Yesterday I attended a brilliant workshop hosted by the University of Sheffield School of Law and the Legal Education Research Network (LERN). A big thanks to Tammy Hervey for urging me to register and for reassuring me that I could come along and just be. This workshop was advertised at a time when I couldn’t even begin to imagine wanting to be in a room full of academics, never mind think about stuff. In the end I did, as Tammy predicted, have a fantastic day and enjoyed chairing a session, too.
The day kicked off with a slightly depressing and thought provoking key note by Professor Hilary Sommerlad. Depressing because research seems to be indicating that things are getting worse in the legal profession rather than better; thought provoking because there are so many barriers to equality and diversity and yet they seem to me to always come back to how we think about what a ‘good lawyer’ is. If we don’t reconceptualise that, we’ll never make any real progress. Why is it that we can’t get past this? Why is it so difficult to remove some of these barriers even where the solution appears to be blindingly obvious?
Hilary talked about two of her projects in particular. The first study is roughly 10 years old now and looked at how LPC students saw the legal field. As part of her focus groups participants drew pictures of lawyers as they saw them/imagined them and the pictures she shared were all quite similar – white, male, middle class lawyers working long hours being paid lots. Interestingly Hilary pointed out that when talking to her participants and highlighting that they were painting a picture of people that were (in many cases anyway) very different to themselves and not very sympathetic, some participants said that this was part of the appeal. Others were also keenly aware of their otherness and the fact that they’d never fit in. It reminded me of the meal I attended at a very posh restaurant in Leicester at the beginning of my second year as a law student. I had come in the top 6 students in my year and a well known City Law Firm took us out for tea. I didn’t wear a dress, I wore trousers and a shirt. I didn’t tone down my Yorkshire accent, I didn’t hide the fact I came from a single parent family and I didn’t hide the fact I hadn’t gone to a grammar school. I ordered the wrong wine and probably the wrong thing off the menu. I chatted, happily, with the people from the firm about the privilege of going to university, the fact that I had enjoyed Tort more than Contract and that I was looking forward to spending Christmas at my Gran’s in the deepest depth of West Yorkshire. I didn’t know that this was not how you played the game – nobody had told me the rules. I didn’t know there were rules! I wish I had known. If I had I might have played better. Not because I wanted desperately to get a training contract with that firm but because if I know what the rules are I can challenge them, break them, laugh at them. I think everyone else at that dinner was invited for an interview – I never heard from them again.
Anyway, I digress. The second project Hilary talked about is a study recently published about how recruiters see talent and merit. I wasn’t surprised to hear that merit equals academic achievement. I have spoken to people responsible for recruitment who, after a glass of wine or two and a lot of nudging admitted that they want to recruit people who look different but otherwise are identical because it allows them to hit diversity statistics without actually doing anything different or risk ‘alienating clients’. It’s disappointing and slightly sickening to see how little progress has been made in the legal profession.
The key point from the key note for me was the fact that clearly so many people self-select themselves out of a career in law or out of particular sectors within the legal professions because they don’t see themselves as fitting in. I wonder how many more select themselves out of studying law because they think it’s not for them? We need to talk about this, unpack it and challenge it. People should never have to make a decision about whether or not to follow their dreams based on having the wrong accent, the wrong parents, the wrong background, the wrong whatever it may be.
So what do we do to change things? Do we try and help our students achieve that particular type of professionalism that Professor Sommerlad talks about? Do we help polish them? This doesn’t sit comfortably with me. If we teach them to pass in that world, to assimilate we change nothing about the culture and we might well make them really quite miserable! Leaving aside the fact that I never could teach someone how to speak properly, dress to impress and talk about the right sort of things, I don’t think we should be suggesting to students that they should be doing this. However, I do think we should tell it as it is. We can’t raise aspirations without being honest about what that might mean and what students might have to deal with to get into the professions, stay there and progress. Part of our job then has to be to teach students about the sort of professionalism that is expected, about the behaviour that is expected and the sort of things some people in the professions will take for granted and that which will go unquestioned and unchallenged. I also strongly believe that teaching critical thinking skills and encouraging students to question and challenge everything is more important than ever. To go back to one of my favourite books on legal education – we need to empower students to have their own conversations, make their own choices and take their own chances (See Anthony Bradney).
The key note made me think again about what lawyering is and what it means to be a good lawyer. How do we model this in the class room? What assumptions do we make and are they justified? What messages are we sending by what we say and do in the classroom and elsewhere when engaging with students? What are we telling students about lawyers and being a lawyer? What are we not telling them? How much difference does what we say make given that they get their messages from all sorts of sources including TV series and films as well as society generally? What is our role in the identity formation of our students and what is our responsibility in all of this?