in the book of someone who was coaching
her partner, at the time, in how to interview for, it was a law firm, and she was saying, she didn’t understand, he was at the top of his class, he was getting all these interviews, he never got job offers. And so, she did a mock interview with him, and she realized, she was like, oh, we need some intervention here. And she realized that it was this static, this I call, response type of interview. She said, find something to connect with with your interviewer, notice if they have a picture
on the wall of their kids, say something, or find some way to create a dialogue not about the work itself. And he did that, and he
found a way to connect with every interviewer, and then he got lots of job offers. So, I think finding a way to connect, buying my book, you’ll be using
all those tips are not tips they’re really meant to change the system, but you can use them to your advantage. (audience laughs) I think having your
personal narrative down in a way that is palatable, again, it’s linear, it’s all positive, maybe there’s one little
bloop before you go back up, but that kind of thing. – So, another great question, what are your views of using algorithms and artificial intelligence
for screening candidates. Presumably hiring still
involves human interaction, but will AI improve diversity, or will it perpetuate the same biases? – It’s a great question. So, algorithms are only as smart as the people who create them, and we know that people are biased. So, I think the Amazon case
is a really good example, that they were using an
algorithm to screen resumes, it turns out this was
systematically discriminating against women, or being
biased against women. And we have to consider
what the priors are, what the model is built on, so I don’t think AI is a magic fix. Being in a business school, I get approached every week, someone wants to create an app that’s gonna make everything better, we’re gonna automate this completely, and honestly, I think that
technology can help us in a lot of ways, but it’s not going to
magically solve biases without further intervention. I do think that platforms
that allow us to, again, do demonstrations of job-relevant skills can be really helpful. So, GapJumpers is a start-up, and rather than screening resumes, it was created by someone who, I can’t remember if he
didn’t go to college, or he didn’t go to an elite college, but he found that it was hard
for him in the labor market, and so it’s this idea that rather than screening a resume, you actually look at a work product, and then make your hiring decisions. And there’s some research out of Stanford to suggest that’s not enough, you actually get people
who are more diverse through your door when you do that, but then we meet them in person, and we have all the same biases that get us in favor of the people we would have scored anyway. So, I think that there are
some things that are promising, but again, we’re still humans, and as long as we’re
programming the machines, I think we’re gonna have
some unintended consequence. – And so, another question is about what kind of interview
structure you would recommend. So, would it be to have the
entire thing structured? Would it be to mix structured interview with other tools or tests? Would you use personality assessments? Behavioral style questions? What kind of structure
would you recommend? – So, it depends on who you talk to. There are IO psychologists, which are industrial
organizational psychologists who have these batteries of tools that we can take 30 minutes
of those Scantron tests that everyone seems to be afraid of, and I’m not necessarily a fan of those. I think that, again, I am mostly a fan of doing simulations. So again, get someone to do the work that you’re trying to get them to do. So, if you do a lot of doc review, have someone do doc review, realizing that, also, you’re not hiring only for
the immediate position, but you’re hiring for
some sort of a series. So, I think that is an
important part of it. I also think that, consulting is a really good model for having some sort of
simulated interaction, but there are some limitations, and I’ve extrapolated some things I would change about that process. So, as I mentioned before, you orally solve a
business case with someone, should these two companies merge? Things like that. It at least gets the conversation
on job-relevant stuff. I would want those conversations
to be more structured in terms of, you would make sure interviewers actually stick to the script. There are some people in consulting who just start talking about the weather. Making sure there’s a scoring rubric so we’re all similar in how
we actually judge answers. But the other thing that
I would suggest doing is that whenever we have a test like that where you’re trying to simulate what someone’s going to do on the job, you actually wanna put it at
the beginning of an interview, rather than the end. And that’s one of the
things we see in consulting, is that those interviews, which are those consulting
case interviews, which can be very useful, again, they have biases of their own, but they can be useful, happen after 15 minutes of conversation, of how’s the weather? What do you like to do in your spare time? We know from research that interviewers make up their mind about candidates within the first 30 to 90
