‘A parallel universe is a hypothetical self-contained reality co-existing with one’s own’ – says Wikipedia. Well today I found myself in one. The escalator from the ground floor to the basement of Kings Place in London is a portal between universes. That really is the only explanation for what happened today – at least the only one that makes any real sense.
I was at the Legal Cheek event: The Future of Legal Education and Training Conference. I was already irritated by the 8.30am start and the fact that all the breaks were termed ‘networking breaks’. I can’t get to London for an 8.30 networking breakfast. I got there and sat down just in time for the intro from Alex from Legal Cheek who really just plugged their exclusive survey saying that students are skeptical of the SQE and want more law tech included in their programmes. Well, from the brief bits he presented I doubt it’s that simple. Who exactly was asked what exactly and did they really understand what they were being asked? Some of the answers reported suggest that perhaps they did not. In fact a lot of what was said today suggests that the people who really ought to understand it (like the people invited to talk about it) don’t understand it. I could go through presentation by presentation and summarise it all for you but I value my mental health and my heart rate profile for today is quite erratic enough so let’s do this thematically. Here are the things that jumped out at me
- There were important voices missing. What we saw and heard today was a particular vision of law and lawyering which is not the law or the legal services that most of us (and certainly not most of the general public) engage in or come in contact with. It is rich mans law, it’s corporate, commercial and fundamentally about making already filthy rich clients more money. It is not about justice, it’s not about people, not about the social or the political, not about making the world a better place, not about harnessing the power (symbolic or otherwise) of law and lawyers to solve the big problems of the world. It was everything that makes people hate lawyers. I think it is what caused that flicker of disappointment in my mum’s face when I told her I wanted to study law and become a solicitor. It’s everything so many students think they should want even when they don’t.
- The SQE or at least the impact it is already having on universities and will certainly have on legal education is really poorly understood. Let me be clear. The SQE is an exam. It is not a programme, course or anything of that nature. It’s an exam. It therefore cannot deliver, in its own right, things like greater innovation, incorporation of tech, greater variety, cognitive diversity, any sort of diversity, thinking skills, improved written communication skills, resilience, creativity, project management and self management skills or commerciality. The only thing the SQE can do is test someones ability to pass the SQE. The preparation for the SQE might attempt to encourage some of those things but of course only if they are part of the SQE – which they are not. Many speakers made the assumption that legal knowledge would still be gained through law degrees and conversion courses – but why would that be the case? No law degree is required and many law schools will be under huge pressure to provide an SQE focused degree for fear of not recruiting students otherwise.
- There is a fundamental mismatch between what employers appear to want and say solicitors need (what they say they want – I’m not always convinced that they know what they mean when they say these things though) and what the SQE tests. There was much talk of creativity, thinking critically and differently, problem solving, managing yourself and learning how to fail and being more resilient. The SQE cannot test those things and other than for a small number of elite and very brave non-elite institutions the SQE means a move away from those things and towards learning to pass the multiple choice tests
- In spite of all the work done by the learned associations, all the SQE rhetoric is still operating on the assumption that what we do in universities is somehow not relevant to practice, can’t be quality assured and is not to be trusted. Varying pass rates, different curricula, different approaches and different assessments are presumed to mean that standards cannot be guaranteed. The problem about fitness to practice which is what regulation ought to be concerned is avoided and instead turned into a fundamental distrust of academics. But I agree with Richard Moorhead on this – the problem is more likely to be at the work place training end. The ridiculous consistency of people passing their training contracts is far more worrying than different institutions having different pass rates at LLB and LPC to me.
