Freshfields rolls out female mentoring scheme to international bases

Magic circle firm extends associate-led initiative as Travers case throws diversity issue back into spotlight

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is rolling out a female associate mentoring scheme across its international offices as the firm continues its push to boost female partner numbers.

The initiative, which is aimed at junior and mid-level female associates, initially launched in London in October last year and now has more than 60 associates signed up, equating to around one in three of the firm’s junior to mid-level City ranks. 

More than 55 male and female partners, senior associates and counsel have signed up to act as mentors. Mentors and associates fill in a questionnaire to identify the areas they would like to discuss, with three suitable matches offered via an online platform. Associates can then choose which of the three individuals they would like to be mentored by over the next 12 months.

Gender diversity partner Avril Martindale said: “This initiative is entirely associate-led, which is in large part why it’s been such a great success. It has also raised even more awareness at partner level – a huge number of partners of both genders in London have volunteered to be mentors because they want to help younger women fulfil their potential.”

Last week a group of associates from London met with the firm’s managing partners in Paris where the scheme is being replicated, while the Dubai base is also looking to adopt the scheme. Similar initiatives are also now operating across Freshfields’ Austrian and German offices. 

The programme is cross-departmental and pairs associates with mentors who work in different practice areas.

Competition associate Sharon Malhi said: “Existing schemes tend to match mentees with mentors based within their department, but feedback has shown that people are sometimes less frank and open. This aims to encourage a more open dialogue as early as possible to help women associates explore some of the challenges that face them as they develop in their career while working to create a wider internal network.”

Boosting female representation within the firm was one of the priorities set out by management at the firm’s partner conference last year, with the mentoring project forming part of the wider Freshfields’ London Associate Women’s Group initiative, which launched in 2012. 

Senior partner Will Lawes added: “Increasing our number of women partners is a business imperative that we take very seriously. Diverse organisations perform better and clients increasingly demand we share their diversity values.”

The issue of law firm diversity has been thrown into the spotlight in recent weeks by Travers Smith’s recent defeat in a discrimination case brought against it by a former trainee. Katie Tantum launched the case in February after failing to gain a newly qualified position in Travers’ real estate department when she became pregnant during her final seat.

According to the judgment, the Travers partners who made the decision over how many positions to fill were “prepared to discriminate because of pregnancy”. The tribunal recommended that Travers partners and senior staff “should participate in discrimination training”. 

Travers has now begun a review of its training contract programme, and will this autumn hold its first-ever ‘Diversity Week’ for all partners and staff. The week will include sessions covering support for working families, as well as talks by inter-faith groups. 

Diversity partner Sian Keall, who is leading the initiative, said: “While it is not a knee-jerk reaction to the case, it has made everyone even more committed to these types of issues.”