So a story in the Guardian reports Geraldine van Beuren’s calls for more working class lawyers to out themselves. Having once been described as the gayest heterosexual man on the planet,* I feel a bit of outing might be appropriate. My parents certainly regarded themselves as working-class Geordies. It used to be the case that I’d not agree, thinking them more like lower-middle escapees. The older I got, though, the more I thought they were probably right about that. My formative years were spent in a pub. By which I mean I was brought up in a pub. Is that clearer? A pub they ran; serfs to the brewery’s shilling, and all that (they did not own it). My friends thought that meant we were posh. Indeed, there was a joke about my Dad being called the posh man with the big face which, if you knew my Dad, was hilarious. He did have quite a big face, but posh he was most definitely not.
Anyway, that brings me to the question, am I working class with a kind of yes, no, maybe. No, and yet… kind of answer. It feels like a slightly wrong question, but perhaps it is not. I am not (working class), although the older and more experienced I have become, the more I have seen the impact of class and the various kinds of social capital that come with it.
And for some reason, the more important that question seemed. Partly this was others’ experiences and partly it was my own as I got closer to the, erm, other half. Not having an accent, and being a fairly pushy man shielded me quite a lot of course (loads). Being first gen Uni student and comp school educated, I have occasionally suffered what we’d call micro-aggressions. Oh yes, and I went to Warwick (it was ace) not, you know, there. Amazing how many conversations that stops in their tracks. Sometimes, very rarely, the aggressions were not so micro, even though they remain minor compared to most peoples’ experiences.
As it happened yesterday I was reading a brill Empson and Ashley piece on Big law which reminded me how important this is in the real world rather than my own life. It’s called… Differentiation and discrimination: Understanding social class and social exclusion in leading law firms. All the managing partners of the Top100 are rushing to download it as you read this, I am sure. It is wonderfully done though, and it (excuse my language) gently boiled my… …you get the point.
But it’s given me an opportunity to write about work from @bridge_group which I have been meaning to do since I heard their estimable CEO speak at the LSB’s recent conference. It was a research study that caught my eye, impressive in scale, with leading firms, that finds,
“state school trainees, 14% receive the highest performance ratings, compared to 8% of independently educated trainees.”
So state school kids are better at their work in Big Law (similar work suggests similar things in the States as it happens).** Yay. And yet, state school kids are less likely to be recruited into big law (even though they do better at Uni; you figure it out) and are more likely to leave (it’s professional support or the provinces for you laddy) So better but excluded and less well treated; like, as it happens, women. Funny that. Indeed, the Bridge Group says its class that is the biggest barrier to entry and progression in the profession. I wonder if Empson and Ashley might have it right? You can read the Bridge Group’s work here static1.squarespace.com/static/5c18e09… and ponder why it is that Big Law manages to fail itself whilst failing society and law students. They are better than this and can do better. They need to if they’re to beat the US firms. They need to do more work on breaking down their class walls.
* This by the way was one of the biggest compliments I have received in recent years (tbf it’s been a lean time compliments-wise) and the donor did not know, until perhaps now, that I found out. So *waves*. I may also have slightly exaggerated the planet bit: Mwah!
** At the general level. For argumentative types, this does not mean all state school trainees do better, just as a group they have more high performers. I say ‘just’, it’s not a mere detail, particularly from the point of view of firms determined to recruit and promote the best.
2 thoughts on “Class Walls”
As a state school educated, working class female, trying to access a career in law, I fully and totally agree with this. Access to the profession is so challenging and unrealistic expectations of unpaid internships and unpaid work experience are almost impossible for those of us that cannot afford not to work.
Thanks for sharing your experience, it is good to know that it is possible for those of us that are working class to achieve great things in this profession!
Paul Gilbert has sent this in by email…
Hi Richard, this post made me both happy and sad. I was a comp-ed and first-gen university person too. My school was a secondary modern before my year. It meant everyone above us thought we were posh and fair-game for bullying; while the teachers were just relieved if we turned up and didn’t throw chairs at them.
The battle however was really between my low confidence and their low expectations. Mum and dad were lovely but didn’t know I needed help and I didn’t know how to ask.
A-levels were a disappointment, and my Uni offers fell away. I then had an offer to go to Wolverhampton Poly on clearing and accepted without visiting the campus. I enjoyed my time there very much (I saw U2 in my fresher’s week in the Student Union and have loved them ever since). I loved the degree too and loved the diversity of the place. I was beginning to understood myself better and felt I wanted to qualify. Getting into the profession however was a tough and demoralising experience. That was until a member of the teaching staff took a life changing interest in me and got me an interview with a friend’s law firm in Malvern – and I was in.
The sad thing however is that then and now I have never felt that I truly belonged. Despite wonderful friendships and supporters, there have been people who have undermined me and challenged me as well, and their words sting forever. What frustrates me however is that I never fought back. I kind of accepted that they were right.
I think this is why your blog and the reflection is so meaningful. It isn’t just about being included, it is also about being helped with one’s (often) self-inflicted insecurity. I think this is why I am so drawn to mentoring. The profession is amazing in so many ways, but it crushes vulnerability without even realising.