Eli Wald

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BigLaw, Social capital, Identity capital, Economic, Cultural capital


This Article advances a new capital framework for understanding the bargain between large law firms and their lawyers, depicting BigLaw relationships not as basic labor-salary exchanges but rather as complex transactions in which large law firms and their lawyers exchange labor and various forms of capital — social, cultural, and identity. First, it builds on the work of Pierre Bourdieu regarding economic, cultural, symbolic, and social capital by examining the concepts of positive and negative capital, exploring the meaning of capital ownership by entities, and developing the notion of identity capital — the value individuals and institutions derive from their identities. Then, the Article advances a capital theory of BigLaw, in which large law firms and their lawyers engage in complex transactions trading labor, social, cultural, and identity capital for economic, social, cultural, and identity capital.

Capital analysis sheds new light on the well-documented and troubling underrepresentation of diverse lawyers at BigLaw. It shows that the underrepresentation of women and minority lawyers is not solely the result of exogenous forces outside the control of large law firms such as implicit bias, but rather the outcome of the very exchanges in which BigLaw and its lawyers engage. Specifically, large law firms take into account the capital endowments of their lawyers in making hiring, retention and promotion decisions, and derive value from their lawyers’ capital, for example, by trading on the identity of women and minority lawyers in marketing themselves as being diverse and inclusive to clients and potential recruits. Yet, while BigLaw trades for the identity capital of women and minority lawyers, it fails to offer them opportunities in return to acquire the social and cultural capital necessary for attaining positions of power, resulting in underrepresentation. Moreover, these labor-capital exchanges are often implicit and made by uninformed participants, and therefore unjust.

Exactly because the capital framework describes the underrepresentation of diverse lawyers at BigLaw as an endogenous outcome within the control of BigLaw and its lawyers, however, it is a cautiously optimistic model that offers hope for greater representation of diverse lawyers in positions of power and influence. The Article suggests policies and procedures BigLaw can and should adopt to improve the quality of the exchanges it offers to women and minority attorneys and to reduce the underrepresentation of diverse lawyers within its ranks. Employing the concepts of capital transparency, capital boundary, and capital infrastructure, it demonstrates how BigLaw can (1) explicitly recognize the roles social, cultural, and identity capital play in its hiring, retention and promotion apparatuses and (2) revise its policies and procedures to ensure that all of its lawyers have equal opportunities to develop the requisite capital and compete on equal and fair terms for positions of power and influence.

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Eli Wald


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English (eng)


47 pgs

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260 KB

Publication Title

Fordham Law Review



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