Macfarlanes is currently running an e-mentoring scheme with an East London school. Under the scheme, the firm’s lawyers have been paired with pupils facing their GCSEs in an attempt to demystify the City.
The lawyers do not appear to be pulling their punches: “If this mentoring is going to give you anything worthwhile, I think we need to take it beyond a few lines of greeting every couple of weeks.” So says partner Simon Hillson in one sample email exchange with a 15-year-old GCSE student who has been dragging his heels over his latest assignment. There are 20 staff, including lawyers and support staff, matched with some 35 pupils at the Forest Gate Community School in Newham. The email was the latest in a series of chatty messages encouraging his student to complete their CVs.
“Sometimes it works very well, sometimes it doesn’t work at all and other times it’s difficult to get beyond, ‘Hello, how are you?’,” reports Hillson. “But the idea is to encourage them and open their minds to the world of work, the demands it can make and the possibilities it can offer.”
As well as providing a sounding board for pupils, lawyers and support staff offer career advice. The students also visit Macfarlanes to shadow lawyers and complete exercises in sessions similar to the ones undertaken by prospective trainees on summer schemes.
Macfarlanes has been working with the school for four years after becoming involved through the ‘Heart of the City’ initiative. This was launched in 2000 by the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the Corporation of London to encourage City organisations to become more involved in their communities. This particular scheme was organised by the Newham Educational Business Partnership and funded by Newham Council.
Hillson admits that the project had “a slow start” after problems with the IT and pupils not being given the time to correspond at school. “But over the last year it’s got much better and it’s feeding off its own success to a certain extent,” he says.
“Most people think of pro bono in terms of what lawyers can do, which may mean you end up with this ‘us and them’ approach,” Hillson continues. “One great advantage of e-mentoring is that it isn’t particularly legally orientated.” There are secretaries and librarians involved as well as assistant solicitors and two partners.
The exercise is not just about providing assistance to young people in a deprived part of London, nor is it about encouraging students to become lawyers. “A project like this looks to the future of the City and the kind of people who’ll work there. It’s trying to raise expectations and ambitions,” Hillson says. “We’re trying to show that we’re all human beings like everyone else, and so 14-year-olds can see that it isn’t a place full of stuck-up people who sit around in wine bars.”