Monday, March 10, 2008

Critique of the Day: Kay and Hagan, Cultivating Clients in the Competition for Partnership

I know this critique sucks. I am really tired, and this is about Canadian lawyers. Like, who cares Canadian lawyers. More that I dispute the authors' contention that this is generalizable to the U.S. and how they define social capital. This is a really depressing article to boot. Do not read if you are a female lawyer.

Note to grad students: I'd only read this for the methodological design, because the theories/findings are not that surprising or interesting.


Kay, Fiona M., and Hagan, John, Cultivating Clients in the Competition for Partnership: Gender and the Organizational Restructuring of Law Firms in the 1990s, 33 Law and Soc. Rev. 517 (1999).


This is a longitudinal study of Canadian lawyers between 1975-1990. Kay and Hagan performed two sets of mail-in surveys of Canadian lawyers working in the private law firm setting. The response rate was a robust 70% (roughly) for each survey.

The fundamental question underlying the study is simple: with greater numbers of women entering the legal profession, why the persistence of gender stratification in the workplace? Why are men more likely to make partner, and why are women more likely to leave the law firms?
Human capital theory is insufficient to explain the phenomena, as both genders possess the same credentials and educational pedigree when they enter the firm, and yet receive different career returns from the same investments in human capital. Thus, institutional, structural barriers to success may be operating, particularly the refusal to hire women into positions that more readily feed into the partner track. Also, the 40+ hour work week and great value placed on “face time” (staying past closing, working weekends) and gendered expectations regarding childcare severely disadvantage women within the legal profession. Women lawyers are often hired as associates, but “discarded” before they can make partner.

Other factors operate to limit women’s opportunities to advance in law firms, such as their limited access to “social capital, or the social relations within law firms—mentoring relationships, old-boys’ networks, outside-of-work activities, etc.

Kay and Hagan found that men are more likely than women to become partners, a relatively unsurprising finding. Women are more likely than men to leave private practice law firms for government work, or non-legal work.

Most interesting are their findings about the gendered attrition rates: Only 54% of men who begin their careers in firms remain in them, compared to 41% of women. Of those who remain in private law firm practice, women are much less likely to become partners.

Other findings are quite depressing: “inherited social capital” does not improve chances of making partner, and women’s comparable investments in human capital (education, training, experience, seniority) do not produce the same returns as did the men’s. In order to make partner, women need to work more hours during times that may conflict with work/life balance, e.g. nights and weekends.

Finally, discrimination/bias at the decision-making points may operate to exclude women from making partner, as decision-making about awarding partnership to female attorneys appears to be more rigorous than decision-making about male attorneys. Of the female attorneys who make partner, they are less likely to attract clients and contacts than do male partners, perhaps due to bias on the part of the clients in favor of male attorneys.

The four mechanisms suppressing the advancement of female attorneys that possibly explain the persistence of stratification and subordination are: 1) self-elimination, 2) over-selection, 3) relegation, and 4) direct exclusion.


This is one of the most depressing articles I have ever read. It is a well-designed study though, as the longitudinal analysis examines lawyers at the beginning entry point of their careers and tracks them to see where they end up. Moreover, the data is fleshed out by illustrative quotes from the survey participants.

The mid-range theories are well supported, but I question how the authors link up their findings/theory to the higher level theories of human/social capital. For instance, their definitions of social capital are rather contestable (particularly inherited social capital), as resource-dependence theory tells us that it is the intra-organizational network ties that are most valuable for career enhancement (see, e.g. Granovetter, Lim).


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