second of meeting them. So, what are you making
your decision off of? You’re making your decision off of, are we the same place? Do I like your shoes? Whatever it is that’s not
necessarily job relevant, and then we’re losing the value of this. So, I like to actually suggest that people do any sort
of job-relevant tests at the beginning, and people sometimes say that’s awkward, but again, you can smile, you can say hi, you can say, hey, we’re gonna get right into it. This might feel weird at first, we’re just gonna get right into this, and this is how it’s gonna go. You could also take it
offline a little bit. One consulting firm used to
do paper and pencil cases, and give people five
minutes to think about it because that was more similar
to how work actually happened. In consulting case interviews, you’re expected to do math in your head, that would never happen
in a consulting firm because you have Excel constantly. Again, making tweaks
to test job relevance, and job-relevant skills to see if it’s similar to how
work is actually performed, I think is important, and then doing it at the beginning. – There’s another question about structure structured interviews, is that a common counter-argument is that students will
rehears their answers, so what are your thoughts on that? – Well, I think if you’re
asking, I get a lot of, when I talk to people
from law firms they say, oh, we do very structured interviewing, we do behavioral interviewing, and I say, what do you mean by
behavioral interviewing? And they say, tell me about a time you failed, that’s our structured interview. That is an open-ended
question that is actually, it is tapping behaviors in some respects, but that is an open-ended interview. You have no guidance as to how to actually judge that answer. And so, I lost my train
of thought, I’m so sorry. Say it again. – No worries. This is about a common counter-argument that students will rehearse their answers if you have a structured interview. – Thank you. So, students rehearse their
answers to common questions, like what is your greatest weakness? What is your greatest strength? Why do you wanna be a lawyer? Things like this. Yes, people will rehearse
questions, or their answers. But I think that those job-relevant tests actually can do a lot to eliminate that. There is the risk that
somehow word would get out about what case you’re gonna do, which does happen in other industries, but generally people don’t
remember the specifics, but you knock people off their
preparation a little bit more and that’s the whole goal, I think, about smarter interviewing is not to get people’s
practice stump speeches, ’cause that doesn’t predict
on-the-job performance. You actually want to test their skills that are related to
on-the-job performance. So, even if you’re trying to
test someone’s social skills, having them do some sort
of social task together, and looking, I think you avoid some of that fluff that we’re so worried about
in interviewing in general. – So, we have a couple of questions about what happens once
people are inside the firms. I know that you studied
hiring specifically, but a couple of people have asked, do you know if similar
issues are replicated in promotions of people of
lower income backgrounds? Another person has asked, once a person from a lower
socioeconomic background is in the law firm, does their background
continue to have an impact, or are they so busy for work, that they don’t have time
to talk about fly fishing? (audience laughs)
– Nope. You’d like to think that, right? But people find in the airport, when you’re on your way to the
restroom, people find ways. People often get tracked, there’s some research
on this in law firms, that even at the end
of the hiring process, before you’re actually
signed, sealed, delivered, that partners have already figured out who the superstars are, and people start to be sorted, and some partners will
go to certain associates, even when they’re summers,
and things like this. Some people will become the favorites, and we know those
reputations actually persist through people’s careers. There’s a great book that
came out about a month ago by Daniel Laurison, who’s at Swarthmore, and Sam Friedman, who’s at
London School of Economics, called The Class Ceiling, and it answers exactly this question. And the answer is yes, your class background
continues to matter a lot, and it manifests in promotions, it also manifests in your compensation for doing the exact same job, and they call it the class ceiling. So, yes, it does matter. And some of these
distinctions also matter. These distinctions between
core and non-core schools. This is not an example from my book, this an example from my personal life. My partner, who used to
work for a consulting firm, and went to Northwestern, where I teach, that sounded like it could be gross; it wasn’t gross like that. (audience laughs) Did not mean it like that. Northwestern is not
considered to be a core school for consulting, it’s considered to be an okay school, even though it’s a very
