Focus: Social mobility – Prime target

City firms are putting their clout behind the first profession-wide scheme to offer work experience to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But the vision doesn’t end there – the next step is to take it to the nation

In late March this year, a handful of representatives from City firms sat around a table at Allen & Overy (A&O). They had been invited by A&O senior ­partner David Morley to discuss an issue that had suddenly gone right to the top of the diversity agenda: social mobility.

“I called up the senior partners at some other big firms and said ’what if we got together?’,” recalls Morley. “We’re all doing things in this space but it’s really fragmented. What if
we came up with a common set of standards and started looking at best practice?”

Launched on 10 September, ­Morley’s germ of an idea has ­morphed into the first-ever profession-wide scheme that addresses the question of access to quality work experience. It is a collective ­commitment signed by 22 firms but which Morley hopes will turn into a ­nationwide crusade.

Prime – picked as a name because it can function both as noun and verb – requires firms to sign up to certain principles. They have to offer between 30 and 35 hours of contact time per individual, and a programme that informs students about opportunities as well as developing their skills. Students are classed as eligible if: they attend a state school between years 9 and 13; they are, or have been, in receipt of free school meals or attend a school where that statistic is above the regional average; or they would be the first generation in their immediate family to attend university.

Most eye-catching of all, each firm has to commit to at least half the number of places it currently offers in training contracts, with a target for the wider profession of 2,500 places by 2015. Given that approximately 4,900 training contract places are awarded every year, it is a tough ­target. “Part of the discussion was to say to firms that we have to commit to something that was stretching,” says Clifford Chance partner Laura King.

Industry approval

There is no doubt that Prime has been met with enormous emotional response from law firms, which are aware that by the time they recruit from universities, many ­disadvantaged students are already out of the running.

Indeed, when The Lawyer broke the story earlier this year (4 April), it spurred several people to get in touch. Dick Tyler of CMS Cameron McKenna, who on taking over as ­senior partner on 1 May this year immediately instituted a diversity committee, wrote to Morley to offer his support for the scheme.

Slaughter and May practice ­partner Graham White also acknowledges Morley’s efforts. “David’s done a great job in getting lots of firms signed up,” he says.

The Prime signatories (see box, page 20) vary from the biggest City firms to regional practices, with a good smattering of Scottish firms in particular.

“If we were going to do something with impact it had to involve the entire profession in the UK,” says Morley. King, who has partner responsibility for HR and diversity at Clifford Chance, agrees. “It was ­pretty widely felt that it shouldn’t just be London-centric,” she says.

If Prime is to have any value, then there must be work as well as simple experience. Furthermore, that work must be meaningful. “We’re not ­talking about making coffee and ­photocopying,” declares Morley. Tyler concurs: “If all we do is plonk them in a room for a week they won’t get much benefit from it. It needs to be a centrally organised programme for them which is skills-based.”

Some City firms are ahead of the curve in terms of their own schemes. A&O’s project, Smart Start, has run for three years and gives more than 100 pupils aged 16-17 a week of work experience.

Freshfields has a strong relationship with Haggerston girls school in Hackney through corporate partner Barry O’Brien, who is chair of the governors. The firm operates a two-week work experience for 14 pupils, who are given tasks such as interviewing people – not just lawyers – around the firm about why they wanted to do what they do and about their aspirations. At the end of their stint, the pupils are asked to make a presentation about their time at the firm.

The magic circle firms’ experience in larger projects will be a boon to those that have not yet embarked on major work experience schemes; ­several participants suggest that smaller firms could even buddy up. “It’ll compel us to work together and share best practice,” enthuses King.

Linklaters diversity manager Felix Hebblethwaite emphasises that knowledge-sharing is integral to the process. “The Prime website will have a vast range of resources to support law firms in designing their own ­programmes,” he says.

The cultural challenges for law firms, however, are substantial. ­”People seriously underestimate the sort of organisation that is needed to get this to work,” warns Freshfields’ O’Brien. Freshfields’ current work experience scheme takes up an entire month of his colleague Juliet Holden’s time, for example. For commercial lawyers used to instant response, it may be a culture shock dealing with a classroom-based profession that is not tied to a BlackBerry.

And then there’s the close supervision. “Not one of those kids are ever left alone, not even in the office,” says O’Brien. Furthermore, hordes of teenagers change the dynamic of an organisation, even if they are there for only a fortnight, he continues. ­”People get more comfortable over time with this. They used to be quite startled at seeing crowds of teenagers, but now they swarm in on a Friday afternoon for mentoring and nobody bats an eyelid.”

“The mentoring that we do works best when the kids come to us,” O’Brien adds. “We definitely learnt that – it genuinely helps to raise ­aspirations. Despite them being only 20 minutes away, half the kids haven’t seen the Thames, so getting them to come here is important – it’s a process of presenting themselves at reception, finding their way to the room where their mentor is going to be.”

“These things are very logistically challenging,” notes King. “With this age group there are legal restrictions in that you have to go though police checks to run events. And there are challenges such as transport. You have to set up a hybrid structure where you go out to the school. It’s a huge ask for a teacher if you say ’can you get on a bus and bring 40 kids to the office?’.”

