Hashi Mohamed: People like us – at the Bar

The planning law barrister, best-selling author, broadcaster and former child refugee on the vexed questions: What does it take to make it to the Bar? What does changing the way you speak say about your character? Is meritocracy a myth that hurts the most disadvantaged? 

By Hashi Mohamed


In the early summer of 2010 I had just finished Bar School and interviewing for pupillage. While I prepared for interview, I was also doing a mini pupillage at a London set of chambers. On day two, I was reminded that for my imminent call at Lincoln’s Inn I needed a tunic shirt, collars and a gown. None of which I had, none of which I could afford. In the end, a member of chambers kindly lent me a freshly pressed shirt, collars and gown for my call on 31 July 2010 – a gesture I cherish to this day.

I have come a long way since then. I have a practice in planning law at No5 Chambers about which I can say I am both happy and proud. I work alongside and against some of the best and most talented people at the Bar. This new decade began with the publication of my book, People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain. It’s part-memoir, a reflective account of my journey so far: burying my father at nine, growing up in squalid conditions in inner city London after arriving as an unaccompanied child refugee – and ending up at the Bar. Most of the things I talk about will come as a complete surprise to most of my colleagues.

The book covers a great deal of ground, but I’d like to introduce you to two related topics. One is my apparently controversial views on accents, and the other about whether changing the way you speak says something about your character.

What does it sound like?

Fluency, articulacy, a wide vocabulary, the ability to communicate – these are all important skills. They don’t belong to any particular group of people or way of speaking, though there is an association between language development and socio-economic status. And yet, language is not neutral, it is part of a dense network of interpretation: what you sound like is determined not only by the sounds that leave your mouth, but by the mindset and preconceptions of the listener. Your accent, your choice of words or dialect, the level of formality can all put you on the wrong side of a preconception of what a clever person, a professional person, or an important person sounds like.

So, should you change the way you speak – including your accent – in order to get on?

This vexed question elicits divided opinions, but reflect on this prior to making up your mind: Language skills are not shared out equally. A ‘language gap’ develops early on which means that children from privileged backgrounds are 18 months ahead of their poorer peers even before school. In adult life and employment, the socially mobile encounter barriers that have as much to do with language as with qualifications: whether university interviews, job interviews, networking opportunities, or the many small tests or challenges that emerge from a collective cultural mindset that relies on articulacy as a measure of intelligence and value. And, of course, accents too.

In his play Pygmalion, later filmed as My Fair Lady, George Bernard Shaw wrote that ‘it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.’ It remains true that, in modern Britain, accents remain ‘the last form of acceptable prejudice’. We have come a long way on this, but we’re still far from real ‘accent diversity’. This is reflected in the regular surveys that attempt to rank people’s accents. Often presenting themselves as a bit of fun – people from Devon are trustworthy, Glaswegian accents are sexy. The Scouse accent highly discriminated against – in practice they reflect knee-jerk prejudices that, as one researcher put it, ‘trigger social categorisation in quick, automatic and sometimes unconscious ways’.

It goes without saying that prejudice against accents is more about class (and racial) prejudices than individual accents. It’s no coincidence that received pronunciation (RP) – spoken by only 3% of the population – is perceived as ‘powerful’ and ‘trustworthy’. But for people whose accents aren’t generally ‘acceptable’, these associations can have profoundly negative consequences. A ComRes study found that ‘28% of British employees thought they had been discriminated against because of their accent’ – and they were right: a staggering 80% of employers admitted accent discrimination.

Again, confronted with this reality – do you ignore these facts outright?

The way you speak is intensely personal: it reflects the unique combination of circumstances that shaped you, and is a profound point of connection with the place and people you grew up around. It’s unsurprising that people often feel that any pressure to change their accent is an attempt to erase their identity. Even small changes can feel like a loss of self, and contributes to accent monoculture which deprives many youngsters of recognisable role models who speak like them. Yet, as a first-generation immigrant who learned English as a third language, part of my response to the way the British agonise over their accents is best described as puzzlement. I work in a profession that can only be described as being at the heart of the establishment, where until very recently, you rarely heard an accent that would be categorised as anything other than pure RP. And though there are barristers who are rightly proud of their accents, whether they be Northern, Scottish, Irish, Australian or South African; oddly enough I have never met a fellow member of the Bar who spoke fluent Wembley at work.

My own accent has undoubtedly changed, and continues to change, depending on where I am and who I am speaking to – and in what language. To me it doesn’t reflect compromises made or identity distorted: it’s hard to imagine how my ‘original’ accent in English could be some profound expression of my inner self, given that it was formed by the quirk of fate that landed us in Wembley and not, say, Minnesota or Malmö. Instead, it shows the changes my life has undergone. With each stage, another chapter was written. I started to move in new circles, join new communities, and the world which was slowly becoming mine understandably changed me. It is my firm view that far from any loss of ‘true self’, there has been an opening of possibilities.

