Inequalities in the Colombian Legal Profession. An Opportunity to Reflect on the Chess Game of Law

The Colombian legal profession, as Maria Ceballos-Bedoya’s research shows, continues to exemplify the inequalities experienced by lower-class and female students. This inequality is not limited to Colombia, and expands beyond gender dynamics. Jurists, however, need to be active in addressing these inequalities.
—"The very same thing, then—said Don Quixote— happens on the stage of this world, on which some play the part of emperors, other of popes—in short, every part that can be introduced in a comedy; but at the conclusion of this drama of life, death strips us of the robes which made the difference between man and man, and leaves us all on one level in the grave.

—A brave comparison! —quoth Sancho—; though not so new but that I have heard it many times, as well as that of the game of chess; which is that, while the game is going, every piece has its office, and when it is ended, they are all huddled together, and put into a bag: just as we are put together into the ground when we are dead.”

-Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (part. II, p. 299)-

During the Ancien Régime, societies used to be quite similar to a game of chess. Some were born to be kings, others to be pawns. Each piece had one unalterable task to undertake in life and one specific way of moving around the social field. Like chessmen, they could only be equal once they were put back in a little wooden box, after the game had ended.

In theory, modern societies work in a radically different manner, more comparable to a game of Chinese checkers, where all pieces have the same worth and motion possibilities within the board. In practice, however, there are numerous unequal communities that still reproduce the chess dynamics of the Ancien Régime, in overt contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Colombian legal profession perfectly illustrates this inequality: lower-class students as well as female students have massively entered the profession in the last decades, but their access has been unequal as they are disproportionally excluded from the best law schools and find numerous barriers to access the most prestigious positions in the legal profession. In fact, these inequalities are not exclusive to the Colombian context, which demonstrates that our profession does not adequately represent the legally, culturally, and socially diverse global order we live in.

Inequalities in Legal Education

In Colombia, it is relatively easy to create new undergraduate programs in law. Proof of this assertion is that six new law schools were created each year in the period 2007 - 2015. In my master’s thesis, I took on the task of categorizing in terms of cost and quality the 178 law programs offered in 2015 in Colombia. I found that there are four basic types of law programs.

The first and second types can be characterized as low-quality law schools. First, there are 128 programs with low tuition costs, low academic quality, and easy admission processes through which the vast majority of applicants are admitted - mostly women. Second, there are 30 private programs with relatively high tuition costs but low academic quality. Applicants are easily admitted here as well - mostly women. These two types of programs host 85 percent of the country’s law students.

In the third and fourth types, we find a few high-quality law schools with highly exclusionary entry filters. The third type, reserved for higher-class students, consists of 15 high-quality private law schools. These schools are economically selective as tuition costs are overly expensive, but are not very academically selective – the majority of applicants are admitted, mostly women. The fourth type comprises five high-quality public law schools. In this case, tuition costs are very low, but only a small percentage of applicants – mostly men – are able to pass the rigorous academic admission processes. With rare exceptions, only medium-low and low-class jurists with strong cultural capital attend these public programs.

In sum, lower-class women are the most disadvantaged players in this game. Unlike higher-class women, they do not have economic capital to access the best private law schools. And unlike lower-class men, they generally do not have the cultural capital to pass the strict entry filters of the best public law schools. It is not that women are genetically less smart; they just suffer numerous educational inequalities associated with their gender throughout their school years, which leads them to be less well-equipped than men for admission processes. This means that the recent feminization of the Colombian legal education has been achieved at the expense of thousands of lower-class women who had no alternative but to receive a low-quality legal education.

Segregation in the Legal Profession

Gender and class inequalities in legal education are transferred to and magnified in the professional world. In a book I recently published with Professor García-Villegas, we show that Colombian jurists are vertically segregated both in terms of gender and social class.

Low and medium-income jobs are generally held by lower-class jurists (i.e., those graduated from low-cost law schools, regardless of their quality). However, the higher the salary, the smaller the proportion of this type of jurists – with few exceptions that are extensively explained in the book. Something similar occurs in terms of gender distribution: women tend to be a majority in the lower ranks of the profession, but they constitute a clear minority in the highest positions. Moreover, women in high-ranking jobs are on average less paid than their male colleagues. This means that women, regardless of their social class, are systematically discriminated and excluded from the highest and most prestigious positions.

According to these findings, the best-paid and most prestigious positions are mostly held by male graduates from the best private law programs – type 3 law schools. The clearest illustration of this class and gender segregation is that of senior partners in large law firms, who are overwhelmingly male, attended the best private law schools, and earn the highest salaries in the legal market. The same is true, for example, for arbitrations centres, ministries, and the Constitutional Court.

Embracing Diversity from Within the Profession

The democratization of legal education and the legal profession in Colombia should be, in principle, a cause for rejoicing. But the joy has not been complete because, as I have tried to show throughout these lines, lower-class students – particularly women – are having greatly restricted access to high-quality education and high-ranking jobs. Much like in chess, the current legal profession reproduces a stratified game in which certain starting positions powerfully predetermine the success of each jurist.

Someone could argue that these phenomena are of course to be expected in a country that infamously stands out internationally for its low rates of social mobility and, in particular, its high levels of physical, political, and economic inequality for women. The truth, however, is that inequalities within the legal profession are surprisingly common, even in developed countries with high overall levels of equality. Throughout the globe and with few exceptions, law schools still reproduce highly elitist and patriarchal structures, the legal profession remains segregated in terms of social class, and women jurists get paid less than their male colleagues and find countless obstacles to access powerful positions. Not to mention the structural exclusion suffered by non-white, LGTBQ+, disabled, and culturally diverse jurists.

This is certainly a paradoxical state of things. Jurists are trained to repeat with chanting humility the basic equality provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: equal work deserves equal pay, all individuals should be protected against discrimination, and equality is the foundation of justice and dignity. One would thus expect our profession to be the standard-bearer of these principles, yet it seems to be the first one to systematically dishonour them. Instead, all jurists should be eager to embrace diversity as an opportunity, not an obstacle, for positive change. Our profession is now more diverse than it was ever before, and many of these diverse jurists bring their own refreshing views on how to practice the law and fight inequality in the profession. All this occurs in the context of plural and globally connected societies that do not reject but reward diverse legal perspectives.

The Colombian case and its similarities with many countries worldwide should invite us to reflect not only on the places we occupy inside the game table of the law, but also on the reforms we can promote to create a checkers-like profession in the midst of an increasingly diverse global order. If jurists are to truly honour the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the stage of this world, then we must ensure that change comes from within.

About the author

Maria Ceballos-BedoyaMaria Adelaida Ceballos-Bedoya is a doctoral (DCL) candidate at McGill University’s Faculty of Law and an O’Brien Fellow at the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. She is a Colombian lawyer with a master’s degree in sociology. Her doctoral project examines the factors that facilitate or hinder the entry of women to the judiciary in the context of state weakness, as found in Colombia. Before coming to McGill, Maria worked as a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia), a Colombian think tank dedicated to human rights research and strategic litigation in favour of vulnerable groups in Latin America. She can be reached at maria.ceballos [at]


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