Access to a career in the legal profession in England and Wales: Race, class, and the role of educational background

Lisa Webley, J. Ennifer Tomlinson, Daniel Muzio, Hilary Sommerlad, Liz Duff

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Much attention is currently focused on equality and diversity within the legal profession in England and Wales, not least because the profile of law graduates has markedly diversified over the past 20 years, although senior levels of the profession have yet to reflect the increasing number of women and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) entrants over that period (See the Law Society and Bar Council statistical reviews 2013). There is a strong body of research in the UK that establishes social stratification on grounds of class (see e.g. Goldthorpe, 2000; Skeggs, 1997) and there is also a pronounced link between class and race in British society (Archer, 2011; Loury et al. 2005). The results of this stratification include unequal distribution of resources (Marx and Engels, 1969; Marx, 2010), unequal life chances (see further Breen, 2005; Weber, 1956) and unequal access to occupations and thus to status (Durkheim, 1964: 371). Previous studies indicate that social and educational background have a major role to play in the extent to which aspiring lawyers gain entry into, progress and succeed within the legal profession (Nicolson, 2005; Shiner, 1994; Shiner et al., 1999; Shiner, 2000; Sommerlad, 2008; Thomas, 2000; Tomlinson et al., 2013). Further, the Milburn ‘Fair Access to the Professions’ Report (2009, 2012) has recognized that this stratification has a real impact on entry into professions, particularly into old professions such as law. We suggest in this chapter that the professional entry barriers experienced by BAME and lower socio-economic group law graduates would be greatly reduced were legal employers to focus on proxies for excellence more closely associated with measures of lawyer competence than of social background. Framed using a Bourdieusian analysis, this chapter examines the extent to which background pre-university and the university at which one studies has a substantial impact on one’s access to a legal career, as compared with attainment at university or legal competence. Bourdieu provides three ‘thinking tools’ that afford a means to analyse social practices and the stratification of access to opportunities and reward: habitus, practice and the social field (Bourdieu, 1986; Jenkins, 2002), and we draw upon these in this chapter. The habitus, the habitual ways of thinking, the dispositions of those involved in the field, are developed via subliminal inculcation within familial, social and educational contexts (Bourdieu, 1986).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDiversity in Practice: Race, Gender, and Class in Legal and Professional Careers
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages28
ISBN (Electronic)9781316402481
ISBN (Print)9781107123656
Publication statusPublished - 31 Mar 2016

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