Regional voices still encounter bias
A research project examining attitudes to barristers’ accents has found that most people would prefer to be represented by one who sounds posh.
Researchers from Nottingham Trent and De Montfort universities asked volunteers to score a closing speech delivered by male speakers with ‘received pronunciation’ (RP) and other English regional accents. Scoring categories included professionalism, intelligence, clarity, confidence, the likelihood of the speaker being a lawyer and how happy the participant would be to be represented by them.
Speakers with an RP accent scored highly on professionalism, intelligence, and confidence, while speakers from the West Midlands were deemed least likely to have these qualities.
Most participants felt “uncomfortable” about being represented by speakers with South Western or West Midlands accents, with only 20% of people content with being represented by them. Similarly, over 50% of participants considered speakers with these accents “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to be a lawyer.
Natalie Braber, professor of linguistics at Nottingham Trent and one of the studies authors, shared her thoughts on the findings with Legal Cheek. “Research has always shown that the RP accent seems to do really well in these areas,” she said. “People perceive it as intelligent, and professional sounding, but they don’t score it as well on trustworthiness and likeability — regional accents tend to do better there.”
“People still have this preconceived idea that barristers are, essentially really posh, white, middle-aged or older men,” she continued.
The research also interviewed barristers at a range of career stages about their experience of accent bias, the details of which were reported in Counsel Magazine. The general conclusion was that while there had been some progress, there were still very few barristers with regional accents in practice. One pupil described having “deliberately chosen to avoid applying to certain sets of chambers as they felt they might not fit in because of their accent”.
“We found that many barristers have specifically been told they wouldn’t make it very far with an accent like theirs or had changed their accents to fit in,” Braber said.
Asked what advice she would give to students with regional accents thinking about a future at the bar, Braber says current progress will be key for future improvement. “We’re hoping that as the bar becomes more inclusive and diverse, it will also start to sound more diverse,” she said.
“A few people we spoke to said ‘I’m not changing my accent because people need role models like me to see that you can make it in the bar even if you don’t sound posh’”, she explains. “Some of them were a bit nervous about pupillage interviews and how it might affect them, but they weren’t willing to change, feeling instead that the bar would have to change,” she adds.