Upstairs, downstairs: social mobility or stratification?

Recent social mobility initiatives have garnered much attention. The baiting of Nick Clegg serves as a timely reminder that nepotism problems are not confined to the law. The announcement that magic circle senior partners had met has also received much positive attention. And, whilst its good to see them trying to do something, I have a nagging doubt about the effectiveness of strategies which seek to simply make work experience a less nepotistic process. My main reservation was nicely caught by an anonymous comment on the Lawyer’s story on this:

…I went to a comprehensive, , ex-poly and managed to get a training contract, but it wasn’t so much the grades that clinched it (obviously that got me through the door and into the interview), but working out ways for the interviewers to see that I was ‘one of them’, even though I didn’t have the ‘right’ answers to some of the most innocuous questions.

For example, I can’t ski or ride a horse, my parents didn’t go to university and have manual jobs, I could never afford to go travelling as no one gave me a lump sum and I always had summer jobs etc.

It’s difficult to explain as it is such a subtle thing, but I soon learnt that I had to come up with something (usually by diverting the topic slightly), otherwise all the perfectly normal, innocuous questions I would be asked by interviewers would result in me saying, no, I don’t ski, no, my dad works in a factory, no, I haven’t been lucky enough to go travelling…. which would mean the interview grinding to halt without me being able to positively demonstrate why I should get a training contract.

There was nothing malicious about it, and they were just asking what they had clearly always asked in interviews, but unconsciously, these questions would have led a candidate like me to end up on the reject pile, when I was exactly what they were looking for to improve their diversity statistics.

Once I could work round this, I got a few TC offers, but I think this is the most difficult aspect of social mobility to overcome, and which is more difficult to tackle than simply offering a few work shadowing placements to the local sink school. It almost requires an overhaul of interviewer’s personal and often unconscious assumptions as to what makes a candidate a ‘good fit’.

Work experience is relied upon as demonstrating commitment, and as a vehicle for assessing (formally or informally) candidates which is risky (those demonstrating early commitment may be less competent, See ‘It’s the thick ones that say they want to be a barrister from day one‘) and also indirectly discriminatory (sit in my room and have a work experience discussion with a student who has debts to pay, no friends in London and parents struggling to make ends meet and you would see what I mean straight away). Firms should be thinking very carefully about whether work experience is a genuine benefit worth the costs; particularly where it prejudices the broader pool of talent who struggle to afford time in London. They should also be thinking very carefully about how they define merit. Looking for that little bit extra may feel right for someone faced with a pile of job applications to assess, but I am yet to be persuaded as to the relevance of someone having done Grade 8 flute which – I am told – is the sort of thing that helps candidates get shortlisted at (some) City firms.

Trying to open up work experience schemes may help a bit, but will it help enough? And in any event, the opening up of such schemes will not – I surmise- do much to tackle the prejudices revealed by (for example) the Cass study. There was another piece of evidence of this in the Lawyer story, taken (one presumes) from information provided by the Magic Circle partners’ to them:

Items on the agenda included the creation of a work experience scheme aimed at A-level students and ways to encourage young people from non-traditional backgrounds to consider support roles within law firms.

Got that? There are masters and servants in law firms and the proposals seem to include an emphasis on welcoming ‘non-standards’ into the latter category. The door is opening, and the stairs appear to lead downstairs.   Social mobility starts to look like social stratification.  This is inevitable if recruitement processes re premised on looking for people like us.  These processes need to start looking for people like them: judging people on their competences and aptitudes in context not at the baubles that they have picked up along the way because of their context.

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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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One Response to Upstairs, downstairs: social mobility or stratification?

  1. Julia Hines says:

    Clearly this is an issue. I did a law degree as a mature student and single parent, having worked as a doctor for 5 years beforehand. When I applied for training contracts (albeit 10 years ago now) I was regularly asked to fill in application forms with questions like “What positions of responsibility did you hold at school?” Um, can’t really remember, but doesn’t the fact that I ran a cardiac arrest team and was considered responsible enough to section people under the Mental Health Act count for anything? Apparently not.

    I studied for the law degree part-time in the evenings and worked for a medico-legal charity (AvMA) during the day. I was only able to do this because my parents took my kids and I in. However, despite a 2.1, a couple of prizes from law school and a prize from med school, and focussing on clinical negligence where my experience was relevant, the only interviews I got were through contacts I made from working at AvMA.

    I also feel that outsourcing is one of the barriers to social mobility, which has so far not been recognised. If she or he does not work directly directly for the firm there is less incentive to encourage a secretary to become a legal executive, or, in other industries, such as the kid in the postroom at a record company, who gets a foot in the door by chatting knowledgeably to the A & R people about the great unsigned band he saw last night.

    Internships are only one part of the problem; an important part, but not the only part.

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