News from Cass Business School

Elite law firms reject applicants on basis of their accent, new study finds

Qualified candidates passed over if accents aren’t “smart” enough

Wednesday, 22 December, 2010

Some elite London law firms are passing over well-qualified, white working-class job applicants in favour of middle-class graduates from elite universities who they think they are better for their image, new research says.  The firms studied had successfully recruited ethnic minority candidates as part of diversity programmes, but rejected able working-class students because their appearance or accent was not thought smart’ enough.

Dr Louise Ashley of Cass’s Centre for Professional Service Firms, interviewed 130 staff at five prominent London law firms, many of them in senior roles.  Her findings are detailed in the Work, Employment and Society journal published by the British Sociology Association and SAGE.

Dr Ashley said that though the firms were publicly committed to diversity in the workplace almost all of their lawyers came from more privileged backgrounds. More than 90 per cent of lawyers who took part in the research at the five firms had fathers who had been managers or senior officials, and at two of the firms more than 70 per cent of lawyers were privately educated.

The elite firms told her that they didn’t recruit students from less prestigious universities because they believed they were less academically gifted.  However, Dr Ashley found that the firms turned down candidates who looked or sounded working-class in order to preserve the upmarket brand, even when they were well qualified.

A partner at one of the five case study firms told Dr Ashley: There was one guy who came to interviews who was a real Essex barrow boy, and he had a very good CV, 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.

I do know though that if you’re really pursuing a diversity policy you shouldn’t see him as rough round the edges, I should just see him as different.

Commenting on her research, Dr Ashley said: 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.

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