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We supposedly did away with heritage-based class outcomes a while ago in this country. Sorry, Andrew Giuliani.

But we’re actually not that committed to equality of opportunity, least of all in the legal profession. A new report pretty much proves what we all knew already: it is way harder for lawyers who didn’t have a lawyer parent to make it in the legal profession.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, law school graduates who had at least one parent with a J.D. both have a higher overall employment rate (about 5 percent higher) and are employed in jobs that require bar passage at a rate of 11 percent above lawyers who are first-generation college graduates. Lawyers with lawyer parents were found to be way more likely to get a job in private practice (62.7 percent more likely) and also quite a bit more likely to get a prestigious judicial clerkship (by 13.6 percent) compared to lawyers who were first-generation college students.

Of course, the second- (or third-, or fourth-) generation lawyers had way higher median salaries than lawyers who were first-generation college students, and those salaries were quite a bit higher than even those for lawyers whose parents had four-year degrees but no J.D.s. The NALP study described other disparities too, including those based on race/ethnicity that everyone in the legal profession is well aware of, although it was unclear how much of that effect is strictly discrimination versus an outgrowth of not having a lawyer parent since almost all racial/ethnic minorities were found to be far less likely to have a lawyer parent.

Need more proof? Elena Kagan? Had a lawyer parent. Neil Gorsuch? Had two lawyer parents. Brett Kavanaugh? Had a lawyer parent. Amy Coney Barrett? Had a lawyer parent. Stephen Breyer? Had a lawyer parent.

Samuel Alito did not have a lawyer parent (although his father served as director of research for the New Jersey legislature and his mother was academically impressive in her own right as an elementary school principal). John Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor, and Clarence Thomas did not have lawyers for parents.

Maybe five out of nine on the nation’s highest court with some inherited lawyer cred doesn’t seem all that high. But consider that there are about 1.33 million lawyers in the United States out of a total population of around 332 million — less than half a percent. Let’s be conservative with those numbers and assume none of the lawyer-parents are raising children together, so let’s say an American kid has maybe a 1 percent chance of having at least one lawyer for a parent. If everyone growing up in America had an equal chance of making it onto the U.S. Supreme Court, about nine-hundredths of a justice on a nine-member court would be expected to have had a lawyer parent, rather than five of them. In other words, we have more than 50 times more Supreme Court justices who had a lawyer for a parent than you should expect if the children of nonlawyers had just as good of a chance of growing up to be highly successful jurists.

Perhaps I have a chip on my shoulder when it comes to this topic. Neither of my parents are lawyers, no one in my lineage even had a four-year degree until my brother and I showed up (and I did write a whole book about leveling the playing field a bit in law school, at least). We did fine, I’m not complaining. Yet, anyone who’s been in the legal profession long enough can think of example after example of some of the worst lawyers continuing to fail upward because their dad is a partner at Pompous, Whatzit & Whocares LLP or whatever and, you know, he knows people.

Some really great lawyers do have lawyers for parents too, and we certainly shouldn’t discount them. But, when we draw way too heavily on second- and subsequent-generation lawyers to fill the top ranks of the profession, who’s really losing out as much as the passed over new talent is the American public. They get a legal profession that they need to keep would-be dictators from stealing elections and whatnot which becomes diluted by a lot of people with inherited good networks and/or an early advantage in institutional knowledge. If you ask me, character, intellectual curiosity, empathy, and yes, ethics forged over a lifetime of diverse experiences would be better measuring sticks for success within the legal profession than familial help.


Jonathan Wolf is a civil litigator and author of Your Debt-Free JD (affiliate link). He has taught legal writing, written for a wide variety of publications, and made it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at jon_wolf@hotmail.com.



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