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Diversity and inclusion

Social mobility

It’s important to look beyond academic achievements alone to identify exceptional talent. Programmes which are moulded to the realities individuals face, and which include changing the culture of organisations and collaboration, have greater impact.

Freshfields believes career success (in our firm and the law in general) should not be restricted by a person’s social, educational or financial background or lack of connections. However, some talented people can find the odds heavily stacked against them. We believe that we have a responsibility to address this. We do this through programmes such as the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme, Aspiring Professionals Programme, our Legal Outreach programme in the US and our professional skills workshop programme with ITE College East in Singapore.

Business and the legal sector face a similar challenge: of reflecting national demographics and becoming more representative. We work with external organisations, to invest in research, increase our understanding and to share our knowledge. We value the work of organisations such as The Bridge Group and partner with them to make positive change.

We are thoughtful in our approach and are careful to consider what will make a difference in the most outlying groups, for instance where social mobility and ethnicity intersect. In the law, there are few role models outside the profession’s traditional educational, social and ethnic groups. Individuals can quickly dismiss a legal career as ‘not for me’.

Freshfields has been considering these difficult questions for many years. We know that easy solutions do not move the dial. Instead of giving money via traditional scholarships (which we believe doesn’t on its own improve social mobility), individuals must be at the core of efforts to challenge the status quo.

We have achieved greater impact from co-creating our social mobility programmes with participants, allowing them to determine the timing of meetings and work experiences on offer within the context of the financial and other pressures they face. More can be achieved where conversations are bespoke and high-quality content is tailored.

Freshfields believes that mentoring may be as much about coaching individuals through life issues as about career development. But these types of pastoral conversations only happen where there is trust.

But not admitting or addressing organisations’ own shortcomings risks tackling only half the problem. Simultaneously, organisations need to change to bridge the gap with those who lack opportunity. For example, most businesses place great value on their brand and reputation. But for those from non-traditional backgrounds, an invitation to experience life at a top City institution can feel like an intimidating a journey to another planet. So, a solution must be found to engage effectively those who businesses are trying to reach.

Organisations should equally focus on their culture, and the ‘antibodies’ that can reject those from diverse backgrounds. And they cannot make inclusion mainstream and open minds if they outsource activities to others.

Where potential does not always translate into top academic results, a re-examination of how merit might be evidenced, and trying innovative ways to identify those with potential not polish, is called for.

We have already found perceptions that only the top institutions produce the top candidates are without foundation.  

As well as changing our own organisation, we collaborate to drive change through partnership with like-minded organisations, with education, and through conversations with governments and regulators.

There is knowledge to share about how to counteract a ‘why not me’ reaction in those not eligible, and how to approach conversations armed with appropriate definitions and language, in a way that respects families who have been doing their best. Above all, those with talent may want to explore a variety of unknown galaxies. To improve social mobility, it is right that there are many paths for them to walk.