Working-class accents bad news for legal wannabes

updated on 11 January 2011

Research published at the end of last year suggests that a working-class accent could damage your chances of finding a training contract. The study - conducted by City University's Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School and published in the Law Gazette - surveyed 130 members of staff at five prominent London firms and revealed among them a tendency to favour candidates with 'smart' accents and public school backgrounds. It found that good working-class candidates are being rejected in favour of middle-class graduates of all ethnic minorities because they are not considered 'smart' enough; this happened despite the fact that all five firms had diversity policies in place and recruited individuals from ethnic minorities.       

Dr Louise Ashley, who led the study, said that the rationale behind the firms' hiring choices seemed to be a desire to preserve their 'upmarket brand'. She said: "Focusing on ethnicity enables law firms to boast excellence, or at the very least improve diversity outcomes, despite the fact that they have continued to recruit using precisely the same types of class privilege that have always been in operation."

She went on to point out that although the firms are keen to show their commitment to diversity in public, most of their lawyers had privileged backgrounds. More than 90% of the lawyers surveyed had fathers who had been managers or senior officials, while at two of the firms more than 70% of lawyers were privately educated.

She added: "By not taking well-qualified people with working-class accents and by overlooking candidates with good degrees from new universities, law firms are arguably missing out on the skills and experience different people can bring. They are contributing to the situation outlined in the Milburn Report to government last year which said that the professions have exemplified the old notion that a limited pool of talent was enough to get by on. This is recognised as a problem by some progressive firms, particularly those outside the legal sector, with some acknowledging that their most successful leaders include individuals who would not have gained access to the profession today on the basis of their academic qualifications."