Meet the pro bono and community investment champions: Jo Hughes
12 December 2019
An unending commitment to social mobility
Talk to Jo Hughes for just a few moments and her passion and energy for helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds shines through.
The sheer scale of the work she does in this area is remarkable, as colleagues who nominated her for the Outstanding Contribution Award attest. One described her commitment to tackling social mobility as “unending – she brings so much energy to the room and the people she connects with.”
It’s a cause linked directly to Jo’s own background. Coming from Ipswich – a social mobility ‘cold spot’ in the UK – and from a family where she remains the only person to have gone to university, she has always been struck by how young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds so often “deselect” themselves from opportunities, just through lack of knowledge and guidance.
“I do feel passionate about it. Nothing makes more sense to me than ensuring a person’s occupation and income are not tied to where they started in life,” Jo says, pointing out that young people from low-income backgrounds earn on average 24% less a year than those from higher-earning professional backgrounds – largely because of the cycle low-paid work and disadvantage can create.
“It’s hard not to contrast the opportunities and knowledge my own four children have now, compared to me when I was their age.”
Jo believes business has a huge part to play in tackling a problem that a recent UK Social Mobility Commission report says has stayed stagnant since 2014. And working for a firm that wants to address this issue has allowed her to make a significant personal contribution.
Mentoring young people to success
Jo first got involved with A&O’s community investment work in 1999, not long after qualifying as a solicitor in the Litigation practice. She began volunteering as a mentor for a schools programme in Hackney – one of the most deprived boroughs in London at the time – and went on from there to take part in a whole series of A&O programmes supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, including Smart Start, Smarter Futures, Future Frontiers and Mosaic mentoring.
It’s mentoring these young people at important points in their lives that Jo enjoys the most – as well as meeting fascinating people working at the forefront of social mobility. “For me life is all about relationships,” she says.
Jo has provided much support for colleagues working in the area too, for instance convincing the community investment team to enter A&O’s Smart Start Experience for the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise – an award the firm went on to win, becoming one of only six businesses in the category of Promoting Opportunity through Social Mobility. (Read more about Smart Start on page 18 of Increasing Access Issue 05).
Jo is an active pro bono champion in the Litigation practice and a member of 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 at A&O with a personal interest in the subject – to join up the firm’s thinking, generate ideas and track progress.
It’s good to see, Jo says, that the group’s work has been recognised in the recent Social Mobility Employer Index – with A&O rising over 40 places to number 32 of 125 companies.
The Index ranks employers on the actions they are taking to ensure access and progression for people from all backgrounds.
Programmes like A&O Accelerate, Lawyer of the Future and Smart Start, which address the access and recruitment points, were recognised in the Index. “But it’s important we also stay focused on how our current people are progressing,” says Jo. “The Working Group maintains a large spreadsheet of action points!”
Outside of work, Jo helps a private school raise funds for Assisted Places for students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Assisted Places can pay up to 100% of the school’s fees, which enables the school to include a greater number of pupils from diverse backgrounds.
Many high points
There have been so many high points, but one sticks out for Jo: a poem written for her by a group of female students she had worked with in the Mosaic mentoring scheme, which aims to raise the aspirations of girls aged 9 to 11 and empower mothers to help their daughters fulfil their potential. Each line of the poem started with the letters in ‘Mosaic’ – and the last line was: ‘Confident. That is what I will always be.’
Jo is realistic about the challenges the UK – and many other countries – face in tackling the barriers children from disadvantaged and low-income backgrounds encounter. It is an issue, she says, that will take time to break down across society. But she has no doubt that change is coming in the legal profession in general, and at A&O in particular, thanks to the commitment of many different parts of the firm to keep working on this.
So what does it mean to win this award from her peers?
She has a simple answer: “Everything!”
This article is taken from the new edition of our pro bono and community investment magazine, Increasing Access.
Download the full magazine below