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Experiencing Discrimination: Race and Retention in America's Largest Law Firms


  • This research was supported by grants from the American Bar Foundation, National Science Foundation (Grant No. SES0115521), Access Group, Law School Admission Council, National Association for Law Placement, National Conference of Bar Examiners, and Open Society Institute. The views and conclusions stated herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of individuals or organizations associated with the After the JD study. Thanks to David Wilkins for helpful comments. Please address all correspondence to Robert L. Nelson, American Bar Foundation, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive–4th floor, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail:


Although the number of racial and ethnic minority lawyers in the legal profession has greatly increased, concern remains about their low percentage among partners in elite law firms. Using a nationally representative sample of young American lawyers, we compare a human capital–based theory, which emphasizes measures of merit, and an institutional discrimination–based theory, which focuses on differences in partner contact and mentoring. The results indicate that institutional discrimination theory is the better way of understanding racial and ethnic differences in lawyer retention. Future affirmative action programs need to focus not just on access but also the processes within large firms if minority presence is to be increased.