Skip to main content

Research Group on Legal Diversity Publishes Broadest Study of Diversity in Professional Careers to Date

August 18, 2016, Press releases

In a new book published by Cambridge University Press, four American Bar Foundation (ABF) scholars reveal the reality of diversity practices in contemporary law firms, corporations, and law schools. Diversity in Practice: Race Gender, and Class in Legal and Professional Careers examines the disconnect between expressed commitments to diversity and the practical goals that are achieved, revealing the often obscure systemic causes that drive persistent professional inequalities.  

The book is co-edited by Spencer Headworth, an affiliated scholar at the ABF and assistant professor of sociology at Purdue University; Robert L. Nelson, director emeritus and the MacCrate Research Chair in the Legal Profession at the ABF, and professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University; Ronit Dinovitzer, Faculty Fellow at the ABF and professor of sociology at the University of Toronto; and David Wilkins, the Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Diversity in Practice is part of Cambridge Studies of Law and Society, a series of the best scholarly work on legal discourse and practice in social and institutional contexts.

Diversity in Practice is the broadest study of diversity in professional careers to date. Expressions of support for diversity are nearly ubiquitous among contemporary law firms and corporations. These commitments are typically backed by a dedicated diversity staff and various diversity and inclusion initiatives. Yet, members of historically underrepresented groups remain seriously disadvantaged in professional training and work environments that white, upper-class men continue to dominate. These patterns are particularly pronounced in the legal profession. The contributors in Diversity in Practice use a wide range of data and methods to build on existing literature and offer new paths in explaining enduring patterns of stratification in professional careers. The realistic assessments in the book provide opportunities for practitioners to move beyond mere rhetoric to something approaching diversity in practice.

Nelson, Dinovitzer, and Wilkins co-direct the ABF’s Research Group on Legal Diversity (RGLD) and are centrally involved in “After the JD,” the ABF’s national longitudinal study of legal careers. The RGLD was established in 2011 to examine trends in diversity and inequality in the legal profession and institutions of justice. The group brings together leading researchers and practitioners working on diversity issues. A critical first step toward the goals of the RGLD was the establishment of a Research Chair in Diversity and Law at the ABF. In December 2012, the Fellows of the ABF led a successful $1.5 million fundraising campaign to endow the William H. Neukom Fellows Research Chair in Diversity and Law, which was fully funded after a major gift from William H. Neukom, founder and CEO of the World Justice Project.

The RGLD recently held its 2016 conference, organized around the theme of “Metrics, Diversity, and Law,” on May 5-6, 2016, in Chicago. Presentations focused on the key role of metrics in law and other professions, in the decision-making processes of gatekeepers at critical junctures throughout careers, and in drawing conclusions about successes and failures in efforts to advance diversity and inclusion. The conference brought together producers, consumers and scholars of metrics to facilitate the dissemination of research and stimulate new lines of inquiry. Presenters included Rima Alaily, Microsoft Corporation; Lee Webster, University of Texas Medical Branch; Robert Morse, U.S. News & World Report; Aracely Muñoz Petrich, Minority Corporate Counsel Association; Hilary Sommerlad, University of Leeds School of Law; Brian Levine, Mercer; and Richard Tonowski, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The conference was co-sponsored by Northwestern University, Microsoft Corporation, Allstate Insurance Company, and Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

The first three conferences of the RGLD, held in 2012, 2013, and 2014, presented original research on diversity and inequality in the legal profession, legal institutions, and other scientific and professional fields. The takeaways from these conferences informed parts of Diversity in Practice, and produced new collaborations between researchers and practitioners to advance diversity and equality.

“Despite dramatic changes taking place in the world of professional services, and the growing presence of women and people of color in law and other professions, we see remarkably little progress for traditionally disadvantaged groups in the professions,” said Professor Nelson. “Diversity in Practice helps to explain why. It thereby points to how meaningful change may be accomplished.”

Diversity in Practice is available for purchase on Amazon and the Cambridge University Press website.

Please find a PDF of this press release here.

Posted by: Cheyenne Blount

« Return to Press releases

Site design by Webitects

© 2023 American Bar Foundation (
750 North Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611-4403
(312) 988-6500
Contact Us
Contact the Fellows
Media Contacts
Privacy policy
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in ABF publications are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Bar Foundation or the American Bar Association. The AMERICAN BAR FOUNDATION, ABF and related seal trademarks as used by the American Bar Foundation are owned by the American Bar Association and used under license.