The “Social Magic” of Merit: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the English and Welsh Legal Profession
By Hilary Sommerlad
The discourse of merit is central to the “boundary” practices deployed by the white male elite of the English legal profession to exclude outsiders. The official discourse of government and regulatory body reports presents merit as an objectively verifiable and quantifiable property, synonymous with “excellence,” the salience of which in the recruitment process is indicative of the modernization of the profession. In this form it is mobilized to deflect criticism of the slow progress toward diversity. Critical interrogation of the discourse of merit reveals that it operates rather differently as a key structuring principle of the profession. The alternative meaning of merit as “deservingness” provides a teleological argument for rewarding the embodied cultural practices of white male elites and underscores individual white men’s sense of their property rights to high status positions. Using historical sources and data from a series of qualitative studies, this Article will explore how merit in this sense of deservingness has been, and continues to be, deployed to resist outsiders’ usurpationary projects. It will further argue that this understanding of merit also illuminates how such traditional practices as homosocial bonding through, for instance, sporting or drinking activities and all hours work establish men’s merit with other men and generally support the naturalization of white male authority.