Law with a foreign accent
I am often asked about my accent… It used to make me feel uncomfortable and to be honest, I was quite sensitive about it. In a world where the spoken word is one’s biggest tool, operating in a second language can be tricky (and mistakes can knock one’s confidence). I came to the UK when I was 19 and with zero understanding of English. I worked hard and a year later I was accepted to read law at the University of Wales, Bangor. I loved studying law and within a few months I knew that the law and me were a perfect match, I just knew I could be good at it.
I can draw on a good example of what law with a foreign accent means to me.
While at Bangor university, I had the idea of setting up the university’s very first Law Society. I was so excited. I spoke to my friend about it and we both looked into the procedure, got the green light from the Head of School and started to take steps towards creating the university’s first Law Society. To my horror, I realised that there were many public speeches required for this idea to properly take off. Although I knew exactly what needed to be said and felt very passionate about this project, I was unusually scared to open my mouth and doubts started to invade my mind. I mean, could an international student really set up a university’s law society? I had doubts about whether it could ever work. Chatting to my friends and lecturers was one thing, but standing in front of twenty presidents of other societies at board meetings was quite another. I didn’t feel ready because I thought nobody would actually listen to what I had to say with an accent like mine!
I surprised myself by how differently I looked at things in the UK. I never had any problems with public speaking in my native Poland but in the UK, things were different. Challenges looked greater and others looked at me differently. On that occasion the self-doubt in me won and to cut a long story short, my friend and I agreed that my friend would take up the presidency. She undertook all the public speaking roles and in turn received the plaudits and praise while I quietly worked in the background as the visionary and Secretary Treasurer. My friend did a splendid job and she never really learnt why it was that I was so eager for her to take up the reins; I was just too embarrassed to tell her.
This example of law with a foreign accent was the first of many examples in my life where I allowed my ‘accent issue’ to hinder my development and my desire to become a successful lawyer. Somewhere along the line, I convinced myself that my English was simply not good enough and that a professional career in law was not for people with an accent like mine. The strange thing was that my grades said otherwise. I never failed a single exam and I never had to re-sit anything. I obtained a strong 2.1 in law, passed my LPC diploma with commendation and was lucky enough to secure my first choice of training contract. The story of my journey even made it into a radio program and several newspapers.
Despite this success, I still felt my English was not good enough and so I insisted on spending countless hours of my life totally beating myself up for making tiny grammatical errors when speaking to my colleagues, clients or the court. I used to pour over what I had wrote in excruciating detail because of my insecurity.
I vividly remember prosecuting a benefit fraud in the Magistrates’ Court when a defendant out of nowhere stood up and said to everyone in Court that I was clearly foreign, could they not afford someone proper to prosecute him and that he didn’t understand what I’d just said. I felt embarrassed, but I collected myself and calmly asked whether I should repeat anything, but he just smirked, said “naa” and sat down laughing. He had no problem understanding me before or after his remark and although I knew he was simply trying to distract me, deep down he struck a chord and I could not stop my heart from sinking. I kept asking myself: what am I even doing here? Did I really think I could do this job in a second language? Am I ridiculous? Will my boss find out about this and fire me? Will they all laugh at my career choice when I leave the court room?
When I arrived back at the office (after a successful end to the case) the court’s legal advisor had already telephoned my supervising partner and apologised for the defendant’s behaviour and told him that my English was better than most solicitors he came across and that there was absolutely no problem or reason to doubt myself. I immediately gave up on thinking that I had hidden my embarrassment and although I appreciated his efforts and kind gesture, of course, I did not believe a word he said. Instead, I kept beating myself up about it for weeks and weeks, if not months and months. It damaged my confidence and knocked my self-esteem. I always wanted to be a lawyer, but I never felt more different from other native-speaking lawyers than after that incident. Afterall, I’d never even met or heard of any other practising solicitor who learned English as an adult and decided to pursue carrier in law.
After this incident, I became even more sensitive about my accent and I avoided at all costs drawing anymore attention to it than I needed to when opening my mouth and I kept my insecurity, buried, for years, working and partying with my English lawyer friends and trying to pretend that I wasn’t different at all.
I don’t think anyone likes to be ‘different’, I certainly didn’t. I did not like being asked about my accent or where I was from ‘originally’ or the best one, which I still get asked, whether ‘I like it here’. I’m still not a fan of these questions although I now know that people are simply curious and don’t mean any harm by asking.
It eventually became clear to me that my good grades, training contract offers, praising family members, radio interviews, great client reviews and diplomas could not and did not help me to realise my own worth. I was barking up the wrong tree.
Slowly and through nothing more than self-education and coaching, I realised that my accent wasn’t to blame and that being different did not make me a lesser lawyer.
I also realised that my ‘issues’ were absolutely normal. I mean, I moved to a foreign country as a young adult without knowing any language whatsoever and I decided to become (out of all possible jobs in the world) a solicitor. Still, despite all the high odds, I followed my dream. I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 5 years old and I didn’t care about language in which I did it. It was the only job I ever saw myself doing. Following through with such a decision was a huge step out of my comfort zone and I can only guess that my confidence was lost somewhere along this very, very bumpy road.
A few years after the ‘Magistrates’ Court’ incident, a client of mine came to my office. She was a teacher in one of the local primary schools. She told me that she had displayed one of the newspaper articles in which I was featured on her classroom wall because there were many foreign children in her class, some of whom were concerned about their prospects of success in a foreign country and she wanted to encourage them to realise that if they really wanted to succeed, they could. If they wanted to be a lawyer, they could. It did not matter what their background was or if they struggled with the language. “Look at this woman, she couldn’t speak English until she was 19 and she is now a fully qualified solicitor.” I sat there listening to her. If she only knew how terribly critical I was of myself for many years.
This discussion that day with my teacher client did start to bring about a change in my way of thinking. ‘The penny had dropped’. From then on, I decided to seriously start recognising my own worth, pat myself on my back from time to time, look at the bigger picture and finally stop fixating on minor imperfections that no-one cares about.
Some people say that being different can be either a curse or a blessing. My personal experience, in law in/with a foreign accent, is that it’s a bit of both. Of course, I do not know all the answers but what I do know for sure is that the power to tip the scale is with the affected individual. Looking back, it is clear to me that I didn’t feel good enough. It was not about the accent at all! It was just a mask that I decided to hide behind for a very, very long time.
Nowadays, I don’t beat myself up anymore and the fear of other’s judgement has surprisingly disappeared once I stopped judging myself. I have even taken another huge leap of faith and set up my own law firm.
Has my accent gone? Hell, no! But I kind of like it now and I definitively believe that being different makes me a rather good lawyer. A lawyer with a wider perspective and understanding of life. A more adaptable lawyer. A lawyer who can express herself in two languages and who has the understanding of culture and behaviour from two separate countries. Perhaps I don’t fit within the usual “wordsmith stereotype” but I am great at analysing cases, seeing all sides of a case, recalling the relevant law, building strategies, advising my clients and getting the job done.
Sure, I am not everyone’s cup of tea, but I wouldn’t want to work with everyone either.
What I would like to see is much more diversity in our legal sector. I craved it a lot when I was trying to make it as a young trainee and then as a young lawyer. The truth is, we need diversity to create and uphold watertight laws! We need lawyers from all sort of different backgrounds and with all sorts of different accents, experiences and stories. Our legal system needs to reflect the actual world we live in, so please do not give up on your dreams just because of fear. I am here for you if you want to talk. I know how hard you’ve worked for this and I also know that you and your wonderful accent have the potential to make the legal sector a better place!