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September|October 2005

The Shoe Still Fits

The white buck is gone from elite law firms, but the snobbery it represented lives on.

By Elizabeth Chambliss

THE MAIN CHARACTER IN HARLAN COBEN'S MOST RECENT THRILLER, The Innocent, is an ex-convict and unlicensed lawyer who practices at a "white-shoe law firm" in Newark, N.J. Hired out of respect for his late brother, a former partner, our man goes by the title paralegal (to get around the no-license thing), but behind the scenes he coaches the partners, who are "not that bright," on the finer points of corporate law and criminal defense. In one meeting, he explains the proper strategy for defending a big pharmaceutical company accused of securities fraud. "We blame whoever we can," he advises, "the accounting firm, the banks, the board, lower-level employees. . . . We're looking to confuse."

It is hard to say what is most distressing about this portrait of a modern law firm. There is nepotism, unauthorized practice, and obfuscation by unqualified lawyers on behalf of unsavory clients. But perhaps the worst insult, at least to the profession's traditional elite, is the suggestion that you can find white-shoe law firms in—of all places—Newark. If there are white-shoe firms in Newark, what do we call firms on Wall Street?

White-shoe law firms are "owned and run by members of the WASP elite who are generally conservative," says Princeton University's WordNet. Princeton should know. The term "white-shoe" originally referred to elite college men who wore white buckskin shoes in the 1950s at Ivy League schools. The Oxford English Dictionary credits J. D. Salinger with the first use of the term in 1957. "Phooey, I say, on all white-shoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines," said the protagonist of his novel, Franny and Zooey, an excerpt of which ran in The New Yorker. "Give me an honest con man any day."

Historically, the term "white-shoe" conveyed class envy and a gentle ridicule of the educated effete. The wealthy could afford special shoes for boating, tennis, and other genteel pursuits, and in the summer they wore white bucks—perhaps with a bow tie and a seersucker suit—to the exclusive Wall Street firms where they worked. School connections played a central role in maintaining the boundaries of the white-shoe class. In 1962, more than 70 percent of the lawyers in Wall Street law firms had graduated from Harvard, Columbia, or Yale. White-shoe also implied exclusion of anyone who was not a WASP male—particularly Jews, who in the 1950s and 1960s were trying to break into establishment firms.

The modern definition of white-shoe is more difficult to pin down. These days, the term is applied to all manner of firms, not just ones on Wall Street (or in Manhattan) but also those in places like Newark and Houston. Although white-shoe used to imply corporate practice, and maybe some trusts and estates, it now covers areas such as bankruptcy and criminal defense. Even historically Jewish firms like Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz are referred to now as white-shoe.

Some lawyers use white-shoe as a compliment to connote quality and prestige. In praising last year's merger between Boston's Hale and Dorr and Wilmer Cutler & Pickering of Washington, D.C., one Wilmer associate said, "these are two white-shoe firms," full of "wicked-smart people." Others use white-shoe as an insult, to mean uptight or stodgy. Under "white-shoe lawyer," the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage says, "See Lawyers: Derogatory Names For."

The legal press tends to use white-shoe as an antonym for diverse. The Rodent, author of a satirical column in the Connecticut Law Tribune, advises law firms to include a member of a racial minority on their law school interview team—"and a lesbian, if you happen to have one around the office"—to show that the firm "is not the stuffy white-shoe outfit everyone thinks it is."

Some argue that we ought to retire the white-shoe label because the firms it describes no longer exist outside novels and movies. In 1997, a National Law Journal reporter announced a policy change and declared that the newspaper would stop using the term because "that culture has been obliterated. No law firm could survive today if it practiced such exclusion." He quoted a partner from San Francisco's Pillsbury Madison & Sutro as saying, "these days people of all walks of life use lawyers, and the lawyers themselves reflect that diversity."

There is some truth to this view. Though large-firm lawyers hardly come from "all walks of life," law firms have changed a lot since the 1950s and 1960s. Most firms have grown exponentially, with some employing thousands of lawyers. Law firms also compete more intensely for clients and are much more explicit about it, with firms that were forbidden by ethical rules to advertise in the 1950s and 1960s now basing ads about their brands on discussions with their marketing consultants.

Most law firms are also more diverse. They no longer exclude Jews, for instance, and 17 percent of the nation's law partners are women. Most firms remain overwhelmingly white, especially at the partnership level. Minorities account for only 4 percent of all law partners, and only 10 percent of all lawyers, which is far lower than minority representation in any comparable profession. Still, 4 percent beats outright exclusion.

Before we celebrate the end of white-shoe culture, however, it is worth noting the continuing importance of school ties at large law firms. A 1995 study of associate hiring at the 250 largest firms found that over half the associates graduated from one of the top 13 law schools in the country. At New York City firms, over 40 percent graduated from Harvard, Columbia, or New York University. In 1998, The American Lawyer reported a similar pattern among the 100 most profitable firms, with over 50 percent of associates coming from the top 13 schools, and 25 percent coming from Chicago, Harvard, Columbia, or New York University.

More recent data on associate hiring are not available, and the numbers may have changed somewhat in response to shifts in the demand for lawyers and their supply. But there is little reason to believe that firms' preference for elite credentials has diminished. Being associated with elite schools is an important status symbol. Even firms that do not typically hire associates from the top law schools nevertheless recruit there, signaling the firms' selectivity to clients and competitors. In the academic year 2002-2003, over 700 employers conducted on-campus interviews at Harvard, hoping to fill summer associate positions from a class of about 550 students.

Of course, firms are rational to prefer students from elite schools. Law firms aim to hire the smartest people, and school rank is a good proxy for average student quality. Getting admitted to an elite law school and doing well there requires intelligence and drive, two qualities that firms value.

It would be a mistake, however, to characterize law firm hiring as meritocratic. Although the top students at top schools are typically more capable than middling students at second-tier schools, school and class rank are most useful at the high and low ends of the scale. There is a lot of false precision in the middle. In addition, there is little evidence that firms care to investigate candidates' merit directly. Most firms send their recruiters to 10 or 15 schools and screen potential summer associates based on first year grades and a 30-minute interview. The typical interview is primarily social rather than substantive. At some schools, firms cannot even choose whom to see, instead being matched with students by lottery.

School ties continue to be important throughout a lawyer's career. In the early years, associates from top law schools often get special assignments and attention, which makes them more likely to stay at a firm and prosper, and perhaps one day manage the firm. White male associates may particularly benefit from the assumption that they are qualified and committed because they attended a top school. While large law firms are more diverse than they used to be, most continue to be run by white men from elite schools.

Thus, some elements of white-shoe culture are alive and well. Most large law firms are status-conscious and exclusive—not just on Wall Street, but in every legal market. And though professional status is increasingly tied to educational credentials, making us feel morally superior to those clannish WASPs of yore, we should remember that the clannish WASPs thought their criteria were legitimate, too. In 50 years, what will lawyers think of the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings?

In the meantime, the use of "white-shoe" to mean "exclusive" creates a problem for reporters who want to talk about the original white-shoe firms, the century-old Wall Street institutions founded and guarded by uptight WASP men. In the recent coverage of Morgan Stanley, reporters have resorted to phrases like "the last surviving genuine white-shoe firm," which sounds like part of an ecological tour. It makes it easy for novelists, however. Now white-shoe firms can be located in Chicago, Minneapolis, or even Newark, without straining the readers' credulity.

Elizabeth Chambliss is a professor of law at New York Law School.

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