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Posts tagged ‘Diversity’


Equality and Diversity in Legal Education 1

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?

As usual I have far more questions than answers for now! For part 2 of my reflections see the next blog post and for part three, the one after that.





Equality, Diversity, Judges and an Angry Academic

So, Lord Sumption. That went well then. I don’t think I have been quite so angry about remarks made by a Supreme Court judge, well, ever. Angry on a personal level because when he speaks about women and our lifestyle choices he is also speaking partly about me; angry on a professional level as a teacher because his comments potentially do a huge amount of damage and can have a profound impact on those young women who might now think that a career in law is not for them; angry on a professional level as a researcher because his comments are simply wrong, misguided at best, misogynistic crap actually popped into my head first.
If you don’t know what I am talking about take a look at the Evening Standard from Monday which reported on an interview with Lord Sumption in which he suggested that a ‘Rush for gender equality with top judges ‘could have appalling consequences for justice’’
There are also sorts of levels of angry here and I have tried over the last few days to draft something measured and thought through to post here. I’ve failed. I’m too angry. So, let’s just go with that, let’s forget measured and thought through for a minute. Here’s how I feel a few days on from first reading the comments. This isn’t about my research on women judges, this isn’t about me as an academic, this is just about me as a woman who routinely stands in front of lots of young women who have dreams and ambitions to change the world. Too right I’m not bloody measured.
1. Lord Sumption is talking partly about me, about women all over the country. He talks of appalling consequences if we rush gender equality. What are they exactly? That the judiciary might take account of a more diverse set of viewpoints? That the status quo won’t be upheld? That him and his friends will no longer be first in line for life’s advantages? That there’s no-one left at home to iron his shirts? Maybe I shouldn’t say that. I have no idea if Lord Sumption irons his own shirts or not but seeing as he sees fit to speak about my life and the life of all women without knowing anything about it maybe I’ll go out on a limb and speculate that he doesn’t.
2. Lifestyle choices… What does that even mean?
3. I would have thought that the good sense to refuse to work yourself to death and try and create some kind of work life balance is something that shows that you are a fairly sensible, rounded and balanced human being. I would say that qualifies rather than disqualifies you from joining the judiciary. Yet Lord Sumption seems to think that women’s refusal to tolerate the long hours is a lifestyle choice and one that makes us unfit for the top job.
4. Equality will happen naturally? I expect more from a historian! Women got the vote naturally did they? There wasn’t anything about a suffragette movement, no incident with the King’s horse… No? And what about poor Miss Bebb? Of course it wasn’t her fight that led to women being allowed to become solicitors, no of course not. The Law Society just decided naturally one day to let us in? Oh please.
5. If this is what Lord Sumption thinks about gender – what about diversity more generally? I don’t think I want to know, I think I’d throw things
6. Lord Sumption is wrong. He doesn’t think there is an old boys network, he thinks the Bar is meritocratic and he seems to think that the best people get the top jobs (thus implying that women are not the best people). Well I guess we tend not to see the wood for the trees. For anyone not immersed in that world it is hard to see how the Bar is anything other than an old boys network. It is hard to see how it can possibly be meritocratic and it is clear that it is not the best legal minds that get the top jobs but rather the best connected, the ones able to put themselves forward, the ones best able to take advantage of privilege and opportunity, not the best legal minds, not the people who would be best at the job…
7. I could launch into a long paragraph about what merit means but I’ll save that for another day. Let’s just say that having been the most highly paid QC is not necessarily something I would look for when selecting a judge.
8. Lord Sumption makes a lot of assumption and perhaps the most problematic is that senior judges should come from the Bar. The Bar is elitist, it’s London centric, it’s almost impossible to get into if you’re a black kid from a council estate who is funnelled into a local comprehensive school and gets a place at the local university. But it’s ok, candidates at all levels are selected on merit.
9. Lord Sumption doesn’t understand power and privilege. He doesn’t understand how society works. He doesn’t understand how merit doesn’t work if merit is defined by people like him with all the privilege in the world.
10. But here’s what really breaks my heart: I stood in front of a class full of first year law students today. Most of them non-white, most of them female and all of them with dreams and ambitions to change the world. None of them have had an easy ride to get to University, none of them have ever experienced the kind of privilege that is normal for Lord Sumption. What do I say to them? How do I keep their dreams alive? How can I possibly show them that they are as good and sometimes better than the so called elite? How do I convince them that they can change the world, that their backgrounds, who they are right now, is a huge part of what qualifies them to go and change the world? How do I do that when a Supreme Court Judge, through one stupid interview, tells them that they don’t belong in that world.
So yes, I’m angry but I should probably get back to my ironing.


Taking a look at a glass closet

I have just finished John Browne’s ‘The Glass Closet – Why coming out is good for business‘ and I am irritated. I don’t like the book. I am irritated by it and I am irritated that it irritates me and at the same time I can’t quite pin down why I am so irritated.

So what’s it all about. John Browne resigned from BP where he was Chief Exec in 2007 because he was about to be outed by the press. The book is about his story and about why gay employees should do what he didn’t – come out; and why business should encourage and embrace diversity.

I feel like I’m missing something. And maybe I am. I don’t work in business. I’m also a fair bit younger than Lord Browne and have made any decisions about coming out or being out in a different context. I’m also a woman. I get that for some people coming out is a really difficult and painful journey/experience and it certainly seems to have been that way for John Browne. The fact that he didn’t come out on his own terms but was outed compounds that pain. I agree that people should be able to come out on their own terms (sort of anyway). I agree with quite a lot he says in the book actually. Hm. Still irritated.

So, here’s the thing, well two things. I don’t think anyone should have to come out of any closet. The whole idea of coming out suggests that heterosexuality is the norm and we need to announce that we are not normal. How many straight people come out? When straight people feel the need to come out as straight I’ll happily announce my sexuality right along with them. Until then, I’m just me.  But even if we think people should come out then I don’t give a toss as to whether that’s good for business. In fact, saying ‘come on you gay lot, get your backsides out of that closet of yours, business needs a bit of a boost and needs to be able to get the most out of you’ or ‘come on gay people, your leaving too much of what you should be committing to your employer in the closet, get out of there’ makes we want to punch something.

Lord Browne addresses his audience well and tells his story well. I am assuming that his intended audience is other business leaders and he speaks their language and maybe it will make a difference and create more welcoming environment. Maybe. But I wonder how many gay and lesbian young people, still in education or emabarking on their business career, read his book and reconise themselves in the stories. The stories he tells, including his own, start from an incredibly privileged position which brings with it its own set of problems but mostly is just, well, privileged. I think I am irritated by the privilege and the lack of recognition for other stories. It seems that if you want a business career now it might be ok to be gay but it porbalby still isn’t ok to be from inner city Bradford with a strong West Yorkshire accent. I’m not sure that helps much, I am not sure business is really anywhere near to really valuing diversity – just privileged diversity.

I want to be able to celebrate this book, to say: read it, listen to the message, diversity is important, gay people should be able to come out (oh hang on, that’s it in’t it, should be able to – not should) and if you create an atmosphere where difference is valued, people will be happier but I can’t quite bring myself to say that. I know I should like it more than I do. I know I should admire John Browne for telling the story and trying to drive change; I know that maybe business can be a real driver for change but I am struggling to get past the feeling that it’s always the privileged that get to tell the story, define it and set the agenda. While we are distracted by a former BP Chief Exec, what storeis are we not hearing? Let’s not allow this book to be the only story we hear about coming out in business or at all, let’s listen, let’s talk and let’s come out if we want to – for us, not for business!