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A&O story: Justin Farrance - lockdown uplift for diversity

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Julian Moore

Partner

New York

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Samengo-Turner William
William Samengo-Turner

Partner

London

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Sarah Henchoz

Partner

London

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Stone David
David Stone

Partner, Global Head of Intellectual Property

London

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16 November 2020

We’re told there’s a silver lining in every dark cloud. GROW, a novel mentoring platform for students from underrepresented communities, shines out from the storms caused by Covid-19.

A new initiative called GROW that took off during lockdown is making a huge impact in its efforts to advance diversity, inclusion and social mobility in the legal profession. 

It’s the brainchild of Justin Farrance, an A&O second-seat trainee in London, and it started with a simple message on LinkedIn. Justin wanted to put the enforced solitude to good use. So he posted a note asking if there were any students in his network who needed help with the law firm training contract application process from someone who had recently gone through it.

And there were. Overnight Justin got emails from 150 students from a variety of backgrounds, none of whom he knew, all wanting to be one of the four people he said he could support as a mentor. Eventually his message clocked up 75,000 views.

He’d struck a nerve, but it wasn’t a complete surprise. In Justin’s experience, there were not many openly LGBTQ+ individuals with the relevant experience of having recently gone through the application process. His interest in social mobility was also a draw for many students.

The endeavour was separate from his work as an A&O trainee and in addition to it, so Justin reached out to his trainee and student contacts to ask them if they were able to help. Those who could were paired with one or more students from a similar community or background. A friend told him he was onto something and should formalise it, “and that’s what I did,” said Justin.

Built in a single weekend

GROW was created over a single weekend in March, during which Justin designed a basic website and logo, and wrote a mentoring guide. As the scale of demand began to emerge, he automated the sign-up procedure. Soon prominent individuals were sharing details of GROW and it took on a life of its own.

The concept is simplicity itself: matching up mentees with mentors who “are similar to them” boosts a student’s confidence and signals that there is a place for them in the profession. It’s an idea in tune with the times; when minorities and marginalised communities are facing disproportionate problems and movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) are mainstream news, removing barriers to the legal profession is a positive step. 

While GROW is open to anyone, about half of recent pairings come from BAME communities and more than half are from non-Russell Group universities. By November 1,000 students had been paired with mentors, although the number of students who want mentoring “far exceeds” the lawyers available. 

“It’s important that we’re highlighting an issue in the legal industry – a shortage of minority representation,” said Justin.

“The more diverse the talent coming into law firms, the better.” GROW is showing that “there’s still work to do, but we’re getting there.”

Justin’s message, which he spreads by “being openly myself”, is that students don’t need to have had a private education or an Oxbridge degree to join a top law firm. “I was state-school educated and the first of my family to go to university.”

“It shows that as long as you work hard and are willing to learn, there’s a place for ambitious people at these firms.”

A little help from his friends

As the initiative snowballed, Justin turned to his network for help. He found a willing partner in fellow A&O trainee Natasha Dutton, who he said has played “a pivotal role” in shaping GROW and meeting student demands.

It’s easy to see why Natasha came on board. “I love it!” she said. “I love the fact that we’ve created an opportunity for a group of people who historically are underrepresented in the legal industry to directly connect with someone who has either the life experience or experience as a lawyer, and is the visible image of what they want to become.

“We’re grateful to have been recognised as a pro bono client of the firm,” she said. “It’s also encouraging to know that GROW mentors – partners, senior in-house counsel, barristers and more – include a large cohort of A&O lawyers.”

One of Justin’s key supporters is Will Samengo-Turner, his supervising partner when he was a first-seat trainee in Corporate – and, since GROW was recognised as a pro bono client, Justin’s client relationship partner. 

Justin said Will directed him to those in the firm who could provide advice in important areas for the initial set-up and development of GROW, such as data protection.

Another key influence was his own mentor, Joanna Hughes. Attracted by her “unwavering passion for uplifting others”, Justin approached Joanna a few months before he was to join A&O about becoming his mentor. Their mentoring relationship, developed before and during lockdown, inspired Justin to want to do the same for others.

Joanna has been mentoring students for more than 20 years “because I care about raising aspirations in young people.” She started mentoring adults like Justin both within the Alumni team run A&O Mentoring Programme and outside it “because I’m aware of the good that networks can do.” 

Spread organically to the U.S.

