Differentiation and discrimination: Understanding social class and social exclusion in leading law firms

Louise Ashley, Laura Empson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


For leading law firms in the City of London, diversity and inclusion has become an important human resources strategy over the past 15 years. A recent focus on social class within the sector has been encouraged by increasing governmental concerns relating to social mobility, which acknowledge that elite professions, particularly the law, have become more socially exclusive over the past 30 years. Based on a detailed qualitative study of six leading law firms conducted between 2006 and 2010, this article asks: why do leading law firms discriminate on the basis of social class? It argues that discrimination is a response to conflicting commercial imperatives: the first to attract talent and the second to reduce risk and enhance image. The article describes these dynamics, emphasizing the role played by the ambiguity of knowledge. It argues that until these conflicting demands are reconciled, organizational and state-sponsored initiatives centred on the ‘business case’ for diversity may achieve only limited success.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)219-244
Number of pages25
JournalHuman Relations
Issue number2
Early online date8 Nov 2012
Publication statusPublished - 2013

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