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Community outreach in a pandemic

New ways to help improve social mobility

Freshfields recognised that COVID-19 risked slowing our efforts to improve social mobility, requiring new ways to deliver our commitments and bringing insights on potential improvements.

Our commitments to improving access to the legal profession include the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme, Legal Outreach and START.

But coronavirus-related restrictions limited our usual interactions with communities, risking a ‘lost generation’ and worsening the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and marginalised communities.

Engaging online

Our work-shadowing initiative in the UK focusses on raising aspirations, increasing confidence and building professional networks. We redesigned our experience, bringing interactions online and continuing to deliver during the pandemic. We presented small groups with challenges designed by our in-house professionals to provide an accessible taste of law, guiding sessions to maximise interactivity and value for students.

Charlotte was one of 44 work-shadowing students to have taken part so far during the pandemic. ‘Being from the north of England, it can be difficult to get involved in work shadowing with large firms, which are usually based in London,’ she says, adding that the ‘fantastic opportunity… has improved my confidence beyond belief and also given me the practical knowledge to get where I want to be. Most importantly, it has really inspired me and given me the self-confidence to push myself further and not let my background be an obstacle.’

Adapting delivery style

To ensure that students stayed engaged with work shadowing online, we switched to small-group delivery using interactive exercises. Projects have included a landlord/tenant negotiation role-play exercise and a responsible business debate, as well as Freshfields people introducing a range of different legal areas.

Libby, another work-shadowing student, says the ‘engaging, insightful and well-planned’ experience exceeded her expectations: ‘I noticed an improvement in my confidence and communication skills throughout the week thanks to activities like these and the experience definitely gave me that extra push to pursue a career as a solicitor.’

We also adapted the delivery style for the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme. The programme is tailored to each individual and usually offers a lot of in-person contact. However, the pandemic affected our April 2020 ‘Assessment Centre’, which would usually offer all candidates a taste of working life in the City.

Through customised and agile solutions, including meticulously planned socially distanced events in our London and Manchester offices, as well as online interactions, Freshfields delivered the Assessment Centre to 68 candidates in September 2020. Keen to avoid it being an entirely virtual experience, we convened much smaller groups, conducting six separate events compared to our normal one.

‘We made a real effort to ensure people weren’t overwhelmed by potentially unfamiliar ways of working and be respectful of the many issues people may face, from lack of technology, caring responsibilities or inability to travel due to sharing a “bubble” with vulnerable individuals,’ says Annette Byron, a founder of the scheme and sponsor for social mobility activities at the firm.

Thirteen candidates were awarded scholarships and we delivered individual coaching and feedback to candidates online. Freshfields is following up with this group through ongoing mentoring, networking and skills sessions to try and make their experience as rich as possible.

session zoom call

session zoom call

session zoom call

Overcoming boundaries

Delivering programmes in a different way has also meant the potential for innovation, particularly in overcoming geographical boundaries. Our New York office conducted its 12th annual Legal Outreach programme for New York City high school students entirely virtually, taking advantage of the possibility for international interaction. The programme is designed to include opportunities for informal mentoring, so the team had to be creative about setting up additional interactions, including one-on-one meetings and virtual dinner parties. We used the virtual format to include Freshfields volunteers from our London, Beijing, Vienna and Dusseldorf offices.

As in previous years, the students prepared a complex international case study and presented their findings before a fictitious board of directors made up of senior lawyers. We were pleased to hear that the students found the exercise just as challenging on screen as it had been for previous students in person.

To finish the internship week, we wanted to emphasise the importance of a strong work community and invited over 150 colleagues from our US, European and Asian offices to join the celebratory closing party, which included a speech from our Senior Partner in London and a surprise live performance by musicians from a documentary the students had watched the evening before. Albeit virtual, it was a magical evening the students are unlikely to forget.

Within our UK work-shadowing programme, we asked our charity partners to recruit students from social mobility ‘cold spots’, many of which are a long way from our two UK offices.

Partnering with others

Within our Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme, we were able to use the expertise of both clients and suppliers to help us engage with candidates. Within our follow-on offering for candidates, we offered workshops including one on drafting in partnership with the Bank of England and a CV and covering letter masterclass with Alexander Mann Solutions.

We also partnered with clients to deliver mentoring sessions to students at ITE College East in Singapore. The programme had to be suspended in the first half of 2020 due to the COVID-19 ‘circuit breaker’ measures in Singapore. In the second half of 2020, our Singapore colleagues pivoted, conducting the programme on Zoom instead of in person. They partnered with legal counsel from clients in Asia, tailored the content for online delivery and used Zoom virtual-breakout rooms so that the 16 students could still benefit from small-group discussions.

To enable us to connect better with each participant, the college provided a brief background of each student, including what they wanted to learn from the workshop, their hobbies and interests, and their hopes and plans after graduation. Although the students could not receive in-person guidance, they have learned how to give virtual presentations, a skill that will likely prove useful as workplaces adjust to more agile arrangements.

Using what we learned

These experiences have helped us understand the multidimensional challenges that people (including our own employees) face as coronavirus changes the ways in which we interact. As well as considering technology’s limitations, we want to explore its potential: digital interventions may enable us to work with students we might struggle to reach in person, and better interactivity could enrich what we can offer them.