Magic circle firms reject candidates with 'working class accents'

New research has suggested that the top law firms are passing over job candidates who don't sound posh enough.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 25 Jan 2011
Thought we’d done away with the class divide? You may want to think again – if you want a career in law, at least. Because according to new research from the Cass Business School, the top five law firms still regularly pass over people they don’t think are posh enough - for fear of putting across the wrong image. Dr Louise Ashley, who conducted the research, says more than 90% of the lawyers working for the top five firms had fathers who were managers or senior officials, and at two of the firms, more than 70% had been privately educated. To be honest, we’re not completely surprised. But in an age when the benefits of diversity are becoming increasingly clear, the firms in question may be shooting themselves in the foot…

There is some slightly worrying stuff in this report. For instance, a senior partner at one of the law firms told Dr Ashley that he feared the company would come across badly if it recruited from outside its traditional pool of applicants. ‘There was one guy who came to interviews who was a real Essex barrow boy,’ he elucidated. ‘He was a clever chap, but we just felt that there’s no way we could employ him. I just thought, putting him in front of a client – you just couldn’t do it’. Hmm.

The trouble is, the report suggests, that while firms are often vocal about their ‘diversity policy’, what that often appears to amount to is ‘recruiting people from ethnic minorities who are also posh’. It’s a step forward, perhaps – but some firms are using this to mask the fact that in terms of background, the majority of their new recruits are actually very similar: middle-class, fairly privileged background, and an accent that makes Joanna Lumley sound like Del Boy.

We suppose the partners could argue that their clients want to deal with people like themselves. Equally it’s also true that law firms – like all employers – have always had a wish-list of skills and qualifications for prospective candidates (one firm even admitted that it had closed recruitment to everyone except Oxbridge graduates: ‘That’s helped with quality. We’re just a much smarter firm now’, they said). And at a time when more and more students are coming into the workplace with top grades, firms are having to take other factors into account in order to separate one super-bright candidate from another – and their level of professional polish, or whatever you want to call it, is bound to be a key criterion.

On the other hand, we’d imagine that the majority of clients will just want the best possible lawyer working on their case – regardless of whether they’re prone to the odd glottal stop. So if this report is to be believed, law firms are going to have to work much harder to prove they’re not just paying lip service to diversity in the future.  

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime