Training for students

This page offers a 20-minute interactive tutorial to raise awareness of accent bias and help students prepare for a professional career.
The tutorial will cover: why accent differences exist, what accent bias is, what accent discrimination is, and provide evidence-based advice on language-related issues when preparing to enter an elite profession. You will also be informed about current attitudes to accent in Britain and whether or not such bias necessarily leads to discrimination when job candidates are evaluated.

Why do accents exist?

All humans have an accent in any language. Everyone’s speech becomes more like that of those they interact with over time. Accents often reflect differences in where people grew up, their family’s social class, their age, their peers, and the school they went to. 

Standard accents, such as Received Pronunciation, are often considered prestigious because a specific region or social group has acquired power. They are not standard because the sounds they use are better. For example, not pronouncing the ‘r’ in a word like ‘park’ is considered standard in the United Kingdom, but in the United States this is often heard as ‘working class’ or ‘regional’.

When our brains and mouths get used to a certain way of pronouncing sounds, it is difficult to change. It is just as hard for a working-class person to adopt a middle-class accent as it is for a middle-class person to adopt a working-class accent. This is therefore an unrealistic expectation in hiring, and particularly unfair when a person has had limited access to the desirable accent.

Watch the short clip above to hear a prominent political advisor in the United States describing her accent as a natural consequence of her social background, but also how bias against it threatened her life outcomes.

What are accent bias and accent discrimination?

The video in this step introduces the problem of accent bias. Watch it first!

All humans have biases – simplified ways of thinking when we need to process our thoughts quickly. Accent is no exception: we all have automatic associations with accents, and we might use those to make snap judgments about a person’s social background. These automatic stereotypes and preferences, whether positive or negative, are referred to as accent bias. 

Such biases are natural, but when we rely on these simple stereotypes to judge unrelated traits, like intelligence or competence or trustworthiness, our cultural baggage becomes discriminatory.

The accent we grew up with is unrelated to the knowledge and expertise that we acquire. If we judge people by their accent, we risk discriminating against well-qualified people because of their social background.

This is when accent biases become accent discrimination.

Where can bias arise?

Language-related discrimination can happen at many junctures along a career path. 

A person can be discriminated against before they even have a chance to speak. A study found that CVs with ethnic minority names received significantly fewer replies from potential employers than identical CVs with typically white names.

Professionals may also discriminate against certain accents in interview. 76% of employers admitted to discriminating against candidates by accent in one survey. This particular juncture is the focus of this training.

Even if recruiters make an effort to disregard accents during an interview, other things (how they respond to an answer, their eye gaze, smiling, casual remarks, cultural references) can subtly, often unconsciously, convey bias and undermine the confidence and performance of a candidate.

Finally, an applicant may clear all of these hurdles and get that job, only to find that interactions in the workplace are a source of difficulty, impeding their ability to rise in seniority in the firm. Lawyers have themselves reported such issues informally

Am I biased?

This Quiz helps you get a feel for the challenge of ignoring your automatic accent associations while listening to a job candidate. Try it out!

You may one day be in the position of recruiting someone to a professional role. We’ve developed a quiz to test your own natural accent-based stereotypes and see whether it is easy or difficult to set them aside when there are serious consequences for the person speaking. 

The quiz will open in a new window. Once you have completed the quiz return to this page to complete the training. 

How bad is the problem?

How much accent bias is there among the British public today? And do professional recruiters allow it to interfere with their assessment of a person’s knowledge and skills? 

The video in this step tells you what our research found. Watch and find out!

The bad news: Attitudes found 50 years ago remain today. We found that exactly the same accents continue to attract high prestige and the same urban working class and ethnic accents attract low prestige. This shows us that stereotypes about accents persist in British society today. But it doesn’t tell us whether there is actual accent discrimination: Someone may dislike an accent but never let that affect their judgement of a person’s competence at work. 

Better news: When we looked at whether accent stereotypes affect people’s sense of whether a person is professionally competent, by playing a real voice interviewing for a job in an elite profession, we found that the differences in accent ratings were much smaller. Working class London accents were still judged as sounding less professional overall however, with more bias found among those over the age of 40, based in Southern England, and of higher social classes.

