It’s hard to know what the Exeter law students whose racist WhatsApp messages have recently been revealed to the world are thinking right now.

Fear and embarrassment that their horrible conversation is out there for their families, peers, lecturers – not to mention the whole of the internet – to see.

Possibly shame, a dawning realisation at just how nasty it all really was.

Perhaps deep down there is also a sense of denial of wrongdoing, anger at the brave fellow student who outed them.

But it’s probably fair to say that this will feel like a career-shattering moment – something that will haunt the group’s members for ever. They have been named and shamed online: there is nowhere to hide.

They have now been suspended from Exeter University and the police are involved.

Hill Dickinson has already revoked the training contract offer it made to one of the men, and it’s impossible to argue it was the wrong decision. Firms can’t tolerate or be seen to tolerate that kind of behaviour.

But does this mean the profession should be barred to them for ever?

The initial gut reaction that many will have to that question is ‘yes’.

The ethical guidelines that lawyers are required to adhere to are strict. There should be no place for people who think it’s funny to spread this kind of message, whether they really meant it or not. They should be punished.

Yet history suggests that redemption can be found within the profession.

The legendary story of Norton Rose junior lawyer Bradley Chait is still well-remembered. Long story short: in 2000 Chait received an email from a young lady recalling how much she had enjoyed performing a certain sex act on him, and made the mistake of forwarding it to four fellow lawyers. It immediately went viral, making the front pages of several national newspapers. Cue embarrassment all round.

Chait was only guilty of the ill-advised forwarding of an email; and while Norton Rose looked into the situation, it didn’t harm his career too much. He later got a job in another City firm and now works as a lawyer in Germany – although his almost total lack of any online presence is probably a telling result of this humiliating public outing.

In 2012, another email went viral. This time it was banter between four public school lads, including a Shearman & Sterling trainee, Henry England, and an aspiring lawyer, Rory Jones.

The memo listed profiles of the four members – who dubbed themselves the “G4” because of the group’s “density of oil and its capability to dominate social, political and economical spheres” – as well as their rules for a forthcoming holiday to Dubai to watch the Rugby 7s. Rules included “mentioning parents’ salaries once a day” and compulsory chants “about your surrounding environment, being oily and how rich we are”, as well as rules of a sexual nature.

Shearman said it took “appropriate action”, though it declined to say what that action was. Like Chait, Henry England is now hard to find online and does not appear to be a lawyer any more. However, his aspiring solicitor chum, Rory Jones, managed to get a training contract. He now works at Gowling WLG in the firm’s competition team.

Then there was son-of-a-judge Henry Mostyn. “Barrister son of top lawyer in cocaine and ecstasy shame” yelled the Daily Mail headlines, decrying the fact that he was “let off with just a police caution and gets to keep his job.” But while 4 New Square did not sack Mostyn from his pupillage, he wasn’t accepted for tenancy. US firm Cleary Gottlieb gave him a chance, however, and he is still an associate there today.

Finally, there is the example of Clifford Chance trainee Aysh Chaudhry, who proclaimed that the attacks on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo would not have occurred had it not been for “the fact that the kuffar [an offensive term for non-Muslims] had gone to our lands and killed our people and raped and pillaged our resources”.

Displaying an impressive lack of judgment, he outlined his views in a 20-minute rant on YouTube.

Again, it made national news and Clifford Chance investigated the issue. But it evidently forgave Chaudhry: he was retained on qualification and spent time working in its Madrid office before returning to the firm in London.

But with the possible exception of Chaudhry’s video, the Exeter WhatsApp messages are an order of magnitude worse than any of these examples.

They are genuinely grim reading, more than just laddish banter but overtly and graphically racist, sexist and homophobic (if you really want to see them the screenshots can be found on other websites). Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the messages is that there are loads. Impossible to pass off as a tasteless joke.

We are living in a world where this sort of event is uncovered more often than ever before. We’ve seen it in the world of politics with the examples of Labour MP Jared O’Mara, UKIP leader Henry Bolton’s girlfriend and others hitting the headlines.

In some of those cases there has been what seems like genuine contrition; in others, not so much.

One of the students, Matthew Bell, has made a public statement: “I will not attempt to excuse and deny any of the statements I have made. The comments, which I shall not repeat, are inexcusable and undeniably wrong. I would like to make it publicly known that I do not honestly believe any of the things I have said.”

Let us be charitable and accept that he is telling the truth. Should he ever get a job in law? Should he ever get a job anywhere? Perhaps he doesn’t deserve forgiveness. But then, forgiveness isn’t about what people deserve: it’s an act of compassion on behalf of the giver. And firms in the past have shown plenty of it.

Law is about justice, not revenge. Punishment should be meted out in appropriate measure but once it has been served, the punished should be allowed to move on with their lives.

While the “lock ’em up forever” mentality is a staple of the tabloid press, the justice system has always paid heed to the concept of rehabilitation of wrongdoers. People can change: if you don’t believe that, it’s a sad world to live in. Horrific as the Exeter WhatsApp messages are, they could yet be a force for good, if those who wrote them can be transformed by the experience into something better than they were before.

That is likely to have been the rationale behind the firms that gave past wrongdoers a second chance. But the tolerance levels of the general public for bad behaviour is lower than ever before, and it’s no longer as easy to sweep past indiscretions under the rug.

Matthew Bell and his friends have an extremely long road ahead of them. The exact nature of their punishment is not yet clear. Nor is the question of whether they can be redeemed. But it’s unlikely any law firm would want to be seen to give them the chance.