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A busy year for social mobility work

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Partridge James
James Partridge

Early Careers Recruitment Partner and Training Principal


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Turnbull Emma
Emma Turnbull

Community Investment Manager


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Charnock Nathan
Nathan Charnock

Senior Associate


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Image of Mateusz Maciejewski
Mateusz Maciejewski



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Spring Jennifer
Jennifer Spring



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24 November 2021

A&O has long been committed to social mobility and working with like-minded organisations. Several new and exciting initiatives continue this tradition.
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One of the important developments in 2021 for all A&O offices was social mobility being chosen as the theme for this year’s global charity partner, as in almost every country children’s socio-economic background still has the biggest impact on their life chances.

In the same way that every A&O office will have tailored opportunities to get involved with the work of our charity partner, Street Child, each A&O office promotes social mobility in the best country-specific way possible.

The London office enhanced its support for students from socially mobile backgrounds in August 2021, announcing a three-year programme that offers both financial and
non-financial assistance to students who have participated in either of A&O’s social mobility programmes, A&O Accelerate or Smart Start. A&O has increased the number of bursaries from two to six and the amount awarded to each student has increased to £15,000.

The bursaries are awarded to high-potential students about to embark on their university studies with a particular interest in a career in law. This is an extension of an A&O bursary programme that has been in place since 2006, set up by alumnus and former Senior Partner Guy Beringer. Vimal Tilakapala, head of A&O’s UK Tax practice, and Emma Turnbull, Community Investment Manager, oversee the bursary programme. Vimal has undertaken this role since 2011 and Emma has been involved since the start.

New solicitor apprenticeships at A&O

Social mobility initiatives are not limited to students going to university; a new opportunity announced by A&O in June 2021 is the solicitor apprenticeship route to becoming a qualified solicitor in London. The UK is unusual in allowing this route; most countries where A&O operates require new joiners to have obtained a degree before they join to
train as a lawyer.

The first cohort of six A&O solicitor apprentices will start in September 2022, alongside around 40 trainees (half of the full-year cohort of 80 trainees). The current plan is to add a cohort of new apprentices each year.

This will be a six-year apprenticeship, at the end of which those taking part will be awarded an LLB (Hons) Law and Legal Practice by BPP University and a Solicitor Level 7 Apprenticeship, as well as becoming a qualified solicitor upon passing the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). A&O apprentices will spend time in the firm’s legal practice groups, and have the opportunity to work in Fuse, A&O’s tech innovation hub, as well as the Markets Innovation Group, Legal Tech, eDiscovery and Project Management teams. Apprentices will spend four days a week working in the business, with one day allocated to study.

“We are very excited to be going down this path,” says James Partridge, the graduate recruitment partner and training principal. “A&O has always encouraged social mobility down the years – although I don’t think it was ever expressed in those terms – and it felt very A&O to introduce solicitor apprenticeships. When I put it to management, everybody was behind it.”

Joanna Hughes, who assisted James to launch A&O solicitor apprenticeships, partly with knowledge she gained as a member of a working group of the City of London taskforce to boost socio-economic diversity at senior levels in UK financial and professional services, says the objective is simple: “We want A&O to be the destination for the best people, regardless of background.”

Belfast apprenticeships

In 2013, IT apprenticeships started in the A&O Belfast office and now extend into business services, finance, HR, legal technology and marketing roles, in an award-winning scheme with Belfast Metropolitan College to design a curriculum and work-based learning. Ciaran McCallion, who heads the HR function in that office, says: “We have seen a high retention rate of 84% of apprentices. Apprenticeships now make up 5% of our Belfast workforce.”

The Social Mobility Working Group

Promoting social mobility at the broadest level is coordinated by A&O’s Social Mobility Working Group, which brings together the diversity and inclusion, graduate recruitment and Pro Bono and Community Investment teams – plus others with a personal interest in the subject – to join up A&O’s thinking, generate ideas and track progress. The group’s Social Mobility Action Plan focuses on four areas: outreach – raising aspirations; access – being open and accessible; culture – promoting an inclusive culture; and advocacy – influencing the wider debate.

