One of the top law firms in the United States, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, is using law school student groups to collect photographs of potential applicants to its summer programs, a move experts say violates federal guidance on civil rights law and could expose the firm to liability.
Weil has asked Northwestern Law School's Latino Law Students Association to compile a "resume book"—complete with "optional" headshots—so that the firm can "assess" candidates for its diversity fellowship and first-year summer associate program, according to a Nov. 20 email from Angela Cifarelli, a second-year law student on the affinity group's board.
"According to Weil, headshots are completely optional," Cifarelli told the group's members. "We look forward to receiving your submissions and working with Weil to help them identify outstanding candidates for their programs!"
The request for photos could put Weil, which touts its commitment to "racial justice," in the crosshairs of federal agencies tasked with enforcing civil rights law. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that "employers should not ask for a photograph of an applicant" because of the potential for race discrimination. While not illegal in and of themselves, said Andrea Lucas, one of the agency's five commissioners, such requests raise questions about employers' motives and how the photos will be used.
"Even giving applicants the 'option' to provide a headshot could serve as evidence of an employer's intent to discriminate based on race, color, sex, or other protected characteristics," Lucas told the Washington Free Beacon. Weil and Cifarelli did not respond to requests for comment.
The call for photos comes as law firms across the country are, at least on paper, backing away from race-based hiring programs amid the torrent of litigation unleashed by the Supreme Court's ban on affirmative action. Perkins Coie and Morrison Foerster opened their diversity fellowships to all races after being hit with discrimination lawsuits in September, for example. And at least one firm, Adams and Reese, ended its diversity fellowship entirely.
Requests for headshots could become more common as law firms navigate these legal waters, with visual materials—obtained through a middleman like Northwestern's Latino group—used to suss out an applicant's race. That would help programs such as Weil's diversity fellowship, which awards students $50,000 and is officially "open to all," practice discrimination without overt racial criteria.
"Weil's actions should dramatically increase its exposure to litigation and liability," said Dan Morenoff, the executive director of the American Civil Rights Project, which litigates reverse discrimination cases. "At a minimum, they should be the basis for an EEOC investigation."
It is not clear whether Weil, which sponsors the Latino Law Students Association, has made similar requests of other affinity groups at Northwestern or peer law schools. But its relationship with the group is hardly unique.
Many big law firms now sponsor race-based student organizations at elite schools, funding their operations and hosting ritzy recruiting events with an eye toward attracting minorities to the firms. Those arrangements give firms like Weil, where associates can make more than $300,000 each year, considerable sway over their student liaisons.
This is not the first time that a prominent legal institution has raised eyebrows with its optical requests. Columbia Law School drew censure this summer when it said that applicants would be required to submit 90-second "video statements" alongside their normal essays, a move widely seen as a way to circumvent the Supreme Court's affirmative action ban. The law school backtracked within hours of its announcement, claiming that the requirement had been posted "inadvertently."