Fighting Hierarchies in Hiring

January 19th, 2014 / By

Law students quickly learn the hierarchies that govern the legal profession. Top employers, especially in BigLaw, prefer students from elite law schools. High class rank, law review membership, previous work experience, and personal connections matter, but the status of a student’s degree sends a strong workplace signal.

We deplore this fact in academia, and many employers rue the practice as well. Over time, employers have learned that graduates of the elite schools aren’t necessarily the best lawyers. Still, the preference continues. Just as no one ever got fired for buying IBM, no one will lose face for hiring graduates of Harvard, Yale, or Stanford law schools.

But now one BigLaw firm has decided to fight back–against its own biases. Clifford Chance, a global law firm headquartered in London, has devised three novel hiring practices. All three techniques aim to widen the firm’s talent pool by reducing its dependence on lawyers trained at Oxford, Cambridge, and other elite institutions. The Clifford Chance innovations are smart hiring practices: perhaps we can persuade U.S. firms and other legal employers to follow them.

Credit for All Work Experience

Clifford Chance has started explicitly scoring candidates’ work experience. That experience includes law-related work, as well as positions “working full-time in retail to cover the cost of tuition fees.” The firm has not released details on how it counts the latter positions, but it is promising that recruiters explicitly focus on this work. Rather than gloss over the assorted jobs that low-income students perform to pay their way through school, the firm will acknowledge the necessity of this work–and perhaps even recognize some of the skills learned through tuition-supporting jobs.

CV-Blind Final Interviews

Even more intriguing, Clifford Chance has adopted a system of CV-blind final interviews. Staff members conducting these interviews don’t know which law school each candidate attended; they know only the candidate’s name.

The firm hopes that this approach will eliminate unconscious attitudes that might bias interviewers in favor of applicants from elite schools. Rather than assume that an Oxford graduate is more sophisticated, articulate, or intelligent than one from a lesser school, the interviewers judge the candidates based on their words and manner.

The CV-blind approach reduces the halo effect created by elite school attendance. Employers can weigh the substance of an applicant’s academic record (including the nature of the school attended) during screening stages of the employment process. There is no compelling reason for interviewers to know the applicant’s school when judging the interpersonal skills displayed during an interview.

Eliminating academic pedigree from final interviews does have one drawback: It reduces the opportunity for firms to recruit candidates based on common bonds. Interviewers will no longer be able to reminisce with candidates about favored (or dreaded) professors and classes. Candidates may come away from these interviews feeling a less personal connection to the prospective employer.

These very connections, however, give elite-school graduates yet another advantage in the hiring process. If a firm has hired primarily elite-school graduates, students from lesser schools will feel less connection with their interviewers. Those students, in fact, may feel more comfortable in interviews where no one’s alma mater plays a role.

Intelligent Aid

Clifford Chance’s most ambitious program is its Intelligent Aid competition. Each year the firm fills twenty of its summer slots with students chosen through this process. The students submit a 500-word essay on a designated topic, then defend their ideas orally before a panel of judges. The twenty best competitors obtain summer jobs; the top competitor also receives a £5,000 scholarship and £1,000 to give a favorite charity.

Intelligent Aid has become a major pipeline for students aspiring to work at Clifford Chance; the competition fills half of all openings in the firm’s summer program.


Clifford Chance’s innovations seem to be working. Last year the firm hired lawyers from forty-one different schools. That number represents almost a thirty percent increase from the number of schools represented the previous year.

The firm has also succeeded in attracting more first-generation students to its ranks. The Intelligent Aid program yielded one-third more of those students than the traditional hiring route did.

Clifford Chance is betting that its innovations will yield a better group of lawyers than conventional hiring practices have done. The firm isn’t running a charity for students enrolled at non-elite universities; it’s seeking the best possible workers. So far, the results suggest that it’s both possible and productive to combat elitism in hiring.

  • Benjamin Barros

    That is really impressive. Good for them!

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