The work of the working group is informed by various social mobility organisations, including the Bridge Group. A&O has taken part in studies in the UK by the Bridge Group alongside nine other major law firms. The first study looked at early careers and found that trainees from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were statistically more likely to be in the top decile of performers, but were also more likely to leave their firms early. The second study, published in 2020, showed that lawyers from lower socio-economic backgrounds take on average a year and a half longer to progress to partnership than their peers from higher socio-economic backgrounds – a trend reflected in other sectors.

Wider still than the work of the Social Mobility Working Group, and new for 2021, was the launch of All In. A global, virtual event series in May to kick-off All In included various luminaries giving accounts of their careers and overcoming social mobility disadvantages. This was followed later in the year with an external rollout of All In to clients, alumni and others.

“All In is A&O’s commitment to create an inclusive environment that celebrates and embraces difference,” says Ian Field, chair of the Social Mobility Group and one of five regional D&I partners. “All In embraces three concepts: A&O being totally committed to the idea of diversity and inclusion; individuals being able to bring their whole selves to work; and everybody playing their part so we can create a more inclusive culture. It marks an important milestone as we increase momentum towards becoming a truly inclusive organisation.”

Starting a solicitor apprenticeship scheme will be another step towards A&O becoming a fully inclusive organisation, Ian adds: “We have the experience with Smart Start students, who are still at school, but this will be different, with young adults who are full-time with A&O. We are taking special steps to let A&O know well in advance they are coming, to prepare them for the change, to educate people in being careful in how the apprentices are welcomed and integrated, and to make the process as smooth as possible.

“Our aim is that all people can be themselves and be fully accepted for who and what they are, and that our culture is open to all.”

The new A&O Social Mobility Network will be open to all alumni. Email the Alumni team if you are interested in joining as a member when it is launched.

Social Mobility Network

Look out in early 2022 for the launch of the A&O Social Mobility Network in the UK – an affinity group for A&O colleagues and alumni from less privileged backgrounds. The Social Mobility Network has been launched by Emma Turnbull and three associates in the Social Mobility Working Group – Nathan Charnock, Mateusz Maciejewski and Jennifer Spring – and aims to be a network in the same way as other D&I networks offered by A&O.
Ceris Gardner

Qualified by aptitude

Ceris Gardner joined A&O in 1978 at the age of 24 as a manager in the Probate department. She qualified as a solicitor in 1988 and was made partner in 1991 in the Private Client department. She became a founding partner of Maurice Turnor Gardner (MTG) in May 2009.


Ceris Gardner didn’t originally want to be a lawyer. She’d taken languages at university, joined the civil service and worked in the Capital Taxes Office, which at that time was called the Estate Duty Office of the Inland Revenue. It was there, while she was studying a number of law subjects, that her interest in law in general was piqued.

Her boss, Michelle Bate, moved to A&O in 1977 to work in the Probate department. A year later, A&O contacted Ceris to see whether she might be interested in joining A&O as well. She was, and joined in 1978.

Before long, Ceris found herself branching out into other areas of work, mostly to do with trusts. Looking back, she remembers that those with aptitude were encouraged to develop their expertise, “although, to be frank, this may have had more to do with fee-earning than personal development,” Ceris jokes.

It was William Norris, then head of the Private Client department, who saw potential in Ceris and encouraged her to qualify as a solicitor. She studied for two years in the evenings to take the CPE conversion course. However, she had to look for a way to do her two-year training contract (then called articles) without having to sit in the different departments.

That was because A&O wanted Ceris to continue as a fee-earner in private client throughout her training. To achieve that, she took additional exams to become a legal executive on the understanding that if she then passed her solicitors’ final exams, she would qualify as a solicitor. A&O also gave her six months’ study leave before she took her finals in July 1988, ten years after she had joined the firm.

After 13 years at A&O, Ceris was bold enough to approach William Norris and enquire about whether there was any prospect of her being made partner (“which I thought must be out of the question, given that I was not originally a qualified solicitor”). “That’s interesting,” William replied, “because we have just been talking about putting you forward for partnership.”

