I've wondered for some time about what exactly the phrase "white shoe firm" means. My Torts professor just used it in reference to the opposing counsel in A Civil Action (which he calls "one of the best nonfiction books I've read in the last decade"). I raised my hand to ask and then put it down when I remembered that this was a review session and not supposed to be taken up with stupid non-exam related questions.
But who needs a respectable source of knowledge when there's the internet? First I consulted dictionary.com, which offered American Heritage's "Of or being a long-established business known for reputable service and a wealthy clientele: 'took a job at... [a] pronouncedly white-shoe investment-banking firm' (Connie Bruck)" and WordNet's "denoting a company or law firm owned and run by members of the WASP elite who are generally conservative; 'the politician tried to hide his white-shoe background.'"
This was the general understanding that I had of the term, but it didn't explain its origin. On to the OED, which had a very different take:
white-shoe slang (chiefly U.S.), effeminate, immature [...]This attempt to track the meaning comes to the best conclusion:
1957 J. D. SALINGER Zooey
Phooey, I say, on all *white-shoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines. Give me an honest con man any day.
1974 G. JENKINS Bridge of Magpies vi. 85
What sort of white~shoe captain are you?
1975 N.Y. Times 22 Sept. 33/1
Covert operations can be stripped from the CIA... So can such monkey business as dropping simulated poison cannisters in the New York subways -- the games of white-shoe boys who never grew up.
Ivy League collegians. Thus a 'white shoe firm' is one primarily staffed by such individuals (rather than one which employs Jews, Blacks or other minorities). The implication is of traditionalism, stuffiness, etc. White shoe, in more general slang, and with the same etymology, means immature or effeminate. [[interestingly enough Merrill-Lynchís present Chairman, President, Chief Executive & Chief Operating Officer is a Black graduate of Harvard Business School]].However, this site gives a different time period for the popularity of white shoes.
WHITE-SHOE adjective: 1) [1975-1980] of or pertaining to members of the upper class who own or run large corporations; of the U.S. establishment: 'white-shoe bankers'; 'white-shoe law firms'; 'a conservative white-shoe image.' [from the white shoes popular as moderately formal wear among suburban men circa 1980 and also from the earlier Ivy League usage 2) a typical Ivy League student; having or affecting the dress, manners, attitudes, etc. of the Ivy League [popular at Princeton at varying intervals since circa 1915; general student use circa 1945-55 only. From the white buckskin shoes that were part of the typical studentís dress].
"White-shoe," as a reference to Ivy League background, is a much more accurate term to use for contemporary elite institutions than "WASP" or "good ol' boy," both of which no longer describe the set of people who currently constitute The Man. The generation that attended Harvard after the collapse of anti-minority quotas and with the advent of affirmative action is now in power, and they are frequently Jewish, Catholic and/ or female (and to a lesser extent, people of color). At the same time, the old investment and law firms still require the white-shoe educational pedigree as much as they ever did.
(This isn't very relevant, but it's funny. Y.P.R. -- a McSweeney's wannabe?)