Law firms embrace blind recruiting to promote diversity--but does it work?

  • Print

Recruiting image

Photo by Wright Studio/Shutterstock.com

Could the resumé become an anachronism? At some law firms, particularly in Canada and the United Kingdom, hiring partners have embraced “blind recruiting,” removing identification details from candidates’ resumés and applications as a means of eliminating potential bias and promoting diversity.

Following the lead of accounting firms such as Deloitte and Ernst & Young, as well as governmental and financial institutions in Australia, some firms are even using programs specializing in removing information from resumés based on hiring goals.

For example, if a firm is trying to eliminate a bias toward hiring male attorneys, it can filter out resumés from male applicants. If a firm is concerned about hiring too many lawyers from privileged backgrounds, it can rid the resumé of descriptive hobbies.

In July, Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin, a Toronto law firm, announced it would start using blind recruiting for its summer associates. The firm, which has about 60 lawyers and typically hires between five to eight summer associates, said it would use software to remove an applicant’s name, according to the Canadian Lawyer. The firm expressed hope that, between this and subconscious bias training, interviewers would speak with and hire a more diverse crop of law students—and that other firms in Canada would follow its lead.

Some UK law firms have been using blind recruiting for several years. It “was incorporated to help combat any unconscious biases that interviewers may bring into the process,” says Catherine Morgan-Guest, a graduate recruitment manager at Macfarlanes based in London.

Macfarlanes, which has more than 300 lawyers, introduced blind recruiting in 2014. When recruiting for the new trainee intake, the graduate recruitment team sees all the resumés, but the assessors on the assessment days don’t even get to glance at them. “Three-quarters of the assessment day is conducted CV-blind, including the written, group and in-tray tasks,” Morgan-Guest says. “This means that a large part of a candidate’s assessment is based on their actual performance on the day, which we believe promotes greater fairness.”

A firm spokesperson says there’s been an increase in diverse candidates going through to assessment days, with this past September’s trainee intake expected to be the most diverse to date.

Clifford Chance has started doing blind interviews in its London office, meaning the interviewers don’t see information about the candidate before the interview.

“This is to reduce any potential for bias during this stage,” says Laura Yeates, head of graduate talent at Clifford Chance. “We need to always make sure we hire the very best candidates, regardless of the institution of study, degree discipline or background.”

Since it adopted this approach in 2014, Yeates says, it’s seen the number of institutions from which it receives applications—and made hires from—increase. A firm spokesperson says one year after adopting blind recruiting, the firm hired trainees from 41 different education institutions—a rise of nearly 30 percent compared to the previous year.

Not So Fast

In an October 2016 study, resumés from fictitious students at nonelite law schools were sent to more than 300 law firm offices in 14 cities, assigning signals of social class background and gender to otherwise identical resumés. The higher-class men received significantly more callbacks than anyone else.

Names are also important. In a 2003 study, University of Chicago and MIT researchers wrote fake resumés with the same qualifications but gave half black-sounding names and half white-sounding names. The ones with white names had 50 percent more interview requests than those with black names.

Likewise, a study published in 2015 found, among other things, when getting interview requests and callbacks from employers, candidates with black- sounding names from top universities did about as well as those with white names from less selective schools.

With a mission to eliminate hiring bias, software company GapJumpers has created a program that lets companies make an online test based on skills required for a law firm’s job. Instead of viewing the resumé, a firm sees applicants’ scores and can select applicants based on the scores. Some companies that have used the program include Adobe, Dolby Laboratories and Mozilla.

Still, not everyone is convinced. In June 2017, the Australia Public Service announced it would pause its blind recruiting program after finding it did not result in a more diverse workforce.

“We anticipated this would have a positive impact on diversity—making it more likely that female candidates and those from ethnic minorities are selected for the shortlist,” said Michael Hiscox, a professor at Harvard University who oversaw the study, to various media outlets. “We found the opposite—that de-identifying candidates reduced the likelihood of women being selected for the shortlist.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, blind recruiting runs counter to the mentality at many firms. “When considering a candidate to hire, we must ensure that the candidate possess[es] the skills and experience necessary to properly handle the case for our clients,” says Moses DeWitt, managing attorney at the DeWitt Law Firm, an eight-attorney firm with offices in Tampa and Orlando, Florida.

Because law schools in the United States are ranked by tier, he says, his firm may be less likely to consider a candidate from a lower-tier law school—and clients might not want to retain a firm with numerous attorneys from lower-tier schools.

“Ultimately, it is the on-the-job performance that matters,” DeWitt says. “But as an employer, we need some criteria to evaluate a candidate to determine whether the candidate would be appropriate to handle matters on behalf of our clients.”

This article was published in the October 2018 ABA Journal magazine with the title "Blind Faith."

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.