12 June 2000
Given the brickbats aimed at the citadels of privilege during the past two weeks, it's probably safe to assume that Oxbridge wishes it had never heard of Laura Spence. And, given that the furore has spawned more column centimetres than a certain sailor in Trafalgar Square, you can but take their point. Here we all were, thinking we were living in the 21st century - all that class war stuff neatly swept under the rug - and look what happens!
There's a queasy touch of déjà vu about all this, though. After all, Oxbridge isn't the only British institution to attract the censure of the media for being snobbish, patronising and elitist. There is a sector rather closer to home that got there first and, in some quarters, has done even less to change the habits of a hundred lifetimes than has the admirably intentioned Oxford.
Let's face it, when it comes to the status quo, the legal sector is about as representative of social change as - er, as Status Quo. Heartening though it is to think that this debate may have prompted some firms to analyse their demographics, I doubt it was the ones who really needed to. In the grand scheme of things, women, ethnic minorities - minorities per se - are (still) about as high on the agendas of some firms as - let's face it - kids who don't make it into Oxford.
Can it really be that Oxford rejects are not bright enough to be great lawyers, or is the more unpalatable truth that the legal sector itself, or certain caste-fixated sanctums within it, deter them from even applying to enter their charmed world? Of course, we have our own Treasury and Foreign Office exemplars, ready buyers of purveyors of received wisdom. Elitist, stuffy, pompous? Us! Come on. Compared to some quarters of the legal sector, Oxbridge is the Freedom Warriors Collective.
But hold the zeal for a moment. The good news is that, despite the best efforts of the grandees, the times do seem to be a changin'. Compare the demographic mix of trainees this year with their counterparts of 20 years ago, and a heartening picture emerges. Yes, there are still law firms full of Sebastian Flyte-alikes, but give it a couple of years and those firms will start looking, and yes, feeling like the 40 year-old bloke at Club 18-30.
Of course, it's different in the US. In the States, it isn't who you know, but who knows what you know that counts. There, education is more a means to an end than an end in itself.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the Oxbridge ruckus is that the calling out of our prized meritocratic values was perpetrated by the meritocracy itself. But that's meritocracies for you: people selected on the basis of their ability. People like lawyers, in fact.
I think that is perhaps the strongest point to have emerged. The fact is, we do want the best. For a sector such as ours, there is little to be gained from purging the world of elites. We want elites. We want top-grade, world-class, obscenely talented people to work with us and take the sector forward. It's just that as our markets evolve and the ways in which we serve those markets change, we need to re-evaluate exactly what, in the 21st Century, we mean by the best.
Leslie Perrin is managing partner of Osborne Clarke. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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