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Diversity, Hierarchy, and Fit in Legal Careers: Insights from Fifteen Years of Qualitative Interviews

Joyce Sterling

This limited openness and the processes of professional continuity and change are the topics of this article, which begins with a provocative photograph of “diverse” “elite lawyers” on the golf course. It is the first article based on the three waves of qualitative interviews of the After the J.D. longitudinal study of lawyer careers. These interviews took place over a fifteen-year period. The total number was 219 interviews, and the vast majority of them were conducted personally by the authors of this article. Twenty of the individuals were interviewed twice and twenty-seven three times. Our qualitative interviews are unique in allowing us to see changing attitudes and situations over the course of more than ten years. This article uses this unique resource to examine the evolving role of race, gender and ethnicity in lawyer careers. The article addresses theoretical perspectives on the role of race, gender and ethnicity in legal careers, contrasting our “capital assets” approach with a variety of other legal and sociological approaches and presents the qualitative interviews beginning with the elite track of large law firms, followed by similar issues in medium size firms; variations of Big Law careers – of counsel and in house in particular--; concluding with examples of how people build “off-Broadway” careers that draw upon diversity and find ways to capitalize on it. The concluding part draws the qualitative interviews together in a general conclusion, demonstrating how the capital asset approach is enacted in the interviews through the concept of “fit.” Fit is a way for embedded histories and power relationships to make it more difficult for minorities, women, and people who do not possess the cultural capital represented by golf, for example, to succeed in particular settings – including the corporate law firm.