well-regarded school. He would come home and talk about how there was discrimination
against Northwestern students. He felt as a Northwestern grad that it was so oppressive, and people treated him like
he was so not intelligent, and he was from, and I was like, dude, it’s number 10 in the country, you’re still doing pretty well. So, it’s not only social class, it’s some of these other criteria, and we know from research: race is a huge factor,
gender is a huge factor. So, the situation doesn’t go away once you’re on the job. – And so, in reference to
that book, The Class Ceiling, as I understand it, they looked at other industries as well, like TV production, and
acting industry, and so forth. So, how much of these
similar-to-me biases, and elite reproduction do you think is unique to these elite professional service firms that you looked at, and how much of it is
really across the board, every kind of employer that has some disproportionate
number of elites inside of it will have similar kinds of problems? – I think it’s quite similar. I mean, it always takes different forms, and different preferences. I like to think of academia, that’s a very different
type of occupation, what a cultural fit with
us is very different, it’s not, did you play lacrosse? Things like this, it’s basically, can you name
all the nerdy directors, and all the art house films? But people are looking for people who are similar to
themselves outside of work in terms of their
personalities and biographies, so I do think that transcends. And there was a survey done, I think it was, what was it? It was a couple of years
ago over, internationally, I think it was 82% of
employers in a large survey said that they look for cultural fit, and it was one of the most
important criteria that they use. Again, I do think that the
specific universities might vary, or if we’re talking about elite jobs, graduate degrees, and
things like that might vary, and there are different
permutations of the content, but I think the general
process is similar. – And so, someone asked,
on the lacrosse point, tell us more about sports bias please. (panel laughs) – This is my favorite one, and it’s the one, when
I teach MBA students, they get so mad about. So, I talked earlier about
this US bias that we have towards excitement, and emotion, which is a well established thing that psychologists talk about. We in the US also have this athletic bias. We love athletes. We really, really love athletes. We love extracurricular activities, but we are inspired by
athletes, we think it’s amazing. So, you see this play out
in the recruiting process in that people are looking for, in extracurricular activities, what is the preferred
extracurricular activity that anyone has? Sports. And we’re not talking
about pick-up soccer, or playing basketball in the neighborhood, we’re talking about, you
are on a sports team, and you stick with this. And people have all
sorts of justifications for why this is the best. And we think of sports as meritocratic, anyone can pick up a ball and play, but in fact, what people were looking for is you were on a team at a university, or you were on some
sort of competitive team where you were potentially in line to go to some national
competition, or the Olympics. What you see in that context is, that actually is not democratic at all. It requires a ton of money, in these sports leagues. There’s an estimate I heard the other day where it’s the average
American middle class and above spends some ridiculous amount
on children’s athletics, it was something like $20,000-$30,000 in the course of someone’s childhood. It’s the cost of teams, someone has to take you
to and from practice, these things are enrolling
earlier and earlier, you have two and a half year-olds who are in competitive leagues. The travel teams in New York City begin at five or six, I heard, screening. This is not an activity
that is open for all. It’s time, it’s money, it’s classed. And there was a study
that was done by Derek Bok who used to be the President
of Harvard a long time ago, and some other researchers, looking at this longitudinal study, they were looking at this question, Schulman is an author on that too, they were looking at this question of, are athletes actually better prepared? Because a lot of people think they are. And they found that it wasn’t athletics that actually did anything, it was just participating in any type of time-consuming endeavor was the real predictor
of success later on. And so, it didn’t matter if
it was debate, or athletics, or having a full-time
job, or a part-time job, or athletics, but this is an experience, athletics, I think, are
just so culturally resonant, both for the democratic value, and also if you look at upper-middle class and upper class communities everywhere, what are people doing with their kids? They’re shuttling them to
and from sport practices that make a difference. So, that was my little
riff on sports bias. I’m happy to talk more, but. – Great. So, we’ve unfortunately reached the time that we have to conclude,
but thank you so much. And everyone can you
put your hands together and thank Professor Rivera. – Thank you (audience applauds)

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