February 25, 2013

Influence of Demographics on Career Mobility

Kate T. Spelman – January 14, 2013

It is a commonly recognized conundrum in the legal profession that while women and minorities make up an increasing percentage of law students and associates, their representation among the law firm partnership ranks remains relatively low. In 2009, for instance, women made up 46 percent of associates but only 19 percent of partners at U.S. law firms. Racial minorities made up 20 percent of lawyers, but only 6 percent of partners. In their recent study titled Looking Up and Looking Out: Career Mobility Effects of Demographic Similarity Among Professionals, professors Kathleen L. McGinn and Katherine L. Milkman attempt to address this persistent disparity by “examin[ing] the influence of demographic match with workgroup superiors and workgroup peers on attorneys’ likelihood of turnover and promotion.” In other words, McGinn and Milkman analyzed whether the presence (or absence) of women and racial minorities in both leadership and peer positions impacted a female or minority associate’s potential for advancement within a law firm. To do so, the authors examined personnel records and exit interviews from a large U.S. law firm between 2002 and 2006.

The study resulted in two interesting conclusions. First, the authors found that a greater proportion of female partners in a law firm does in fact increase the career mobility of junior female associates. The authors concluded that, among other reasons, the presence of female partners “provided information to junior women that they could succeed.”  This finding, however, did not hold true for men:  the presence of a higher proportion of male partners had no effect on junior men’s career mobility. The authors did not have sufficient data to assess the impact of same-race superiors on their junior counterparts, but hypothesized that the outcome for racial minorities would be similar to the outcome found for women.

Second, and perhaps more surprisingly, the authors determined that the presence of a higher proportion of same-sex or same-race peers within a law firm actually decreases the chances for promotion, and increases the chances of exit, among female and racial minority associates.  While a higher proportion of male peers similarly increases the likelihood that junior men will exit the firm, it also —and somewhat paradoxically—increases male associates’ chances for promotion.  McGinn and Milkman surmise that the negative correlation between a higher proportion of same-sex, same-race peers and promotion for women and racial minorities may result from the fact that superiors may pick and choose among underrepresented women and minority associates. In addition, those associates may leave in greater numbers because they believe that the competition within their underrepresented demographic reduces their chances of promotion. 

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, demographics, career mobility, minorities, supervisors, peers


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