‘Lawyers, above all others, should be able to express themselves clearly and pleasantly,’ wrote Glanville Williams in that mainstay of legal education, Learning the Law.

Speech is at the core of what barristers do. The ability to speak eloquently is seen as being the hallmark of the profession and is embedded in the culture of the Bar from student to silk. But does this bring with it an inherent risk that there is perceived to be a ‘correct’ way of speaking which is required for success at the Bar? If so, does this create a barrier to mobility at the Bar for those who do not speak in this way? Regional accents are often markers of socio-economic background; while the Bar has worked enormously hard to ensure it is a modern and diverse profession, is enough being done to stop discrimination on the basis of accent?

The concern that accent might act as a source of discrimination is not a new one. Both Allan Briddock and Hashi Mohamed have previously reflected in Counsel on the extent to which their accents have impacted upon their career and success in court and whether they should adopt a ‘received pronunciation’ (RP) accent in order to progress. Rob Drummond has challenged the view that there is a link between speech style and professional competence. However, no research has been done to assess whether there is an issue and if so why it arises and what can be done to prevent it.

In order to begin to explore this issue a team of academics from Nottingham Trent University and De Montfort University have just completed a year-long project (funded through Nottingham Trent’s Safety and Security of Citizens and Society strand funding) aimed at examining attitudes to English regional accents in barristers within the public and the profession.

Public perceptions of regional accents

For this part of the study we created a recording of a defence closing speech in a criminal trial being delivered by male speakers with different English regional accents and an RP speaker. This was then incorporated into an online survey completed by 99 members of the public, who were asked to listen to the recordings and rate the speakers according to certain criteria including ‘professionalism’, ‘intelligence’, ’clarity’ and ‘confidence.’ Volunteers were also asked to score the extent to which they thought that the speaker was ‘likely to be a lawyer’ and the extent to which the participant would be happy to be represented by them.

The findings revealed significant variation in attitudes to speakers based on their accent. The speaker with an RP accent scored highly on ‘professionalism’, ’intelligence’, and ‘confidence’, with only the sample with a South Eastern accent receiving similar scores. The speaker with a West Midlands accent fared least well, being assessed on average as being unlikely to possess these traits. Where the volunteer completing the survey identified as having a similar accent to the speaker, however, they were more likely to score the speaker more positively.

In the overall assessment of the speakers’ performance as an advocate the scores were very striking. Over 80% of participants indicated that they would be ‘comfortable’ or ‘very comfortable’ being represented by advocates with RP or South Eastern accents, whereas fewer than 20% said the same about a South Western or West Midlands accent. The majority of respondents said they would feel ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘very uncomfortable’ about being represented by such a speaker.

In their assessment of the likelihood of the speaker being a lawyer, again it was the RP speaker who was deemed most likely to be a lawyer. Once again, the South Western and West Midlands accents fared least well with over 50% of participants answering that they considered them ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ to be a lawyer.

Accents in practice: views from the Bar

It is clear, therefore, that there are public perceptions which link proficiency and competence as a lawyer to speech. But to what extent do they reflect the reality of what is happening in practice?

For the second part of the project we conducted semi-structured interviews with nine volunteers consisting of five practitioners of post seven years’ call, two early career practitioners and two BTC students. The practitioners spanned a range of backgrounds and practice areas. A thematic analysis was carried out.

Overall the assessment of the senior practitioners in particular was that historically there had been accent discrimination at the Bar. One recounted being told by a senior judge that if he wished to practise in Chancery, he would have to lose his northern accent. Others had encountered ‘jokey’ comments and in some cases mockery because of their accents. As one participant noted ‘there is leg-pulling, but is it barbed criticism?’ One participant described feeling the need to leave their London practice and return to their home area as they felt that they didn’t fit in because of their accent.

All participants felt there had been progress but felt that there were still very few barristers with regional accents in practice. There were still examples that early career practitioners were able to recount of being told to change soften their accents if they wished to fit in. One practitioner described a pupillage committee where some members had raised the issue of a candidate’s strong regional accent as being an adverse factor. Other, more recent examples, cited by participants included a judge commenting adversely on an advocate’s accent in open court.

Mirroring our survey findings, participants perceived that different accents were regarded in different ways. One participant felt that non-native speakers who spoke English with an accent were not held back because of this in the same way that those with a regional English accent. Certain ‘softer’ accents were perceived as being less of an issue, but Birmingham and Liverpool accents were seen as less desirable. It was also felt that the area of practice might impact upon the extent to which variations in accent were tolerated. One participant commented that corporate clients might prefer more ‘professional’ sounding barristers.

Some participants felt that the lack of accent diversity impacted both upon their own career and those of others. It was felt that barristers with regional accents often lacked role models who sounded like them and that jokey comments created a sense of ‘othering’ which fed into feelings of imposter syndrome. One pupil commented that they had deliberately chosen to avoid applying to certain sets of chambers as they felt they might not fit in because of their accent. Another participant commented that some talented law students might chose not to consider a career at the Bar as they would feel unable to fit in.

And the wider impact

While the number of participants is small, the emerging trends suggest that while there have been some improvements, barristers with regional accents still encounter challenges that those who speak in what is regarded as an ‘acceptable’ accent do not. Until this is addressed the Bar will unnecessarily limit the best talent from succeeding and public confidence in the justice system will suffer. 

Further reading
‘Accent bias’, Allan Briddock, Counsel October 2019.
‘People like us at the Bar’, Hashi Mohamed, Counsel April 2020.
‘Accent diversity at the Bar’, Dr Rob Drummond, Counsel January 2021.
Speaking Up: accents and social mobility, Sutton Trust, November 2022.

Authors: Jeremy Robson, barrister & associate professor in law at De Montfort University, Leicester, and Natalie Braber, professor of linguistics at Nottingham Trent University.
The other members of the research team were Professor Jane Ching and Professor Jane Jarman from Nottingham Trent University.
We are grateful to our advisory board consisting of practitioners from the Midlands Circuit Social Mobility Committee, linguists and a member of the judiciary as well as Lynda Gibbs from the Inns of Court College of Advocacy for their support with this project. Many thanks also to those practitioners who volunteered to be interviewed and to our research assistant Olivia Stevens for her hard work throughout this project.