Capable or not: Research shows that black lawyers in South Africa who have an English twang are perceived as successful by clients. picture: shutterstock
Sep 22 2014 2:22AM
An English “twang” is a key requirement for a black lawyer to be successful in South Africa, according to a recently published research report.
The research by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies into Transformation of the Legal Profession exposes prejudices in the profession varying from discrimination based on gender, race, class and hostility.
One of its findings was that prejudices exist in the workplace against black lawyers who “have an accent”, because of the assumption that they belong to a lower socioeconomic category of non-professionals.
The research was done through consultation with lawyers across the country.
“A participant noted that in a consultation, clients associate certain accents with assumptions about an individual’s ability. That person is at a disadvantage before they have even begun the consultation.
As a result, people are pigeon-holed at the time of greeting clients and before there has been any engagement with the substance of a matter. This can have a silencing effect, resulting in a junior sitting quietly in a consultation, allowing others to speak,” the report reads.
This leads to white colleagues of the same status to establish seniority because they feel able to speak freely.
“People who speak English better than others automatically benefit from the perception created that they are better at their job. This erodes the confidence of those who are not as proficient in English, creating the impression that black juniors are not hungry for the work,” the findings say.
The same also applies for lawyers who speak Afrikaans as a first language and are not fluent in English.
“Many Afrikaans students do not apply to the perceived top law firms because they feel that being an Afrikaans speaker is viewed negatively and that they will not be able to succeed. This adds an additional barrier for Afrikaans-speaking coloured individuals, who have both racial and language barriers to clear,” it says.
There was also a finding on the existing notion of “the one good black female lawyer”, which applies to a female black lawyer who has proven herself in the profession.
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