Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme
Top commercial law firms tend to have narrow diversity profiles. In particular, black and black mixed-race males from low-income families are disproportionately under-represented at senior levels. We believe this is because many self-select out of a career as a commercial lawyer and those that do join often leave their firm early for a variety of reasons including sometimes feeling out of place. The result is a lack of diversity which means firms risk becoming uncompetitive in a changing world.
In 2013, Freshfields and Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE launched the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship, a first-in-kind social mobility scheme which seeks to address this under-representation. The scheme addresses self-selection out of firms as well as attrition from those who do join. Critically, it encourages change in traditional law firm culture in order to retain Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) talent.
The scheme runs annually with every university law school in the UK invited to participate. Universities identify eligible first-year students with exceptional potential. Potential applicants attend an insight day and universities sponsor those that wish to apply. An Assessment Centre innovatively tests exceptional potential and scholarships are decided on feedback provided by over 50 people.
The scholars benefit from a guaranteed training contract interview, bespoke development programmes and a mentoring team. Freshfields lawyers and staff select, develop and mentor the scholars, along with lawyers from Goldman Sachs and Bank of England. The development programme is adapted each year to meet scholars’ needs. The scheme is strongly supported by the partnership, with the Senior Partner contributing to the scheme, as well as the Chief Executive, Executive Partner and Partnership Secretary. It is endorsed by the firm's decision-making committee and sits at the heart of the firm's Responsible Business strategy.
Applications to the scheme have near-doubled in the four years it has been running. 170 students have applied with 20 scholars selected in the first three years. Of these, four have been awarded training contracts in large commercial law firms including Freshfields and one has received a top Bar scholarship. Others are in other placements at leading firms, including Goldman Sachs, and some are in post-graduate studies. A further 10 scholars have just been selected for the 2016 cohort. Candidates who are not awarded a scholarship have a valuable experience and are offered feedback and coaching.
The scheme has encouraged participating universities to assess their outreach programmes and companies to evolve their culture.
Freshfields continually reviews the programme using feedback from all stakeholders and is currently considering expanding the scheme to achieve even greater reach.