Slaughters’ White warns his fellow participants against having unrealistic expectations. “Whatever we do has to cover a wide range of careers,” he says. “Half of them won’t want to be lawyers so we have to give them a wider range of careers in the City. We can’t pretend that all of those people are going to be suitable to work at City law firms.”

No quick fix

Morley is aware that the Prime scheme is only one way of dealing with the issue of social deprivation. “It’s like a huge great ball of string,” he says, “hugely complex and you never know which one to pull on – child poverty, education, whatever.”

“In the States, a qualification seems to be a main driver of social mobility,” reveals James Turner of social ­mobility charity The Sutton Trust, which has been involved with Prime from early on. “But here there are other factors as well – aspirations, soft skills, being able to present ­yourself in a certain way – those ­executive skills. So it’s important with work experience to look at those ­factors and give help with negotiating, presenting or articulating.”

Freshfields’ O’Brien agrees. “Social skills are desperately, desperately important,” he says. “A lot of what we do is trying to make them socially at ease. They’re not shy, retiring types – in fact, they might think they’re being cool, but you’ve got to get behind that because a lot of them feel insecure.”

Sustained support

Absolutely key to the success of Prime will be longitudinal research on the effectiveness of the scheme. With this in mind, the National Foundation for Educational Research has been tasked with tracking and auditing the entire programme. For Turner, the audit process is vital.

“It’s not just about reaching the right students but making sure there is an outcome in mind. We wouldn’t be comfortable getting involved with a project without that piece,” says Turner.

Certainly, Prime will require sustained support by senior partners within firms, many of whom are clear that they are in it for the long haul.

“One of the objectives of Prime is that you have a continuing connection with the kids who come in,” says Brodies managing partner Bill Drummond, whose firm is one of the smallest members of the scheme.

“That will make it a more effective arrangement. One’s tendency has always been to give a kid an opportunity and then leave it to them to have the motivation to do something about it. If you [as a school student] can make a connection with an organisation and the organisation is seen to be working for you a bit, it’s more likely to have take-up.”

But while some regional firms can take their pick of the local schools that have enough students who meet the Prime criteria, those big City practices without existing links to schools may have to look further afield than their own doorstep. “There’s a slight danger that we end up fishing in the same pool and other parts of London are neglected,” says Tyler ruefully.

It’s not just the law firms; the investment banks have been assiduous in supporting East London schools. “People are beginning to say that schools around Victoria or White City just haven’t got the same sort of links and that we need to encourage that,” notes White.

Community spirit

Prime participants are reluctant to be drawn on the direct benefit to their firms, since the project is so long-term. “I know in terms of running a business that you need different ­perspectives,’ says Drummond. “Recruiting kids from the same background is not a good thing and if this gets one or two in a [cohort] starting to think differently about whether they join our firm, then great. But nobody’s attempting to hijack this at all – it’s a community thing.”

Tyler is vigorous in agreement. “The profession gets knocked quite a lot, but this is a collective initiative – a non-competitive initiative between firms, which puts it in the forefront of professions and industries,” he says.

The last words go to Morley. “Why wouldn’t you want to do something that will help young people and help the profession? If we can broaden the talent pool it’s good for the ­profession, but if we can give 2,500 kids a chance of structured work experience, why not? We’re not trying to hold ourselves out as great moral champions. Yes, you get the cynics saying we’re playing at being social engineers, but I would say, ’what else would you have us do?’.”

The social mobility experts

The Sutton Trust Aims to provide educational opportunities for young people from non-privileged backgrounds. Runs summer schools for state school pupils in partnership with leading universities. Considerable emphasis on research projects as well as practical schemes.

Social Mobility Foundation Supports high-achieving young people from low-income backgrounds through a variety of schemes including university applications advice and mentoring on the Aspiring Professionals Programme.

Pathways To Law A £3m widening participation initiative run by The College of Law and The Sutton Trust to provide opportunities for students from state schools in England who are interested in a career in law and will be first-generation attendees at university. Targets students from ­under-represented backgrounds and provides support throughout years 12 and 13, and beyond into university.

Career Academies Establishes links between schools and employers through mentoring and internships.

The Brokerage Citylink Runs workshops and paid work placement programmes in City institutions. Targets young residents of London’s inner-city boroughs between the ages of 14 and 18. Helps run Allen & Overy’s Smart Start scheme, the germ of the Prime initiative.

Social mobility in action

Max Auer, 18, is currently studying for his A-levels at Dunraven Six Form College in Streatham, where he lives.

“I did pretty well in my GCSEs and thought my A-levels would be relatively straightforward. But things didn’t go according to plan and I didn’t get the grades I wanted in my first year.

“Just before the end of term I found out about Allen & Overy’s Smart Start Experience. We did lots of different workshops to develop things like presentation skills, as well as getting a great insight into what life in a law firm is like. It gave me the confidence to really think about what I wanted from life and what I could achieve.

“But on results day, because of my poor grades, I was told I couldn’t complete my A-levels at Dunraven. Using the presentation skills I learnt on my work experience I argued my case, won my place back and retook the year, getting all As and Bs.

“That first work experience led to more with my local MP and helped me win a scholarship from Herbert Smith, which will fund my degree if I get into university – I’m hoping to study economics at LSE. That first piece of work experience raised my aspirations, but what made the difference were the skills it gave me. It had a huge impact. It has turned my life around.”