The good news: We asked professional lawyers and recruiters to judge how good candidates’ answers were. Each accent delivered subtly better and worse answers, so the task was not easy! Legal recruiters didn’t let accents interfere with their judgements at all. They listened to what the person said, not how they said it. Recent diversity awareness and training at major law firms may have supported this outcome.

Our project shows that accent bias is widespread, but people in positions of power have the capacity to resist its effects. 

Should I worry about my accent?

A 2015 report by the Social Mobility Commission found that elite firms look for a combination of factors “such as drive, resilience, strong communication skills and above all confidence and ‘polish’, which participants in the research acknowledged can be mapped on to middle-class status and socialisation.”

The report notes that ‘polish’ “appears to apply less to speech and accent than perhaps it once did” and the overall focus is on the capacity to present a “polished” appearance, display strong communication and debating skills, and act in a confident manner at interview. 

Our project supports this through the following findings: 

  • Although we did observe some bias against certain accents, we also found that people rated answers in any accents higher when they contained expert content.
  • Professional recruiters in elite firms disregarded accent when judging subtle differences in the quality of responses given by job candidates.

This suggests that accent is not the primary locus of discrimination, particularly in elite firms where diversity training and awareness is often in place. 

We therefore make the following evidence-based recommendations:



  • It is difficult and unnatural for anyone to significantly change their accent, and our project does not indicate that this is needed. Even strong regional, class, and ethnic accents in our study did not significantly skew the hiring decisions made by elite recruiters. Students should not feel they need to cover up their accent or significantly modify it. 

  • This does not mean that applicants should not work at all on how they speak. It is crucial to develop a professional demeanour and speaking style. Try to practice speaking confidently and thoughtfully to a group, structuring your points in a logical way, and reducing disfluencies and imprecise wording. Some students will not have had as much opportunity to develop these skills and may wish to seek extra training in these areas.

  • We did find a significant effect of expertise in how answers were rated, so when preparing to interview, work hard on honing your expert knowledge. In short, make sure you know what you’re talking about! 

 

Insecurity about class, ethnicity, or accent can reduce a person’s overall confidence, especially in a stressful interview setting, and can discourage them from networking. But elite professions are increasingly keen to increase diversity, so try not to let such concerns reduce your confidence in interaction, and focus on the recommendations above. 

In our Training for Recruiters, we provide HR teams with ways of alerting recruiters to the risks of accent discrimination and encouraging them to disregard their biases when judging competence.

Sample interview answers with real evaluations

As part of our research, we generated sample responses to questions commonly asked in job interviews for trainee law positions. We worked with an experienced lawyer and graduate training specialist to write these, and the written versions were then assessed for quality by a panel of 25 experienced lawyers and legal recruiters. 

We provide these mock answers along with the panel’s comments below, as an aid to law students who may be preparing for job interviews. 

Please note: All the mock answers below were designed to be of average quality. The ’good’ responses received an average rating of 6.5/10. The ’not as good’ responses received an average rating of 4.5/10. The answers are also very brief, due to the experimental design. So these are not intended as ideal responses in any way, but rather give you an indication of what recruiters are listening for.

Q1: What effect will Brexit have on UK law firms?

Good:
Depending on how the Brexit deal is agreed, it could have a very big effect on UK financial services, especially in relation to passporting rights. There might also be an effect if financial firms choose to move out of the UK so that they can stay within the EU once withdrawal has finished. English law may continue to be the governing law for most of their deals, but clients might want to transfer their staff, and this will have an effect on where law firms decide to place their staff too.

What the professional said:
“Some good knowledge about specific Brexit-related issues here, especially in the world of financial services, as well as an acknowledgement that at the moment, a lot still depends on how the final Brexit deal will look.”
However, the answer would have been better if the candidate “focussed on another area of Law where a pan-European dimension may be relevant, such as Intellectual Property rights or employment rights”.



