Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is launching a scholarship with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust (SLCT) to help students from black and ethnic minorities gain access to the profession, in the latest of a string of diversity initiatives in law.
The scholarship will allow four successful male candidates committed to pursuing a career in the legal profession to receive a £3,500 annual contribution towards living expenses, training, mentoring, work experience at Freshfields and a guaranteed interview for a training contract.
Freshfields senior partner Will Lawes said: ‘The legal profession still needs to do more to encourage wider access and opportunities for progression for the very best talent. The purpose of this scholarship is to provide black and ethnic minority students from less privileged backgrounds with a genuine opportunity of building a successful career in the law and is a further demonstration of our commitment to making social mobility a reality.’
The first scholars will be selected in the summer this year. Eligible candidates will meet one of several criteria, such as being entitled to free school meals, having received a maintenance grant from a UK body, being the first generation to attend university in the candidate’s family or coming from a lower-income household.
SLCT founder Doreen Lawrence, the mother of black teenager Stephen Lawrence whose murder in 1993 galvanised the anti-racism campaign in the UK, said: ‘By providing gifted young people at the beginning of their career with a scholarship, we will establish lasting relationships that will mean there is a rich talent pool of candidates for top positions in the long term.’
Freshfields formed its relationship with the SLCT in 2012. The firm also provides pro bono legal advice to the body.
The City giant’s efforts are the latest in a string of diversity initiatives from commercial law firms in recent years, with the launch of the pan-industry group PRIME in September 2011 doing much to put the issue on the agenda of law firm leaders.
PRIME launched with 23 major law firm members to forge an independently-monitored scheme to guarantee meaningful work experience to school children from under-privileged backgrounds. Its membership has dramatically increased to around 90 law firms currently and a group of bluechip legal teams – including Google, Microsoft, Vodafone and Lloyds – have since become involved in the programme.
But while there is no doubt that social diversity has become a bigger issue for law firms, reliable statistics continue to demonstrate the huge scale of the challenge and, on some readings at least, the profession has grown more not less elitist over the last 20 years.
Given the scale of the challenge much cynicism still abounds – an attitude that has manifested itself in much private grumbling about Allen & Overy, a firm some rivals claim has monopolised the issue for publicity (a self-defeating refrain common when the profession attempts to tackle social issues). With such an intractable problem and ambivalent attitudes within the profession, City law will have plenty of opportunities to prove it is willing to rise to the moment.