A couple of weeks ago I reported on a roundtable discussion on social mobility, organised by the Law Society’s junior lawyers division. It was a great discussion with a stunningly eloquent group of junior lawyers who deserve to go far in their careers.
But I’m not writing this to give them a pat on the back – their peers and superiors should be doing that. The truth is some of the things they said challenged my views on social mobility, a topic I’ve been actively engaged with for longer than some around that roundtable have been alive.
And I’m not alone in needing to rethink my assumptions.
Most initiatives back one type of social mobility – and it’s the type where we think that all talented people need is a bit of help being recognised, and then some help getting to a new environment where they can be helped to fit in.
That’s the type I wanted in the early 1990s, aiming for things from my south Essex comprehensive (a one-time secondary modern). Cambridge college? Yes please. Black tie ball? Yes, I’ll take that. A move to London? Indeed. Job in politics, then media? Absolutely. Glass of champagne in an art gallery? I’ll take two. A return to my roots? No thanks!
It’s a totally legitimate version of moving up, mine, and it’s called escape. The trouble is, escape is too influential as a version. The idea of ‘escape’ is the reason Prince Charles thinks we need a return to grammar schools. It’s Nick Clegg and Michael Gove’s version of ‘social mobility’.
But should everyone with a bit of potential have to, effectively, do a runner?
Some of those at the Manchester roundtable talked about the need to fit into a new mold as a source of stress. The need to think all the time about the way you talk and dress to fit in is a source of stress. Everyone’s assumption, once you seem to fit in at a certain kind of law firm or chambers, that you can ski and went to private school adds to the feeling of being an imposter.
And then the place you’re from, the people you once hung out with, family even, think you’ve changed and left them. You don’t fit there either.
Changing to fit a new environment can be a choice. But should it be a precondition? And do we even acknowledge that it is a precondition as we seek to top up law’s gene pool by spotting and encouraging talented, clever people who’ve not had every advantage in life?
‘Lawyers,’ my eldest daughter, who I took to an event this week, observed, ‘have a way of dressing – it’s not just smart like people in The Apprentice.’
As we look at the legal profession’s efforts on diversity and inclusion, efforts are made to make its spaces welcoming in some ways. At one firm, all the lanyards have rainbow stripes, to denote its commitment to being a good place for LGBT+ lawyers to work and make a career, and to signal that you can, in terms of gender and sexuality, bring your whole self to work.
Could you, though, as easily bring to work life experiences, a worldview, a background, even an accent that doesn’t fit? In too many of law’s elite places, the answer at the moment is ‘no’.
This is not an easy issue to address, but until we do, those places are only ever going to attract escapees.