Over the past two decades, clients and other constituencies have pushed large law firms to pursue greater racial diversity in attorney hiring and retention. Although these firms have devoted extraordinary resources toward better recruiting and retaining attorneys of color, and despite a proliferation of “best practices” guides and diversity policy recommendations, these considerable efforts have yielded only modest gains. With respect to black attorneys in particular, the tide of racial progress in these firms has moved forward at a glacial pace, even ebbing and receding in recent years.

Although large law firms now hire significant numbers of black attorneys as junior associates, these black associates report significantly worse career experiences and outcomes than their white counterparts. As a group, they receive lower quality work assignments, are less satisfied with their experiences, and ultimately leave these firms at faster rates. Very few ever become partners.

The failure of firms to achieve greater racial equity has generated extensive research and commentary from legal scholars and other interested parties including practicing attorneys, journalists, and the organized bar. The existing legal scholarship has tended to address this problem through the conceptual lens of racial bias. From this perspective, the difficulties of black law firm associates are manifestations of the racial biases of their (predominantly white) colleagues, embedded in, and enabled by, the institutional workings of their firms.

This Article calls attention to a different, heretofore unacknowledged source of racial disadvantage in these firms, one that is neither dependent upon these inferences of racial bias, nor incompatible with them. Cultural homophily, the tendency of people to develop rapport and relationships with others on the basis of shared interests and experiences, profoundly and often determinatively disadvantages many black attorneys in America’s largest law firms. Although not intrinsically racial, cultural homophily has decidedly racial consequences in this context because of the profound social and cultural distance that separates black and white Americans, evident in pronounced racial patterns in a wide variety of social and cultural behavior. Drawing evidence from interviews of seventy-five black attorneys who have worked as associates at large law firms throughout the country, this Article argues that homophily-based behavior deprives many black attorneys of equal access to critical relationship capital in predominantly white firms, thereby reinforcing racial inequality.

Document Type


Publication Date