I do not accept that ‘speaking well’ automatically and intrinsically equates to a particular accent or dialect. But the fact remains, we deal with the world as it is, rather than as it should be. This means dealing with deep societal conditioning. As a result, I am an accent pragmatist: it is a logical and rational thing to adapt, change, and adjust in order to meet your goals. Everyone does this. This means that there is a tension between wanting immediate systematic change, and accepting the short-term present reality. As for the howls of ‘how is the system ever going to change?’ – I hear you, but that will take time; a luxury available to those who enjoy the privilege of pontificating about systematic renewal, but not to those who would be sacrificing their own potential in the here and now.

Most of us are all constantly travelling around the country, meeting all sorts of people; in village halls, courtrooms, dingy meeting rooms and formal dinners. We all work out the best way to win over a potential witness, to present a client’s case, to inspire confidence in people and show them what we are capable of, to prove why we were hired in the first place. To win. My advice to any youngster is simply consider what will help you most, reflect on what you see in your future, identify where your personal red lines are – and ignore the rest.

To thine own self be true?

The above analysis is connected to the advice we give to young people starting out. The advice is often ‘don’t compromise and just be yourself’. Those who come from what are sometimes described as ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds need to know the reality of what faces them. The myth of meritocracy hurts the most disadvantaged. The ideal that success is down only to hard work and perseverance is one which is defended by those for whom the status quo works. It is pleasant to tell oneself that one’s success is deserved – and to ignore the assistance of a stable upbringing, a well-off background, parents’ connections, being the beneficiary of recruitment in one’s own image, or a great school. But if you face disadvantages – in class terms, economically, ethnically, geographically – from the start and encounter failures, you end up in conflict with yourself. If the system is ‘fair’, who is there to blame but yourself? And have no doubt, those few who come to our profession from the margins of society are much less likely to encounter a straight and smooth path to success.

My own advice is simple: put yourself first, be flexible, and be prepared to make all the necessary compromises. Try and see the world for what it truly is. I’ve been criticised for this. By encouraging my mentees to adapt to the system as it is, the argument goes, I am cementing institutional bias (while helping a few individuals, my approach leaves the overall structure intact). Isolated, these are valid points, and my way is not the only way. But I think that if you are going to help young people, you need to give them the option of adapting to the world they’re actually in. Change will come when people with diverse understandings and experiences of the world are truly represented at high levels in society. It isn’t going to happen if they’re disproportionately falling at the first hurdle for reasons which have little to do with their talent and potential.

Just be yourself’ fosters a dangerous idea: that you can go up against the system and win, that you can somehow do it entirely on your terms, and push your way through without sustaining significant damage. It also does already marginalised young people the disservice of telling them that who they seem to be now is all that they have the capacity to be – deeply depressing in a world which makes it very clear that they do not ‘fit’, and frankly the opposite of the advice given to more privileged teenagers.

The people who give this advice are well meaning and caring individuals, who want to help but who may lack real insight into the lives of those who aren’t like them. These are usually people who’ve never had to face the kind of anxieties faced when applying for a job with a foreign name, interviewing as a black and/or Muslim woman, or entering a workplace dominated by men educated at public school with RP accents – with all the cultural and social capital which comes with this. ‘Just being yourself’ is a privilege enjoyed by those who already fit in. If I had taken this advice, I doubt I would be where I am today, and I would have missed out on experiencing the many possible (and at the time unimaginable) facets of ‘myself’ that were firmly hidden behind my identity at 16 or at 20.

If you’re a mentee receiving this advice, especially if, like me, you’re a minority, or from a disadvantaged white, working-class background, or someone who simply could not afford to eat slogans like ‘screw the system’, then pause and ask yourself whether, from where you’re sitting, ‘just be yourself’ is advice that you can work with. Has it worked for you before? You don’t have to take all social change on your own shoulders; you don’t have to be a sacrificial lamb at the altar of ‘authenticity’. The over simplistic line between ‘being true to yourself’ and compromise allows too much talent to fall between the cracks. Equally, change can be about finding unexpected space within yourself.

If we are to make genuine progress, we need to be able to identify these problems honestly and directly. Otherwise we let too many youngsters down. Those in positions of power in our profession need to reflect a little more: my analysis does not mean that all the change must be carried by the individual adapting to a biased world. We need to work towards solutions that ask real change of all of us at the Bar. Until then no amount of short-term campaigns and lip service to ‘diversity’ will move the dial sufficiently.

Above all, our inherited mantra at the Bar is nominally ‘no matter where you’ve come from’, meeting the requisite standard is all that’s required to separate the wheat from chaff. Having read up to this point, do you still believe this?

Hashi’s story of social mobility and inequality – and a searching analysis of what needs to change – is published by Profile Books (January 2020) and is an Amazon UK bestseller.
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Hashi Mohamed

Hashi Mohamed is a barrister at No5 Chambers. People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it In Modern Britain is published by Profile Books (January 2020).