A class backlash

A story in the Lawyer on ‘cultural diversity’ has prompted an interesting backlash (as has a story at Legal Week).

The Lawyer story discusses Herbert Smith’s multicultural network billed as providing, “support to ethnic, racial and cultural minorities within the firm, while raising awareness on cultural diversity among all staff.” There are already, it is reported, women’s, LGBT and work-life balance groups. Herbie’s Head of diversity and inclusion Carolyn Lee is quoted as saying:

“I would hope that one of the outcomes would be that we have a group of people who are happy to be showcased as role models. [But] in the first case it’s about creating support and confidence and encouraging people to think about networks in other ways.”

Now to me the voice of language is interesting. To me it is redolent of BME recruits as trophies to be paraded (perhaps with half an eye on the LSB’s desire to monitor diversity) although Ms Lee talks also of the groups having a role in telling the firm when they have lessons to learn. And of course, high profile success stories can also have an impact on mentoring and expectations. But the comments on the story take it in a rather different direction: that the key diversity issue is not gender or ethnicity but class and education. I am going to take the liberty of quoting the comments at length in the hope that the Lawyer and the comments’ authors do not mind (if they do please comment or email me):

Tim says:

“The issue of “racial and cultural diversity” in firms is a complete red herring. By all means it would be great to see more black (as in British born Afro Caribbean / African) lawyers, however, the real issue in these firms is the state school / public school divide. I used to work at a well known national firm with lots of British born Asian and Oriental lawyers, they were however, just like their white counterparts, all public / top private school educated. Those lawyers in the firm who were edcuated in the state sector probably totalled about 5%, and definitely not more than 10%.”

Anonymous says:

“I completely agree – well said Tim. I am a British Asian who went to a top private school and there are many others like me. Very few from state schools – educational divide is the root of the problem.”

“City Gent” says:

“As Tim quite rightly says, the real discrimination is on financial and class parameters.

“This sort of publicity stunt is just window-dressing. The dead giveaway is the nonsensical management-speak used by Ms Lee – “addressing issues”, “strategy”, “diversity and inclusion” – all weasel words designed to divert attention away from the fact that really they don’t want to employ anyone who doesn’t conform to the norm.

And Tim then adds:

“I would dearly like to see Herberts, and all top 20 law firms for that matter, publish the statistics of the schooling of all of their lawyers.

I would put a lot of money on under 10% having received an education solely in the state sector. This is shocking when you consider that only circa 7% of the population receives a private education.

Why doesn’t The Lawyer do something useful and attempt to collate this data?

This whole “race” thing is so tiresome. As is these law firms finding the roughest school in Tower Hamlets and dragging their year 9 pupils on tours around plush offices in the City to “open doors” and “give them an insight into the legal profession”.

In fact, as City Gent says, you need to conform to the norm. If you’re not another institutionalised public school clone then your face doesn’t fit.

Am I being chippy? may be, but do I speak the truth? Yes.”

Bobby Smith then notes:

I’m delighted that Tim has identified the main discriminatory factor in law firm recruitment. Unlike gender, race, religion etc there is no law against discrimination on the basis of educational background, which is why it continues with no likleyhood of change. I’ve worked in legal recruitment for years and the main factor that firms use to differentiate candiates at the training contract stage is the state/public school education one, it being illegal to do so on the basis of race, gender etc. This is why the VAST MAJORITY of candidates we see are public school educated.
The current debate surrounding the funding of universities touches on this issue but doesn’t actually address it. It is NOT the university one attended, nor the degree attained, but whether you went to a public school that confers an advantage for life. Crazy to think that via ‘charitable status’ public schools enjoy a £200 MILLION subsidy, paid for by the cleaners who empty the public school bins!

Mike Shiner’s work on solicitors noted (back in the 90s) that public school conferred a major advantage in terms of entry into the profession. He also used to comment when he spoke on his research that class may be as, or more important than gender and ethnicity in explaining disadvantaged entry into the profession. A handful of comments is not definitive but it suggests that the problems remain. Let’s hope that as it designs its diversity measures the LSB is taking note.

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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