Not as good:

Brexit may not have a major effect on British law firms, though of course it’s too soon to tell what the effects will be. Some Europeans will move back to their home countries, so that affects how many EU citizens will be in the UK. This might mean fewer EU workers in Britain. We may not know the outcome of Brexit for a while, as there are first the current negotiations with the EU, and then more detailed agreements to be drawn up of how the exit from the EU will be implemented.

What the professional said:
The answer is “Poorly structured”
The answer addresses “some obvious implications of Brexit.
However, there was no attempt to address how Brexit might affect law firms as opposed to any other business”.
The answer would have been better if it was less generic and more specific, addressing the particular issues that are likely to impact legal work.

Q2: Think about the recession. What effects do you think that had on us as a firm?

Good:
There would have been less business for the firm, so that would have had various effects. Employees are expensive, so you would have had to think about reorganising both lawyers and support staff. You would also have had to think about fixed costs like the lease on the firm’s main office. There would also have been more competition for legal work from other firms, so you’d have had to think about how many lawyers were assigned to deals and how the deals were priced.

What the professionals said:
“The answer showed an understanding of the challenges that many firms faced from 2008.”
However, it could have been improved by an acknowledgment that some areas of legal work may have seen an increase in work during that period.

 



Not as good:

The recession took place while I was in school, and I recall that some of my classmates’ parents lost their jobs at the time. There were fewer jobs available for people and the firm would have taken on fewer trainees. Firms were still quite busy at the time though and you may have not been too affected. The market has recovered so those minor effects are no longer an issue for the firm. It’s clear that the firm has been very successful in recent years.

What the professionals said:
Focusses too much on the individuals’ personal circumstances
“Shows a real lack of insight into or interest in the commercial side of a law firm.”
Could have been improved by addressing the specific areas of law that were affected by the recession.

 

Q3: What role would laws and lawyers play in a corporate acquisition by one company of another?

Good:

For both sides, lawyers are needed to advise on laws and terms, prepare the documentation, and make sure the deal goes smoothly with the best result for their client. If you are representing the acquiring company, for example, you’ll want to make sure all of the information provided about the company you’re acquiring is accurate and up to date. You will also want to be aware of any effects on the client’s reputation and guide them in the case of a dispute.

What the professionals said:
This is a good answer but the “candidate would benefit from using more specific language. Documentation could be split into Due Diligence reports, Share Purchase Agreement, etc. The last part of the answer is so generic”

 



Not as good:

It would depend on which side you were representing. If you’re representing the acquiring company, you would want to acquire the company for as low a price as possible. A law firm can develop a reputation for negotiating ability. The acquisition process is about price. You would negotiate with the other side to secure the lowest price. If you were representing the company being acquired, you would want to maximise the price that you can get for the company.

What the professionals said:
“the candidate should realise that lawyers are not there to negotiate a price but to act in their own area of expertise – to carry out due diligence, consider transferring employees, draft contracts etc.”
Would have been better if they “discussed how the legal framework can assist importantly in establishing the value for a corporate transaction through due diligence, warranties, specialist input on e.g. employment, pensions, Intellectual Property, drafting contractual basis for a deal.”

Q4: Give an example of a recent commercial deal that captured your attention and explain why.

Good:

I found Tardis FC’s sixty million pound acquisition of John Smith very interesting. Of course you know about this as your firm represented Tardis. I followed Tardis FC as a football fan, but until I started researching the subject I had no idea how complex these deals are. I understand that it involved issues of all kinds: corporate, tax, regulatory, intellectual property, image and media rights, and employment. Football transfers could be a growth area for the firm, given the expertise here and the fact that such deals have become more complex and expensive.

What the professionals said:
The candidate clearly “done some research and has some thoughts on growth in this  area”
“A strong answer that shows a candidate who has prepared well, researched the firm, read into the deal, understands that football transactions are just as much “commercial transactions” as corporate mergers and acquisitions”
Would have been better if the candidate was more specific particularly in relation to why it is this case that captured their attention



Not as good:

I paid a lot of attention to Tardis FC’s acquisition of John Smith. It captured my attention because I have been a Tardis FC fan for a long time. I follow their seasons closely and am very familiar with the history of the club. I’m aware that you represented Tardis in the transaction. I wasn’t surprised that they decided on this acquisition given how well they’ve done recently. I would enjoy working on football transfers as specialising in legal work that deals with the world of sport would interest me greatly.

