“It’s widely acknowledged that diversity is essential to the success of a workplace,” says Sophie Boden, Freshfields’ diversity inclusion executive. “It really drives innovation and brings about better solutions.”
Indeed, the concept of responsibility is at the heart of Freshfields culture and backed at the highest level. Edward Braham, senior partner, has said, “For me, ‘responsible business’ is shorthand for the way we should work if we want the firm to be successful over the long term.”
Few would argue against these principles, but making them a reality can be a real challenge. “It helps not just to think about diversity, but also inclusion,” says Sophie. “We absolutely want to focus on inclusivity, fostering an environment where everyone can realise their full potential, regardless of any dimensions of difference.”
A proactive stance
Many top law firms have already introduced equal-opportunity schemes from recruitment onwards. But to maximise diversity and inclusion, Freshfields begins this process before application.
Graduate recruitment manager Alice Lines explains that Freshfields runs a number of workshops with Aspiring Solicitors (which aims to increase diversity in the legal profession) and Rare (which helps black and ethnic minority [BAME] candidates into business, government and the professional services). “These workshops focus on the building blocks of how to make a successful application and interview, as well as educating students about what a career in commercial law entails in practice,” she says. “In particular, we look at how students can build their commercial acumen, and think about how commercial trends affect the work that we and our clients do. It’s also a great chance to meet many of our very talented people!”
This year, Freshfields has gone a step further with the launch of a bespoke mentoring scheme in collaboration with Aspiring Solicitors. Freshfields Start Mentoring provides one-to-one mentoring and coaching, alongside a selection of workshops, for eight students with a keen interest in a commercial law career. “From our first cohort, two mentees have already secured a training contract with us,” says Alice.
However, unconscious bias is something that can affect the way in which applications are processed. That’s why, when reviewing applications, the firm uses the rare contextual recruitment system (CRS), which helps to spot candidates impartially with great potential. Students who wish to can submit CRS data, which can contextualise their academic performance. “If someone has scored A-B-B grades, at a school where the average is three C grades, contextually we can see that they have really overachieved and done extremely well,” says Alice. “We don’t have a minimum A-level requirement, and we don’t screen out in any way—we look at every application we receive in its entirety and a decision is only made once the whole application has been read.”
This approach to diversity continues throughout the interview process: “We have around 150 lawyers and partners on our interview panel, who absolutely love being involved in graduate recruitment,” Alice adds. “Every one of these undergoes interview training and also unconscious bias training.”
Widening access to law
Freshfields is also keen to widen opportunities for BAME people striving to enter the legal profession across the whole legal industry. The Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship scheme is designed to address the underrepresentation of black males from disadvantaged backgrounds in large law firms, as well as in other City institutions.
Stephen Lawrence scholars receive extensive mentoring from partners and associates, as well as skills sessions and workshops. To broaden the scheme, Freshfields involves clients such as Goldman Sachs. “The idea is that after a year they will have a really wide-ranging and far-reaching experience of the City, not just in law but also in other industries,” Alice says. The Scholarship has been so successful that Freshfields real-estate partner Annette Byron, who heads it, is broadening the reach of the programmes to work with new university relationships.
A supportive environment
Of course, becoming a more diverse and inclusive workplace involves more than just recruitment. Creating a more supportive culture has helped people at Freshfields ‘bring their whole self to work’. The firm has two LGBT+ networks in place: Halo, for people who identify as LGBT+; and Halo Champions, which allows those who do not identify as LGBT+ to show solidarity.
“The two networks are separate, so Halo creates a safe environment,” says Sophie. “Both Halo and Champions run regular well-attended events, which allow members to network both internally and externally, as well as giving educational sessions and development opportunities.”
In addition to an internal LGBT+ network, Freshfields is committed to ensuring parity for LGBT+ people in other workplaces. The firm is a global diversity champion and global founding partner of the LGBT+ rights charity Stonewall. Freshfields works with Stonewall on a pro-bono basis—it has helped to write the Workplace Guides, which are issued by Stonewall in a variety of countries.
Overlooked diversity challenges
While significant progress has been made, Freshfields recognises that there is still more to be done in the legal industry.
“Freshfields supports women across the firm in a variety of ways through its multiple women’s networks,” says Sophie. “Mentoring has been proven to work for career progression, so Freshfields has an interdepartmental mentoring scheme in place for women.”
“We run events with our clients, giving people access to business-development opportunities, as well as opportunities to build internal and external networks,” explains Sophie. “There’s also our annual global-sponsorship programme, which supports high-performing women lawyers looking to progress their careers. The programme provides access to a bespoke learning-development curriculum and coaching, as well as a partner sponsor. ”
Freshfields understands that parenthood can be a real challenge. “The families network helps to foster a good work-life balance,” says Sophie, pointing to “a variety of support in places for those looking at maternity, paternity and shared parental leave. We want to ensure that anyone who is about to start a family has as easy a transition as possible”.
Wellbeing is another important facet of diversity. Freshfields has made a strong commitment to the physical and mental wellbeing of its people across the firm. The firm offers a range of wellbeing programmes and encourages everyone to participate. All employees have access to a wealth of health, lifestyle and financial benefits, as well as support from the firm’s Global Mental Health Support Team, which is composed of regional leadership groups that are trained in mental-health first-aid skills and offer both support internally and guidance for seeking help externally. The firm also has a wellbeing programme, which includes topical seminars, meditation sessions, recognition for international awareness days as well as employee and line-manager training.