Elocution Lessons – a vital part of a move from the North to London?
There has recently been a flurry of articles and comments in the media about the legal profession being traditional, conservative and middle class with a bias against anyone not conforming with the norm. This includes those with strong regional accents applying for work in the London city firms.
For years I have been (rather contentiously I suspect!) advising any northern-based students and graduates that one of the best ways of getting ahead in London is to take elocution lessons and learn to speak without a regional accent. Over the years very well known presenters and actors have confessed to having stifled their accents to get ahead, and I remain convinced that accents, particularly strong northern and midlands accents, can and will hold people back in London.
After all, for most people living and working in central London, the north consists of tourist destinations to spend time at – Manchester, Liverpool and the Lake District, and Wales is somewhere for a stay in a weekend cottage. Clients are always amazed when I attend appointments in London having just travelled down from North Wales (where I live) and taken less time than they have to get from Surrey.
I suspect it is fair to say that there is a South East / Remainder of the Country divide that transcends all aspects of society, including recruitment.
Think about what you hear whenever someone from the West Midlands speaks. In your brain (unless you are from the West Midlands yourself of course) do you immediately think “this person is intelligent, confident, persuasive” or do you think “this person is a bit simple?”
Somebody called me today from London with a rather well spoken accent and after a few minutes asked if I was a Scouser. When I replied to the negative but was in fact from the Midlands, she apologised and said that she thought she could detect a bit of scouse and that I was trying to hide it – like she often did herself. Very telling.
Studies have been done to demonstrate that very negative perceptions are held by listeners when hearing particular regional accents.
Whilst this may well be changing and Southerners become more accepting of Northerners (and vice versa), in the meantime I think it leaves Northern graduates at a disadvantage compared with their Southern counterparts if elocution is not considered.
I once career coached a graduate who had straight AAA at A Level from a state school, a very high 2.1 degree from a good northern university, lots of relevant work experience and a good all round extra-curricular track record. I gave plenty of advice, but I reckon the one piece of advice that would have made the most difference was for her to go and get elocution lessons. Her accent was very strong Merseyside and I am convinced to this day that she will be discriminated against because of this by recruiters in the South for the earliest part of her legal career.
The North/South divide does not just work one way. I can remember attending an interview many years ago for a training contract with a Bradford law firm of good size having used my wife’s West Yorkshire family home address in order to secure this. After I had muttered a few words one of the partners piped up with “you’re not from round these parts are you?” which possibly blew me out of the water (if it wasn’t my general unsuitability to be a lawyer!).