What the professionals said:

“The focus seemed to be much more on the football part rather than the actual deal and acquisition. I would imagine a firm would be looking for more knowledge of the deal itself and the reasons for it.”
“a stronger response would have included some details of the terms of the transaction.”

Q5: How would you demonstrate to a client that you were commercially aware of their business and their needs?​

Good:

It’s important to research the client’s business and how it operates. This includes issues like supply and demand, pricing, competition, regulatory issues and company structure. For example, for oil and gas work, the lawyer should understand differences between upstream and downstream. I would first show commercial awareness by doing some research and writing a memo to the client, to avoid naïve or incorrect statements. This would also help me to work out the best structure for the deal documentation.​ 

What the professionals said:
This is a “good response, although could also have focused on communicating with the client (i.e. asking them what their needs might be)”

 



Not as good:

Commercial awareness is very important. Clients will appreciate a lawyer having excellent awareness of how their business works. You need to show the client that you have awareness of their business, and this is the case no matter what kind of business it is. It’s good to show detailed knowledge of how the client’s business operates, so that they feel confident asking for legal advice about their business and their business needs during the transaction. 
   

What the professionals said:

“The candidate repeatedly says how important commercial awareness is which only serves to underline their lack of a single specific suggestion as to how they would demonstrate it”
The answer shows “little to no understanding of what commercial awareness really means or why it’s important.

Q6: Explain the difference between contract and tort.

Good:

Contract and tort are both private law. The main difference is that people voluntarily enter into contracts, but that’s not relevant in tort. Torts are civil wrongs. One of the most common torts is negligence. If you are texting whilst driving and you hit a person, you may well have been negligent. There was no previous agreement between you and that person, but that’s not needed for him to sue you in tort. In contrast, a person can’t sue another person in contract law unless there’s a contract between them.   

 

What the professionals said:
“A good answer would explain that contract law related to certain types of promises or agreements that the law will enforce.  A great answer might discuss the basic elements of a contract and contrast it using a case like Simpkins v Pays as an example.  A good answer would then explain that tort law is when the law imposes certain responsibilities on people regardless of whether they have agreed it.  A great answer would take a compare and contrast approach.”



Not as good:

Contract law involves laws that deal with contracts between people, and tort law is where someone does something wrong. In our training, we covered contract law first, and tort law in second year and compared and contrasted cases. There are similarities in many aspects of the cases, but there are distinct sets of rules for different situations. You can do something wrong in contract law as well, but that involves breach of contract law rather than tort law.  


What the professionals said:

“The candidate mentions the absolute basics about the difference between contract and tort (one involves a contract) but no specifics”
The candidate displays “some knowledge but does not get close to the heart of the difference between the two”

Q7: A client wants to sue a supplier for £1,000. But the court fees will amount to £2,000. What do you do?

Good:

I would say that we should investigate the client’s concerns further. It’s important for law firms to be able to add value, to build a relationship and show that we understand their business. It seems that litigation may not be the best idea here, so we should try to understand what’s important and relevant to the client, rather than just the costs of the court fees. We should find out what the client’s problem is, why they want to sue, and whether they can accomplish their goals in another way.     

What the professionals said:

“Intelligent, practical and nuanced. Impressive answer.”
“Great answer. The candidate understands the importance of getting to the bottom of the situation in a way which allows the lawyer to provide a valuable service to the client”

 



Not as good:

Well, they are the client. If they wish to spend the money to sue their supplier for one thousand pounds then that’s what we should enable them to do. I’ve dealt with difficult customers in previous jobs and it was important not to argue with them, even if they were being unreasonable. The customer is always right. It is unfortunate to have the court fees exceed the amount being sued for by such a large margin. But we would try to accommodate the client’s preferences and move forward. 