- There are apparently still people who think the SQE can deliver equality, diversity and inclusion benefits. There’s no evidence of this. If it reduced the cost of qualifying dramatically, maybe, but it can’t do this – you still need a degree, you’ll have to pay for the test, you’ll have to prepare for the test, you may fail the test and have to do it again… This cannot be significantly cheaper than degree plus LPC and funding option may disappear (for example the availability of loans for Masters degrees means that many LPCs are available in LLM versions so funding is available). The type of assessment has diversity implications and I just don’t see the SRA taking this seriously. They say they will fully test and analyse the statistics including by protected characteristics… but the fact still is that if you can pay to practice repeatedly then you are more likely to be successful. AND THAT IS NOT NEUTRAL
- Obviously we did not really talk about the ghettoisation of legal service provision and how the SQE might widen the gap between magic circle and high street. I can’t help thinking about the careers adviser I had at my school. When she saw my choice of A-levels and what I wanted to do with my life she said, well you won’t get into vet school – why not be a vet nurse? I said that I wanted to go to uni though and she asked me what for and why I’d want to waste my time doing a degree if I could get a job. I wonder what she will be telling kids at that school about becoming a solicitor, whether she understands the differences between solicitors and different firms and that the cheapest, most obvious route via an SQE ready degree might look great for these kids but is likely to funnel them into dead end paralegal jobs. I can’t help thinking about the girl at that same school who wanted to be a human rights lawyer but didn’t think she would be accepted anywhere because she came from the council estate down the road. Her teachers were telling her to stay local because she’d fit in better. I told her to be bold, that it would be awful at times, that it was a different world but that as much as I love working for the sort of institutions that I have worked for and now work for, they are sometimes just not good enough – she went to an elite uni- hated it but got to where she wanted to be. I can’t help thinking about the countless conversations with students about what they want to do, about repeatedly having to say – great – but you will have to do more and be better than those at Russel Group institutions, you will have to work harder and you will have to be lucky. And that’s without creating a real division in types of programmes. With the introduction of the SQE those who need the rigorous academic degrees most to help them to get to where they want to be are even less likely to access them. I feel utterly defeated by this.
- Of the lawyers or former lawyers who spoke, all totally normalised long hours. There was talk of 90 hour weeks and it was framed in terms of work ethic and being ambitious. I’m sorry but working 90 hours a week is not ambitious, it’s not having a good work ethic, it’s, pardon the language, fucking stupid! Maybe the perceived competency problem and consumer complaints are actually problems of exhaustion and not being able to function and of burn out and having been ground down. This is insanity! And no resilience is not about learning to deal with that shit. That’s not resilience. You have not failed if you can’t work those hours – you are human. Oh and maternity leave – it’s for baby things (what do I know!) and having coffee with your friends etc – it is not for re-training, setting up your business, working yourself to death… and if you take a part time job 4 days a week you don’t have the other 3 days to work on your business. Just stop. THIS IS NOT NORMAL.
- There are people who see the SQE as a massive opportunity and apparently think that it will free law schools from the shackles of regulation to be free to innovate. No no no just no. This is just so naive. The SQE will have a huge impact and makes it more difficult to innovate not easier. The SQE can actually only deliver on some of its promises if law schools take on the role of training students for it. The SRA is banking on this happening. (I say let them bank on it and screw them, let’s just collectively decide we’re not doing that and instead uphold the integrity and rigour of our programmes). So what happens to in depth teaching of legal subjects? Family Law? Social Welfare Law? International Law? Anything Socio-legal? The underlying assumption here is also really problematic. We’re not sitting around in our ivory towers happily doing what has always been done. We are constantly thinking about how we can change things, teach differently, engage our students, help them achieve those light bulb moments…
- Who chose who was invited to speak? Why weren’t the learned associations asked? Why not those who actually research these issues? With one or two notable exceptions is was an impressive line up of non-experts, people sort of wheeled out as representing something when in fact legal services weren’t represented well, law schools weren’t and in spite of Alex’s insistence that the student voice was really important to Legal Cheek there wasn’t a single student speaker.
I could probably go on and on and on but this gives you a flavour. I’m still a bit confused by it all. And I’m exhausted from trying to understand, from trying to work out what it is I’m missing, from forcing myself to have the confidence to know I’m right on this because the thing that perhaps took me by surprise the most is how easily my confidence in what I know and believe can be rocked by a bunch of men in suits spouting utter nonsense. After all, what could a girl from a small town in West Yorkshire possibly know about this? It took a two mile people and cyclist dodging run to clear my head and restore some sanity.
This conversation is going to continue and I’ll be back to participate but for now please do chat amongst yourselves while I re-charge.
Following on from the last post, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on my Day 1 of the conference. The first thing to do was try and work out which sessions to go to. Easier said than done. Each time slot takes up over 10 pages in the programme and there are over 30 panels running at the same time. As usual things that look interesting all seem to be on at the same time. Nonetheless, the first session was a relatively easy choice. I went to Gender Identities: Beyond the Binary and heard 4 really interesting papers. I haven’t really engaged with gender identity issues much in my work or in my life, maybe because I just don’t get it. People are people, gender, sexuality, it’s all fluid and it’s also all irrelevant to how I think about people. I’m irritated because to me this is just a non-issue. I just don’t care if you’re male, female, both, neither or choose on any given day. But of course some people do care and the law cares and the law likes categories and categories are problematic because categories by definition create divisions… anyway, I enjoyed the session.