Social media has no borders and GROW spread organically, crossing the Atlantic in one bound as lawyers and students in the U.S. heard about it and signed up. By September, mentors and mentees were meeting in New York and elsewhere.

New York partner Julian Moore was impressed. “Social media helped Justin propel the programme – it shows how much we’ve advanced” since his days as a mentee in Seizing Every Opportunity (SEO), a U.S. programme similar to GROW. 

He noted that GROW’s broad reach recognises and caters to the “intersectionality” of underrepresented communities. “I identify with a lot of those communities and appreciate the work Justin is doing,” he said.

In Julian’s experience, most firms are working to increase diversity, but not all are succeeding. “What pleases  me about A&O is that ‘allies’ – including white males – are willing to sit and listen to the issues to get a better understanding; and then affirmatively act,” he said. “They’re using their power and influence to be there for those who do not necessarily look like them or come from similar backgrounds.”

Interest among lawyers at firms such as Google, an A&O client, gives an indication of how the idea resonates. Within a week of hearing about GROW, 20 of its lawyers had signed up. Similarly, in-house lawyers at Barclays came on board.

It’s important that we’re highlighting an issue in the legal industry – a shortage of minority representation.

Bridging the gap with virtual events

In August, with Covid-19 hindering students’ physical access to law firms during application season, GROW sought to bridge the gap with a virtual event on the Zoom platform, in collaboration with the A&O Graduate Recruitment team. More than 400 students from diverse backgrounds tuned in to the event, which was introduced by David Stone, Global Head of IP. Justin and two members of the Graduate Recruitment team, Emma Barker and Charlie King, answered questions about the training contract application process, submitted through the Zoom chat function.

Pre-Covid-19, said Justin, such an event – held live – would likely have attracted 50-80 people, a vivid demonstration of how something like GROW “can make a difference.” 

At the same time, GROW set up a weekly Breakfast Series on the popular Instagram platform where individuals answered questions in real time. Justin’s friends and contacts were only too pleased to help.

A&O trainee Tashan Dwyer readily accepted the opportunity to represent his community. On top of the typical queries about work-life balance and how to get into A&O, Tashan fielded more nuanced questions about his identity and “how I reconciled that with the image of the typical lawyer – how I fit in.

“Those questions are on the tip of people’s tongues but they don’t always feel comfortable talking about them,” he said. What was different here – and what in his view helped make it work – was the ability of questioners to remain anonymous while getting “a bit of that person’s identity” as they answered questions.

After his Breakfast Session, 30 viewers reached out to Tashan for specific help. It led to more formal mentoring arrangements with three people, one of whom, at 26, is three years older than him.

Another Breakfast Series participant, trainee Eliza Asare Parbi, said the whole experience was “really positive”.

“We got so much engagement,” she said. Many questions were “very personal to me as well. It was what people really wanted to find out.” With different faces on the Instagram page, from first-seat trainees such as her to more experienced lawyers, it provided “a load of perspectives” in one place.

Eliza said mentoring helped her enormously when she was applying. She was keen to help through GROW because “without mentoring, I probably would not be where I am now.”

A&O partner Sarah Henchoz acts as one of the sponsors of GROW, but downplays her role. “None of us can pretend to have played any real part in its growth,” she said. “It’s phenomenal. Justin’s done so much on his own. He’s not needed much sponsorship – it would have been a huge success without any support.”

She said GROW is “such a simple concept – one of those things you can’t quite believe wasn’t there beforehand. With the lockdown period, a lot of people were conscious that people coming into the profession wouldn’t get the access to lawyers they otherwise would have had. This is a great way to get involved in the future.”

The GROW mentoring initiative has paired 1,000 aspiring lawyers with legal professionals so far.

To find out more about GROW Mentoring’s platform and expansive use of social media to attract both students and lawyers, go to @grow.mentoring on Instagram and @GROW Mentoring on LinkedIn.

GROW Mentoring is just one trainee initiative that seeks to promote diversity and inclusion. There are many others.

Trainees are also active on the following A&O Committees and Working Groups:

  • Race & Ethnicity Committee and Society of East Asian Lawyers – Godwin Tan
  • Social Mobility Working Group – Mateusz Maciejewski
  • A&Out – Elliott Glover, Kathryn Welsh
  • Women’s Network (WiN) – Senem Cilingiroglu, Sophie Larsen
 

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