What the professionals said:

“The candidate should have explained the risk benefit analysis behind any litigation, considered costs implications and explained that the client would have had to be informed of the potential costs greatly exceeding the gains” 
“I would suggest that the solicitor has a role in advising their client of the most appropriate and sensible course of action”
“They have not understood that while the primary duty of a solicitor is to act in and to protect your client’s best interests, that is not necessarily the same as blindly doing what they tell you to do. There was nothing about gaining an understanding of the client’s wider motives in wanting to pursue an (on the face of it) uneconomic case, or a suggestion of advising the client about the cost/benefit analysis of the case, or of discussing ADR options”

Good:

I disagreed with the Supreme Court decision in favour of a minimum salary for a UK person to bring a non-European spouse into the country. I understand that the government has to avoid people coming into the country to claim benefits. But poor people have just as much right to fall in love with foreigners as wealthy people do. There are also other elements of unfairness. The UK citizen may be a non-working spouse and the non-European spouse may be wealthy. So I think that decision was short-sighted.  

  

What the professionals said:

“the candidate was able to refer to a decision, showing some knowledge. However, the commentary is based more around personal opinion rather than any real legal analysis.



Not as good:

The Supreme Court recently decided that you have to make a certain amount of money in order to marry a foreigner and live in the UK with them. You love who you love and you don’t choose based on their income. It is not right for laws to intrude on people’s personal relationships. I think that is very unfair. People should not be forced to make relationship choices for legal reasons. If they were to separate it would be the government’s fault. It is a very unfortunate decision.  


What the professionals said:

The candidate “fundamentally misunderstands the role of the courts – the Supreme Court does not decide these policies, the government does”
Would have been better if the candidate considered both sides of the argument, by acknowledging counter arguments.

Q9: How has the Human Rights Act 1998 affected law in this country?

Good:

The Human Rights Act brought some items from the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, like the right to a private and family life. It also clarified that public bodies like the police have to respect and protect human rights. In its manifesto, the present government said that it was going to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, but that’s been put on the back burner. It’ll be interesting to see how the courts interpret the Human Rights Act once we leave the EU. 

  

What the professionals said:

“A reasonably good answer in the context of an interview. Showed some understanding of the Convention and the distinction between the convention and domestic law, as well as the political landscape around the proposal for a “British bill of rights””

 



Not as good:

The Human Rights Act is an important piece of legislation. The requirement for a private and family life means that some kinds of criminals can’t be deported for a long time and that prisoners have the right to vote, and some of these requirements are problematic. My view is that criminals and prisoners should not have these rights. It has done some good but I do disagree with some aspects of it. But it has been useful to have human rights set out in one place this way.


What the professionals said:

The candidate only displays a superficial understanding of the Human Rights Act
The candidate is “non-analytical about [their] own views” 
The answer would have been improved if the candidate discussed the “point that HRA-type legislation acts to limit or temper what the legislator does in certain field” This would allow the candidate to “give examples that demonstrate this (such as the government feeling compelled to give votes to prisoners in circumstances where it would not choose to do so, but for the HRA)”

Good:

Many things that could be categorised as problems could be opportunities for law. Some examples are globalisation, technology, individualised services, new ways of billing, and competition. One of the most significant opportunities is the use of artificial intelligence. I don’t think many law firms are eager to embrace AI and to change. We might see competitors like large corporate clients or accounting firms embracing the technology first, and then law firms following. But we should be at the forefront of adopting the technology.

  

What the professionals said:

“This answer would have been improved if the candidate was more specific about the threats of AI”



Not as good:

A lot of people are talking about the use of artificial intelligence, or AI. Technology is going to be so important in general. I read that British law firms were still using faxes a lot until ten years ago, which shows how antiquated they can be. I think robot lawyers are the way of the future. We need to keep up with the latest technology and work with it, not bury our heads in the sand and expect that all of these changes are going to go away.


What the professionals said:

The candidate “didn’t really give specific examples of how AI might be a challenge and/or an opportunity in the profession.”
“This answer shows good awareness of a crucial challenge for the legal profession (AI).  The quality of the response is let down by the throw away comment about robot lawyers.”