23 major law firms come together for ground-breaking diversity initiative

Twenty-three UK and Irish law firms have come together for a groundbreaking initiative to boost social mobility in the profession with a wide-ranging work experience scheme.

The project, dubbed PRIME, will see the firms involved commit to provide significant work experience programmes for state school children from non-privileged backgrounds in a profession-wide bid to improve social diversity in law.

Discussions over the project were initiated earlier this year by a group of City law firms comprising Allen & Overy (A&O), Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Clifford Chance (CC), Linklaters, Slaughter and May, Hogan Lovells, Herbert Smith and Norton Rose.

The project is believed to be the first time the UK’s leading law firms have come together in a joint initiative of such scope. It is hoped that more law firms will sign up to the initiative, with the group aiming to hit ambitious targets to provide 2,500 work experience places annually by 2015.

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The initiative, which will specifically target state school students aged 14-18, will see firms commit to provide an annual number of work experience placements equivalent to 50% of its trainee intake, with each placement comprising at least 30-35 hours of relevant work experience.

Those eligible for the scheme will either be of the first generation of their family to go to university or come from a family below the income threshold for free school meals. The key objective is for participants to begin to view a job in the legal sector as a realistic prospect, whether within law or legal support services.

A&O senior partner David Morley commented: “It is harder now than it was 30 years ago to get into the legal profession if you’re from an average or below-average income family. As a profession, we must change that. By collaborating across the profession, PRIME will create a step change in the legal sector’s commitment to fairer access, giving more students their first insight into the wide variety of career opportunities available in the legal sector. I would urge all law firms to join us in supporting PRIME.”

The programme’s progress will be externally monitored by the National Foundation for Educational Research, which will provide an annual performance report, while also working with the Department for Education. Firms will be expected to hit agreed criteria, which will be monitored, but will remain free to develop their own programmes.

A&O, which already runs a work experience scheme for school children from the low income-heavy London Borough of Hackney, expects to take on about 170 participants per year, exceeding the minimum target for the scheme.

CC people partner Laura King (pictured), who is managing the initiative for the magic circle law firm, commented: “We are obviously very pleased to be participating and it is great that so many firms are on board. This initiative will really help us get the message across that we want to improve social mobility into the profession. We will have to wait and see but surely it is better for us to all work together to try to achieve something than doing nothing at all.”

Eversheds’ resourcing manager Nicky Bizzell said: “As far as I know, no other industry has come together like this with leading firms actually sitting down and sharing information which could be of competitive value. While many firms already have programmes like this in place, what we need to do is to use this initiative as a springboard for the industry to increase social diversity more widely.”

The initiative, which has also received input from the Cabinet Office, is supported by the Sutton Trust and the Law Societies of England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said: “We know that non-privileged young people have great difficulty in getting work placements that give them that vital first experience of the professions. I’m pleased to see that PRIME identifies and supports these young people, including those on free school meals and who have no family history of going to university.”

The venture comes as the diversity issue has risen up the agenda in the wake of a Government-backed report into the social mobility and the professions in 2009, which was compiled by a panel chaired by former cabinet minister Alan Milburn.

Click here to visit the PRIME website.

Full list of PRIME founding members

Addleshaw Goddard
Allen & Overy
Arthur Cox
Blake Lapthorn
Clifford Chance
CMS Cameron McKenna
Dickinson Dees
DLA Piper
Dundas & Wilson
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
Herbert Smith
Hogan Lovells
Maclay Murray & Spens
Norton Rose
Pinsent Masons
Shepherd & Wedderburn
Slaughter and May
Trowers & Hamlins