Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Harrison on Class Bias in Law School Hiring

I'd also like to welcome Professor Harrison to MoneyLaw. I'm honored to be in his company.

I've just read his thought-provoking 1992 essay in the Journal of Legal Education (available here from Hein On-Line) on "Thoughts on Class Bias in Law School Hiring," which I enjoyed. I look forward to hearing more of his thoughts on this important topic.

I think it may be appropriate to consider a job candidate's economic background (I don't think we're thinking so much about their class-identity as their economic background, though I may be wrong) in hiring. I think that people who've overcome obstacles and presents a comparable record to those who've have more advantages are generally a better bet. Also, people who've had fewer opportunities may be--though I know individual cases vary--more likely to take advantage of the opporuntities that are presented to them. So my reason for giving the nod in hiring to people from poorer economic backgrounds has more to do with my sense of who'll perform better at the job than with what "different perspectives" they bring to the table. (The American studies person in my thinks of Horatio Alger here, hence the image.)

That leads me to two questions from Harrison's 1992 article. First, if we're going to support affirmative action based on economic background on the grounds of diversity, what are the particular perspectives that people who grew up poorer will bring? In property (one of the areas I know best), I might hazard a couple of guesses: that people from poorer backgrounds will be more likely than others to know how hard it is to make ends meet and thus be more supportive of tenants' rights, more forgiving of people who're behind on their mortgage payments, and more forgiving of people who fail to pay their taxes on time (some thoughts about that over at my home blog, propertyprof). They may also be more likely to support public access to beaches--a variant of what I'm calling aloha jurisprudence. I can envision some other places where this would matter: on admissions committees, for instance, people from poorer than average backgrounds might be advocates for those didn't face those same obstacles.

Without replaying all of the Randall Kennedy--Richard Delgado debt on "racial critiques of academia," however, I'd like to hear a little bit more about what affirmative action in this context is likely to do. As I say, I think there are solid reasons (including fairness) for doing this. I'd just like to be a little more explicit about the reasons.

Second, I'm interested in hearing more about how one might design a workable affirmative action plan based on economic background (or class, if Professor Harrison prefers). How will this work. Ask about whether the candidates' parents graduated from high school or from college? Whether they (or their grandparents) were able to read? Whether their family ever received public assistance? Had an income greater than $40,000/year? One of the many things that struck me when I was arrived in law school lo' those many years ago was how few people were from (what I thought of then as) truly disadvantaged backgrounds there were.

I'm very much looking forward to this discussion. I think these are precisely the kinds of issues that MoneyLaw ought to be talking about.

Alfred L. Brophy


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Alfred's post and the work of Harrison on this topic have been ignored for too long. This likely because it undercuts strongly held values within the academy.

There are a number of reasons why overcoming such class bias might be good, but there are also reasons why it hasn't been sufficiently addressed. On the good side, addressing class bias in law school hiring might result in faculties that actually look somewhat like America - and that is possibly one of the primary reasons why it is avoided. Power is not surrendered without a fight. People from higher class backgrounds have every reason to obfuscate this issue and divert attention to other forms of bias that don't have the potential to have drastic impacts on power structures - remember, the majority of the country is not from the upper class (or even the upper-middle).

To address your primary question - how do we design a workable affirmative action plan to address class bias - that is indeed a vexing problem - race and gender are much more easily identified. How does the offspring of two uneducated factory workers making well over 40k a year (combined) compare with the offspring of a literature professor and stay at home spouse making about the same amount? The offspring of Bill Gates will have a father without a college degree - does this make them non-elite? Not likely.

Perhaps a first step is to address the elitism in the law school hiring processes generally. Lower socio-economic class students do not dominate the halls of the 5-10 law schools whose grads make up the bulk of law professors in this country. True, some grads of these law schools come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, but they are certainly the exception than the rule. It would be dangerous to reason by anecdote and say that the everyone has an equal opportunity to attend such schools. In some ways these exceptions are a great danger to the viability of addressing class bias in academia (not their fault, of course!). Simply focusing on scholarship rather than pedigree (in assessing candidates) would go a long way toward addressing this problem - or at least it would be a reasonable start.

9/14/2006 2:38 PM  
Blogger Chad Oldfather said...

These are interesting issues, and as a person from a working class background (of the rural sort) they are ones I’ve found myself giving increasing thought to since entering academia.

In part, I wonder how much my background should even count anymore. I’ve got a couple of fancy diplomas that I could hang on my wall (if I knew where they were), and a whole lot of very important, non-book learnin’ that I picked up during that educational process. While I still have a frequent sense of “how in the world did I end up here?” when I’m sitting at a table filled with lawyers, judges, and the like, I’ve necessarily learned how to talk a goodly amount of the talk, and to keep my mouth shut when I’m not certain what the script calls for. What's more, I’ve chosen to live in a place where my neighbors are, by and large, professionals. And while I’ll defend the character and honor and goodness of the people of my hometown to the death, the truth is that I no longer see the world in the same way. I often feel like an outsider in both camps.

I’ve at least discovered that I’m hardly alone that way. Anyone interested in how a working class background can impact one’s perspectives might want to check out Alfred Lubrano’s book “Limbo.” It’s a highly readable take on what it’s like to be a blue collar person in the white collar world. For my money the perspective difference is not so much about things like the content of landlord tenant law – I think my family’s instincts are actually pretty conservative on those sorts of things – as it is a larger distrust of folks in power. (And bear in mind that differing assumptions about who is a person in power might come into play. When I was working in a poultry processing plant the summer after high school the relevant people with power were the foremen (the “blue hats” if I recall correctly) and their deputies (the “green hats”)) – folks who would be generally regarded as inconsequential in the white collar world. Folks with political power – that’s “politicians” pronounced as derisively as you can muster – were viewed categorically as liars whose talk about changing the world never seemed to make a single bit of difference to one’s day to day existence.)

If Lubrano’s correct, my scholarly focus on ways to enhance the transparency and accountability of the judicial process can be attributed at least in part to my class background. Could be. One thing that’s for certain is that I’ve learned to dress it up in a fancy package of verbiage. (And I don’t mean to suggest that that’s a bad thing. Just something I wasn’t equipped from a young age to do.)

Another aspect of my background that has affected my career path is that, simply due to near-total lack of any kind of history dealing with people having advanced degrees, I had no idea how to relate to faculty members in college. The same generally held true during law school – I knew that I was still learning to talk the talk, and so was pretty intimidated by and uncomfortable in dealing with them. That’s quite obviously the sort of thing that doesn’t help one’s chances in the academic market generally, and I know of one instance in which it’s come back to hurt me more specifically. I can’t hardly complain, though. One of my best friends from childhood works third shift at a factory and hates to answer the phone because it’s likely to be a collection agency. If nothing else, the notion of “there but for the grace of God go I” has a resonance for those of us from the working class that it may not for others.

9/15/2006 12:08 PM  

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