Next I went to a Round Table on Queer and the Inter/national where I tried to get my brain round a queer marxist theory of law, queer theory as a lens to think about extraterritorial relationships between states and people outside of those states and states as having gender, having sex with each other and undergoing gender reassignment. It was a good session even if not really roundtable like. It seemed more like a normal paper session really. It did make me want to do more queer theory stuff though. I’m coming to the conclusion that my aversion to theory isn’t real. Someone must have told me once that I was no good at theory (or maybe I just presumed that) and I have internalised that to such an extent that I don’t do theory – except that I do – just as long as I don’t realise I’m doing it.
Then it was lunch time and I realised my brain was quite full already. I decided to take the lunch break and the next session slot for some time out. I had a little walk, found some street food stalls and had some fruit and a drink (my frustration at my complete inability to say anything in Spanish continues) and spent some time zoning out and catching up with Facebook and Twitter.
At 2.45 I was going to go to the Salon session on Gendered Views of Judges, Courts and Lawyers. However, I couldn’t find the room for ages and by the time I did, the session would have started and I didn’t want to be that person. I came back to my room for a little while. That I think, was the only anxiety sort of moment where I just walked round in circles for a bit and then gave up and then accidentally came across the room on my way back to my room. I should have just joined the session but I couldn’t face it.
At 4.30 I headed back down for the plenary panels and went to one on Law in a Time of Populism: Brexit, Columbia and the US Elections. Brexit was covered by Paul Craig. I’d never heard him speak before and I’m not sure I want to again. I like his work, I’ve used it loads in mine. I rarely disagree with his assessment of EU law issues in particular but I didn’t really like his style – bit shouty and loud. This was in stark contrast to Jeff Dudas who followed Paul Craig and talked about the white working class in the US. I really enjoyed his presentation because he got the balance of research, story telling and the personal just right and he spoke softly which my ears very much welcomed. Certainly my favourite paper of the day. There were then two further presentations – one on Colombia and one on the US. Then I was tired!
I dumped my things in my room and went down to the drinks reception – mainly to take a look at the books in the publishers’ area. There was some food (for which I queued for a disproportionate amount of time) and a free glass of wine. My plan had been to go for a quick drink, look at books and then maybe head out and grab some food from just round the corner but the bread and cheese nibbles at the reception filled me so I went to bed instead. Drinks receptions are impossible when you’re on your own. Most people aren’t so joining a group you don’t know is awkward. I was tired and peopled out and not really up for awkward so I just exchanged a few polite words with a couple of people also looking at books and with a couple of the publishers.
So, Day 1. How am I doing? I get tired more quickly than normal. Or no, actually that may not be true – I get tied more quickly than I want. This may be normal! My brain can manage 2 sessions but will start getting restless about 3/4 of the way through the second. I need to make notes, my brain isn’t in sponge mode, it doesn’t absorb all these thoughts and ideas, I need to write them down there and then. I used to be able to soak it all up and then distill some thoughts at the end of the day or even a few days later. I can’t do that now. I’m finding the sheer number of people tricky. I got the lift to the lobby when I went for my walk and when the lift doors opened there was a wall of people and almost unbearable noise. I had to force myself out of the lift. It’s nice to have a few people I know here so there’s no undue pressure to ‘make friends’. Day one was good. I have high hopes for Day 2
A couple of days ago my institution opened a new entrance to one of the university buildings. Not exciting, but in that entrance area (it’s a glorified porch really) there are new toilets, not exciting either, but these toilets are gender neutral toilets. Now this is exciting. I was going to blog about them then but somehow it didn’t seem important enough. Well I think I was wrong about that. I actually think that having those toilets there is massively important and an email sent by a colleague mocking them and noting (sarcastically it seems) ‘As tens of thousands of innocent people are being cynically and perhaps routinely slaughtered in Aleppo, this remains the most compelling issue facing Students & Staff today’ suggests that maybe celebrating the toilets is even more important than I thought. Stick with me as I try to unpick this and try not to rant.
