Why look at law?

Why have we chosen to focus our research on the legal sector?
Recent studies have indicated that working-class candidates and minority groups may struggle to gain access to 'elite' professions. The legal profession has been identified as particularly lacking in diversity - could accent bias interfere with lawyers’ objective judgments of entry-level candidates?

The 2015 Social Mobility Commission report

A recent report by the Social Mobility Commission (Ashley et al. 2015) used a qualitative survey to assess the covert judgement of ‘cultural fit’ during interviews in the legal sector, combining a focus on language and other signals of social background. This report provides the impetus for the present study.In the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) study, participants in law firms described interviews as often relying on intuitive assessments of likability, including “Are they someone you want to share a room with?” and “is this somebody I would want as my trainee? are they expressing themselves well?  Could I put them in front of the client? Are they engaging? Am I interested in them? are they speaking confidently? Do they look uncomfortable? Are they doing things outside of their studies that sound interesting, that make them well-rounded and people you’ll want to have around?” 

Ashley et al. (2015) follow previous research in noting that “this focus on cultural fit can be exclusionary as consciously or otherwise, individuals tend to recruit in their own image, or seek the characteristics most associated with professionalism, which in turn map on to social class.” Their participants confirmed that the kinds of experiences that interviewers look for are likely to be available to those from more affluent backgrounds.

Accent as an indicator of class and background

When it comes to language, the report observes that “other characteristics such as personal style, accent and mannerisms, adaptability, team working and other ‘soft skills’ are… interpreted as proxies for ‘talent’.” Many of these are known to map on to social class background.

The SMC report suggests that a notion of ‘polish’ – confidence, poise, gravitas, especially when engaging with clients – often derives from long-term exposure to a certain class milieu. This could be strongly signalled by accent, but that link may be weakening (see comments opposite).

Legal professionals reported:

“If you go back six or seven years … very occasionally you would get people saying “we couldn’t possibly have this person in the office because of their accent”. And it tended to be that it was a cockney accent or an Essex accent and on a couple of occasions I heard “well, they sound a bit like they’re a used car salesman.” … That has changed. I’d be very surprised if you heard that anywhere now in the City.”

“We are fussed asked about things like grammar, but we’re not that fussed about local accent, or even institution to a large degree.”


Diversity versus efficiency

Finally, the SMC report also addresses a tension between a commitment to opening access, and ideas about how to achieve the greatest efficiency and outcomes for a firm. One participant describes this competing pressure as follows: 

“I’m sorry to say it but if you deal with someone who is of similar background to you, one of the most fundamental things that occur in that exchange is efficiency. And, I’m sorry, but it is absolutely true that homogeneity breeds a huge amount of efficiency in organisations… I can sort of write, you know, an obscure comment in the margin and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. You get my jokes. There’s not a risk that I’m going to offend you by saying something, because we get each other and that’s hugely efficient.”

The SMC report concludes with the concern that social inclusion is still dealt with somewhat superficially in the sector. Our initial explorations and SMC report both pointed to an unresolved question that forms the basis of the present study: 

Does accent bias directly distort perceptions of professional expertise in hiring? 

Signs of change

Although the legal sector has been described in the past as lacking in diversity (Ashley et al. 2015), many law firms have increased awareness about this problem. The sector is therefore one that is experiencing significant social change. 

Indications of change were observable in an initial survey we ran. We found that a lawyer’s age correlated with how strongly they agreed with the statement “People who work in the legal profession are often expected to adjust their accents to fit a professional norm”. The younger the respondent, the less they tended to believe this to be true about their sector, suggesting that a standard British accent norm may be weakening.

In preliminary explorations, we found that some legal professionals were still reporting a presence of accent bias in the sector, but also a concern and effort to override such tendencies (see quotes opposite). 

Legal professionals reported:

“Having been told myself (at interview with a law firm) that I would need elocution lessons before I was introduced to a client, this is something that is very close to me.”

I hate to admit it, but I’m sure that almost every week my assessment of people I have only just met is affected by their accent. I will assume that someone with a posh accent is better educated, more intelligent and reliable than someone with a less smart accent. I should emphasise that I don’t think it’s right to do this, it’s just one of a series of snap judgments I make about people I meet.”

Hypotheses: What might legal professionals do?

The SMC report suggested a presence of some forms of accent bias in the legal sector. Might lawyers consciously or unconsciously let biases influence their judgements? For example, would they rate a ‘poor’ answer as better when they hear it in a Received Pronunciation voice than when they hear it in an Estuary English voice? Would they rate a ‘good’ answer as worse when they hear a working class Multicultural London English speaker giving it than when they hear someone with a middle class General Northern English accent give the same answer? Our study is designed to examine this possibility.