Study Indicates People With Black-Sounding Names Less Likely Than Whites to Get Responses When Soliciting a Lawyer in California

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A study conducted by a Yale University postdoctoral associate and lecturer has revealed that private practice lawyers in California have some bias when it comes to the kinds of clients they’re willing to serve.

Brian Libgober’s 2018 study findings have emerged, and they show that if a hopeful client seeks out the counsel of an attorney in the Golden State, they’ll more than likely get passed up if they have a name that sounds Black.

racial bias
(Getty Images)

“Getting a lawyer while black is harder. This fact conflicts with our
intuitions about equal access to law,” Libgober said in his article for the “Lewis and Clark Law Review” that outlined his field study results. “It seems to implicate the legal profession in the rampant and well-documented problems of inequality in our time. Even so, market realists may wonder whether the finding is surprising, or even suggests failure in the market or the profession. State sanctioned racism, from Slavery to Jim Crowe [sic] and more recently mass incarceration, have left African-Americans poorer than whites.”

Libgober discovered that when combining two studies of California attorneys, clients who seemed to be white based on their name got 50 percent more responses than clients with names that indicated they were Black. Libgober also reviewed lawyers in Florida and discovered that, statistics-wise, there was no significantly greater response rate among them.

For his California study, Libgober sent emails from a medical sales representative that requested representation in a DUI case. The Black-sounding names were Darnell and Latoya Jackson. The white-sounding names were Brad and Laurie McCarthy.

The emails were sent off to two sets groups composed of 96 criminal defense litigators. Combining the results from the two groups, Libogober learned clients who had names indicating they were white had 50 percent more responses.

Then, a study the researcher conducted in Florida saw him send 899 small-firm attorneys emails from clients hoping for representation in criminal law, divorce, and personal injury cases. Those lawyers were broken down by race and gender: Black or white or male or female.

Black-sounding names like Latasha Francois, Tasha Dorsey, Terrance Williams and Maurice Henry sent a total of 49 emails to white lawyers in Florida; the clients asked for representation in a driving-related misdemeanor. Meanwhile, 48 lawyers were sent the same emails from
clients who seemed to be white with the names Anthony Holley, Sam Nash, Nicole Horton, and Tabitha Morgan.

Each set of names included those that sounded more or less white or Black.

“The overall response rate for those with names indicating they were very likely black was 28.6%,” the article noted. “The overall response rate for those with names indicating they were very likely white was 22.9%.”

There was no evidence that the attorneys replied to clients at different rates because of the perceived race of their client. Yet there was one racial difference: Black lawyers were more likely than white lawyers to reply to every sort of client.

As for a reason for the differences among California and Florida lawyers, Libgober suggests that it has to do with the competition for work. He cites the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which states Florida has 20 percent more lawyers per capita than California.

“While there is little hard data to verify it, one could very reasonably suspect that the proportion of lawyers working in government or for
large law firms is also larger in California than Florida,” he states. “The oversupply of retail lawyers is likely greater than that 20% figure suggests. Unsurprisingly, Florida lawyers earn substantially less on average. As a result, it is very easy to believe that competition among lawyers for clients is greater.”