I don’t really get the obsession with toilets split by gender. It’s a toilet. I actually think it would make perfect sense to just have toilets – full stop. That would just be so much more inclusive and, well equal. Who gets to pee where isn’t about biological differences, it never has been. It’s about some old-fashioned concerns about what women should and shouldn’t be doing in public. It’s about anxiety and the misplaced perception that there is a need to protect women (or just generally protect us from each other). The research into public toilets is fascinating (see for example Molotch and Norens 2010 book ‘Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing’ which also contains a chapter by Terry Kogan on segregation) and I wish I had the time to read more of this stuff (yep, maybe I should have been a sociologist after all!). There are a number of issues around gender neutral toilets which jump out at me. I know there’s research and I am also keenly aware that most of it I haven’t read. What follows is my gut feeling about this and my initial reaction to the email I got at work which, to put it mildly, made my blood boil. I have tried to sense check my gut feelings and perceptions by talking to friends and reading some stuff but I know there’s a whole load of stuff I’m missing. If you have ideas for something I should read to help me get a fuller and more nuanced picture please leave me a note in the comments
- Gender neutral toilets are for everyone. They make sense. In buildings where there is limited space for toilets – just have toilets. Don’t make (almost always) women walk further and wait longer to pee.
- We don’t need segregation. Women do not need protecting. Segregation just encourages us to deal with each other in a slightly artificial and negative way. (I hadn’t really thought about this until one of my friends mentioned this – thanks, you know who you are). Segregation encourages us to view each other with suspicion. Well, as someone who routinely skipped the lines for the Ladies’ and walked into the blokes’ toilets – there’s no mystery. You might encounter a few more hairbrushes and a little more make-up in the little girls’ room but that’s it. Also – segregation doesn’t work. There is no magic safe space. See a recent Guardian article for examples
- Toilets can be the venue for many a drama, many tears and confidential chats and comforting. This has come up in conversation several times with female friends whose best friends are men. If the toilet is the only area at work or wherever where you can have a private conversation and a bit of a cry when you’re having a rough day, and your best friend or trusted colleague is male, you’re stuffed. You have to do your crying on your own leaving your bestie outside feeling properly useless. That doesn’t make sense
- Gender neutral toilets also make sense for parents – it means they can take their child of whatever gender to the toilet without any awkwardness whatsoever. None.
- Gender neutral toilets are also imperative for trans people. Here I think safety is an issue. The US trans survey results are pretty scary – 59% have avoided using public bathrooms (including at work and school) because of fear. Just think about that for a minute – 59% of respondents to that survey did not go to the loo because they were scared. That alone makes gender neutral toilets not just a good thing but absolutely crucial in any society or organisation that takes equality in any way seriously.
- I have re-written this paragraph several times now and I can’t quite get it right. The email I received (which went to a selection of people in response to the announcement that we now had these gender neutral toilets) was dismissive of ‘gender dis-specific’ people and pointed to the fact that there may be 3 in the institution and that ‘their survival is threatened by both a lack of tolerance and the lack of an arena where they can take a dump without the wolf-whistles’. I don’t even know what to say to this. Yep, there’s a lack of tolerance – nicely exemplified by the email. And yes actually their survival (in some cases, actual survival) and safety is threatened. Have a look for example at this article in the advocate which highlights some of the issues.
- Perhaps the most upsetting bit in the email is the assertion that because we care about gender neutral toilets we don’t care about Aleppo. I stopped breathing for a second when I read that. I care, as do my friends, about injustice. If I care about having gender neutral toilets, I can still care about Syria, about Human Rights abuses, about the gender pay gap, about every day sexism, about trans equality, about whatever f-ing injustice there is. I don’t have a finite amount of ‘caring’. Using one massive injustice to justify doing nothing about other injustices (on the basis that this means we don’t care enough about the massive one) is just idiotic. But of course I am missing the point here – if you don’t see not having gender neutral toilets as an injustice…
- For my institution as a university those gender neutral toilets are a great first step. There is somewhere to go for staff and students who do not want to deal with the ‘which toilet is the right one for me’ debate or issue every time they need to pee. I don’t care what the reason for that debate might be, nobody should have to worry about going for a pee at work/uni. I’d like to see gender specific toilets disappear – I don’t see the point in having them
So there we are. Do you see now why they are not just toilets? Why they are much more than that, a symbol of inclusiveness and equality or at least a step towards those values. They can also be genuine life-savers and certainly stress savers for many – and it’s not for me, you or anyone else to decide who gets to pee where.