It was an interesting practice, not least because, as A&O globalised and opened more offices, she and others in private client gained a greater range of international clients. From advising purely UK-resident and domiciled individuals, they advised those looking to move to the UK on business, to invest in UK property, to send their children to UK schools or, generally, to seek advice on how to manage their international assets from a tax and succession planning point of view.

That continued until 2009, when she, Clare Maurice and Richard Turnor left A&O to start up their own law firm, Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP (shortened to MTG), with A&O’s encouragement and support. The move has been successful; MTG has flourished, even with the challenge of the pandemic.

Ceris is still a few years away from retiring and loves every minute of her work. “When people ask me what I like about being in my own firm, I say ‘fun and freedom’!”

Barry Bloom

Knowledge and the joy of passing it on

Barry Bloom joined A&O at 16 in August 1964 as a junior in the general office. He moved after a year to become a managing clerk in the (then) Corporate/Commercial department, and then became an associate in the Corporate department, where he continued for the rest of his time with A&O. He handled and advised on thousands of transactions over the course of his career.

Talk about good timing. When Barry Bloom, as a timid 16-year-old, interviewed for a job as a junior in A&O’s general office in 1964, he was asked by Major Sandell, the office manager, if he had good contacts in the print or newspaper business.

Somewhat puzzled, since he had only just left school, Barry replied that he didn’t. Why?

Because, Major Sandell said, the firm had that very day placed advertisements looking for someone to work in the general office, so he must have had advance warning.

Barry laughs at the memory. In reality, he had applied to A&O because someone had suggested he approach law firms for work and, by virtue of starting with an ‘a’, A&O had been on top of the list.

Another coincidence was that he started on the same day in the general office as Dave Timms, whom he had bumped into on the railway platform. They would also retire from the firm on exactly the same day in 2005, Dave having followed a similar path to Barry, except Dave worked in the Property department.

In the general office, Barry helped with everything from distributing the post to picking up cigarettes for those partners who smoked (which was then, strange to relate, permitted in the office). After a few months, he was moved from the general office “out in the corridors”, which meant he started doing clerking (what would nowadays be called a paralegal).

Barry had yet another piece of luck when he was placed with Eddie Edwards, a managing clerk in the Corporate/Commercial department who had been with A&O since its first day. Barry soon learned the art of researching legal questions, mostly to do with the 1948 Companies Act and schemes of arrangement. “I built up a very good knowledge of the Act and I absorbed all this information like a sponge,” Barry recalls. He sat with Eddie for the next couple of years before Eddie retired and Barry moved to sit with Arthur French, who had also been with A&O from the start.

Still only 20 years old when Arthur French retired, Barry went to work for Tony Herbert, from whom he learned “the ducking and diving of how to get deals done”. Through the 1970s, Barry worked on countless transactions for Hestair as it went on an acquisition spree, including buying Maclaren Buggies, Kiddicraft and selling a subsidiary company, which involved a trip to Australia. “This was great for me. Here I was, in the thick of some major transactions and delivering some great results for clients.”

After working for Tony Herbert, Barry hooked up with David Wootton and there followed another decade or more of interesting deals, including many for The Thomson Organisation.

Barry was a first port of call for lawyers, senior and junior alike, seeking technical as well as practical answers. “I had bibles for every transaction and I knew my way around them backwards.

I knew many standard company resolutions to the extent that I could dictate them. The junior lawyers liked to come and talk to me because they didn’t find me intimidating. I used to enjoy passing on knowledge. I believe the junior lawyers who worked with me liked that.”

While working with David Wootton, Barry also worked for Charlie McKenna and others, and was experienced enough to operate on his own. That Barry was able to run his own
transactions is tribute to the trust placed in him by the partners, even though he himself had never qualified. “It wasn’t specifically stated, but simply by proving myself, I was given the responsibility for managing deals from start to finish and working directly with clients. A&O gave me every support to work on my own.”

He retired from A&O in 2005 after 41 years. “I loved every minute of my time”, Barry recalls, “and I worked with wonderful people and made many friends. They say that more people came to my and Dave Timms’ leaving parties than anyone else’s!”