Complicating the ‘Holy Grail’, Simplifying the Search: A Critique of the Conventional Problematisation of Social Immobility in Elite Legal Education and the Profession

This article challenges the conventional problematisation of and response to insufficient socio-economic diversity in elite legal education and the legal profession.  I contend that the entrenched socio-economic stratification of admissions, the undergraduate experience, final degree classification, and career trajectories turns on elite institutions’ failure to recognise that education and educational proxies neither explain the core of socio-economic inequality nor are they the linchpin for improving social mobility.  I draw on a case study of an elite UK university’s undergraduate Law programme.  My argument proceeds in three parts.  Firstly, I contend that justifiable commitment to ‘meritocracy’ continues to be unjustifiably implemented via the indeterminate critical values of ‘potential’ and ‘talent’, which undermines the meritocratic aim.  Secondly, I explain how the inadequacy of the educational proxies employed for socio-economic disadvantage undermines the ability of targeted responses to achieve real improvements, and I call for the adoption of poverty-based proxies.  Thirdly, I suggest that the search for mechanisms to increase diversity proceeds on the mistaken assumption that complex problems require complex solutions, which overlooks the transformative potential of ‘micro-adjustments’ or ‘nudges’.  I propose both universal and targeted micro-adjustments, which focus on fostering a universal diversity of excellence; bringing disadvantaged students within the ‘community of practice’ to become expert in critical learning methods and assessment criteria; and enhancing disadvantaged students’ social and cultural capital.

This article will be published in (2017) 51 The Law Teacher.  The pre-print version is available here.