Aonghus Heatley

Good verbal communication skills are widely regarded as integral to the practice of law.  Among the general public, this impression has likely been fostered as a result of films and other media portrayals of lawyers which tend to focus on advocacy and adversarial proceedings.

The general public’s view is one thing, but in my experience the link between verbal communication skills and effecting lawyering is shared by many people in senior positions within law firms.  On several occasions it has been made clear to me – a person who, from time to time, but less severely than many other people, stammers – that the way I sometimes speak could be inconsistent with how a law firm wants to be represented to its clients.

For example, I was once told by a partner at a firm I had applied to for a training contract, apparently in relation to how it was thought I would be perceived by its clients, that those clients needed to see “confident” lawyers. The implication was that I was not coming across as a confident lawyer due to my occasional disfluencies.

On another occasion, a partner interviewing me for a training contract at a well-regarded City firm blithely informed me that that they “could never put someone who spoke like me in front of their clients”.  Unsurprisingly I was not offered a training contract by that firm.  The fact that I now routinely interact with clients — including being sent on a long-term secondment to one — without any issue or concern highlights how mistaken that assertion was.

Of course, I have also had many colleagues over the years who, when the issue has been raised, have told me that my occasional dysfluencies were of no consequence. One memorable example of this was a partner telling me that if anyone ever made an issue of my speech, I should simply tell them to “f**k off,”! With some regret, I have not yet found myself in quite the right circumstances to put this advice into practice.  Needless to say, my experiences at my current firm Greenberg Traurig have only been positive.

We know how necessary it is to look professional when attending a job interview — wearing a well-pressed suit, having polished shoes, being well-groomed, adopting the right posture, maintaining eye contact and so on. However, much less attention is given to the importance of needing to sound professional. It is clear, however, that having the necessary polish or aesthetic that employers are looking for, not only visually, but also audibly, is an important part of getting ahead, particularly in the so-called elite, client-facing professions such as law. A recent BBC documentary highlighting this issue — How to Break into the Elite — is well worth watching.

Given that “sounding right” is a relevant factor in recruitment, what is the perception of people who stammer? We don’t need to rely on anecdotal evidence: it is well documented in academic literature that interactions with people who stammer result in negative perceptions and biases, even in people who are knowledgeable about stammering. People who stammer are judged to be more submissive, tense and insecure than their fluent peers. They are judged to be more guarded and nervous, to have less cognitive ability, to be less likeable, to have lower self-esteem and to be less socially adjusted. Crucially, they are also judged to be less employable and to be less competent.

In one study where nurses were asked to imagine two doctors, one fluent and one a person who stammers, the latter was rated as being “more afraid, tense, nervous, and aggravating in addition to being less mature, intelligent, secure, competent, confident, educated and reputable” than the former. In another study the authors concluded that the body of academic research then available showed that “individuals who [stammer] are subject to broad negative social and cognitive impressions”.

Assuming you, like me, accept that people who stammer do not have, on average, less cognitive ability, are not less likeable and are not generally more anxious than fluent members of the general population and so on, their disfluencies, and perhaps also the ancillary physical mannerisms which accompany them, have the effect of creating these unfavourable impressions in people who interact with them in moments of disfluency.  This may be a largely unconscious stress response — possibly resulting from an overlap between stammering and certain audible and visible traits, such as not maintaining eye contact, which people tend to associate with anxiety or a lack of honesty. If so, it is an obvious example of unconscious bias — an attitude about a certain group of people that forms outside of a person’s conscious awareness.

Aside from the obvious point that time and patience on the part of listeners will always let people who stammer get their point across, it is false to equate fluency alone with being a good communicator. Audience engagement, strength of content, fostering empathy and humour are all just as relevant as mere fluency — perhaps more so. It is also the case that stammering can itself lead to the enhancement of other communication skills: a lifetime of coping with stammering can lead to people who stammer becoming very adroit with language and good at showing empathy, being active listeners and having strong writing skills. All of these attributes are very relevant to the practice of law.

Other aspects of the condition are also under-appreciated.  For example, stammering can impose a significant cognitive overhead: it is, quite simply, exhausting. Being in the moment of stammering itself pulls mental resources away from thinking about what you should be saying and directs energy both to how to actually get your words out, but also to how the listener may be perceiving your stammering. This can result in stammering having a material impact on the immediate substantive “quality” of what you are able to say. Applying this to an interview context – when an applicant may only get a short period of time to make a good impression – it seems unlikely that this could not have an impact on the chances of someone who stammers.

However, we need to be careful to ensure that people who stammer do not simply ascribe all of their perceived professional disappointments and setbacks down to prejudice discrimination. Putting stammering and all that it can entail aside, people who stammer are candidates and employees like everyone else — they can have the same balance of positive and negative qualities as members of the ‘fluent’ population, the same issues with their experience and skills not exactly matching what a role or promotion might demand and the same chance of being up against a candidate who may simply be, for some other reason, more suitable for the role than them.

Still, the idea that some prejudice and discrimination exists against people who stammer is undeniable.  The comment from a recruiting partner I referred to above that their firm “could never put someone who spoke like me in front of their clients” was made in 2008 – not decades ago when making an overtly discriminatory statement in a professional context without any apparent concern for the consequences might not have been very unusual. In my opinion attitudes like this result from the fact that, to the extent that stammering is given much thought by employers at all, it is not always regarded as being unacceptable to discriminate against.

Lawyers who stammer need to make themselves available as mentors and, where possible, be visible as role models. While this is something which many people who stammer may be reluctant to do — and the nature of the condition itself can serve to limit the visibility of people who stammer in the media and public discourse — it can only be beneficial, both for people who stammer, but also for law firms given how evidence of diversity is increasingly demanded by clients. We need to make more people more aware of the condition, highlighting that it can, even unconsciously, result in prejudice and bias, but also explaining what practical steps or reasonable adjustments can be made to help make workplaces more inclusive.

Aonghus Heatley is a senior associate at Greenberg Traurig. This article was written in his personal capacity.