Here’s part 2 of my reflections on the University of Sheffield School of Law and LERN co-hosted worksop on equality and diversity in legal education.
The day continued with a parallel session where I listened to 3 papers which were all interesting and which all triggered different but related thoughts and ideas. The first was about how we can achieve more inclusive legal education in the context of disability and it engaged with both the lack of visibility or presence of disability in the legal curriculum and problems of access to legal education for disabled students. The idea of what a good lawyer is again came up. If a good lawyer is the person who can stand the heat in the kitchen then any notion of weakness means you can never be a good lawyer. Declaring a disability or asking for an adjustment therefore becomes impossible. Hidden disabilities in particular are then easily construed as a deficit. For example you cannot be a good lawyer if you are dyslexic because law is text based and you need to read things quickly…Surely it can’t be beyond us to think about these skills differently.
The second paper was about how we can actually build a curriculum around the students in the classroom and start from their experiences. Jenny Gibbons from York Univeristy explained how she did this for her employment law module. I like this idea. You talk to your students about their experiences and knowledge and build on that – this means the content of the module has to be fluid and flexible and about developing skills and constructing knowledge, not about learning or acquiring knowledge. That can be challenging to do in an institutional context which is keen on measuring very specific learning outcomes and ensuring the equivalence of experience for all students. It is also a challenge to traditional teaching orthodoxy because the classroom experience for the teacher is less structured, less safe and less planned. That can be scary. In fact, it is scary. It’s daunting walking into a classroom not being quite sure what is going to come up, what you’re going to be discussing and where the discussions might take you. Of course it is easier to simply set some questions and go through the answers… it’s also more boring, less rewarding and less likely to actually engage the students and encourage deep learning. So there – I’m all for asking questions you don’t know the answer to and to being open to learning from our students.
The third paper was about globalized legal education and the benefits this might bring and it got me thinking about what truly globalized legal education might be. We also talked about whether globalized legal education and/or exchange programmes could help students build the all important cultural capital (and start to develop some of the sort of professionalism required – See post 1 in this series). I’m afraid I missed some of this paper because I got sidetracked thinking about what globalised legal education would really mean. Not that I have got very far with this but I was thinking about the tensions between law being jurisdiction specific and the (perceived?) need to teach legal rules which will mostly be set in the national context and the idea of global legal education.
So by lunch time my head was already full of thoughts and ideas. I was beginning to make connections to some of the things I have been thinking about for a while and which I will pick up again soon – questions around academic identity and how that plays out in law schools and what impact that may have on students too. Watch this space – it’s currently all swirling round in my brain and I need to wait for it to settle before I manfully articulate this.
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?
For the School of Law Blog I wrote a little post for International Women’s day which touches on my work on gender and the judiciary. I also wanted to write something more personal about the women who have inspired me to be who I am. And then it dawned on me – this is a really hard thing to do! Of course there are people who I admire hugely. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg – I mean, she’s just got a scarily sharp legal mind and amazing insight and a way with words. For example as far back as 1971 she wrote (in the brief she wrote for the plaintiff in the US landmark case of Reed v Reed):
‘Laws which disable women from full participation in the political, business and economic arenas are often characterized as “protective” and beneficial.The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, on closer inspections, been revealed as a cage. ‘
Anyway, I could list the inspirational women in law but that list wouldn’t be very imaginative and it also would not be true to say that those women inspired me to be who I am today – mostly I doubt I was aware of them as I was finding my path through school and university. So who are those women I want to celebrate? I think I have always been surrounded by really strong and independent women. Gender equality wasn’t really a thing for me growing up. I remember sitting in a tutorial at university talking about careers and my personal tutor (the wonderful Professor Fiona Cownie) making a coment about the lack of female professors. It was an ‘aha’ moment for me. It felt like being hit by a freight train: This shit is real. Women actually are disadvantaged. That didn’t happen in my world. In my world my gran lived on a hill in the middle of nowhere on her own and just dealt with shit, my Oma took charge of everything, my Mum was a working single mum who encouraged and valued my independence almost to a fault. My best friend’s mum encouraged us to be whacky, individual, always in your face and fiercely independent. I had friends from traditional family units but if I am honest I thought they were decidedly odd. I thought the mums staying at home was just weird – why on earth would they want to do that. I thought the ‘have lunch, sit down and do your homework’ structured approach and the micro management of my friends’ lives was odd. I thought I had the best mum in the world – obviously – because she wanted me to be me.
I liked my world. In my world gender didn’t matter, sexuality didn’t matter, in fact nothing stupid like that mattered. I went to a German grammar school where suddenly where you were from and who your parents are mattered. I remember thinking that this was strange. I also remember that I once got incredibly angry because a teacher made a comment about how as a kid from a single parent family and living on the other side of town my chances of being successful were singificantly reduced. That didn’t make sense in my world where just being you mattered but I didn’t quite have the language to express that. I think that has stuck with me. People shouldn’t have to change for the world they live in – people should change the world.
So here’s to the fiercely independent women of the world. In fact here’s to the fiercely independent people of the world, who never stop asking questions, who are there to see their friends, families and complete strangers succeed and who are always striving to topple pedestals and tear down cages.