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Smart Start celebrates ten standout years

10 July 2019

As A&O’s award-winning work experience programme returns this week in London, we look back at how much it has achieved. 

In July 2009, A&O launched the first Smart Start Experience, inviting 160 sixth-formers, age 16-17, from some of the most deprived areas of London into Bishops Square.

Ten years on, Smart Start has driven up standards of work experience in the legal sector, supporting 1,450 young people in the UK and expanding to Hong Kong, India and South Africa.

It became a case study used by the government’s Social Mobility Taskforce in how businesses can tackle social exclusion, and helped to create PRIME, a commitment across the UK legal sector to provide more high quality work experience placements for students from non-privileged backgrounds.

Over the past ten years, Smart Start has received numerous awards and accolades, including from the Financial Times, Evening Standard and the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise.

During Smart Start week, we speak to some of the people responsible for its success over the past ten years.

Broadening access to quality work experience

“When David Morley (then senior partner) first brought the Smart Start team together back in 2008, he had a very clear idea of what he wanted to achieve,” says Sue Wisbey who, with Emma Turnbull, runs A&O’s community investment programme.

Government research had shown that it was harder for young people from non-privileged backgrounds to make it in the top professions than it had been 30 years before. “I remember David saying, ‘we just can’t have that in our profession’,” Sue says.

A key part of the problem was work experience opportunities being handed out through personal networks – based on ‘who you know’. “Even the good schemes in our sector were mostly offering work shadowing for small groups of students who already knew they wanted a training contract.

“So the aim for us was to create a programme that would provide broader access to the world of law and business, as well as high quality work experience to help less privileged young people get a foot on the career ladder,” says Sue.

“We wanted to target students from low-income households,” Emma adds, “who weren’t necessarily getting top grades but who had ambition and drive. Students whose backgrounds meant they would probably never consider a career in the City or know how to access opportunities. No one was really focusing on that harder to reach group back then.”

Preparing for the world of work

The success of the first Smart Start programme exceeded expectations. “The change we saw in the students during that week and the feedback from them, as well as their parents and teachers, was amazing,” says Sue. “It hit home what a big impact we could have.”

The core of the Smart Start programme remains largely unchanged today. “We put a lot of thought into what skills these young people needed to develop and what they’d find interesting about A&O,” she says.

As well as workshops on presentation skills, interviews, personal brand and CVs, there is a focus on creative thinking, problem solving and resilience. Students go on speed networking lunches with A&O and client volunteers, prepare the defence in a mock murder trial and negotiate the sale of a football club in a fast – and usually noisy – business challenge.

“We want the students to learn about different career options – whether that’s being a lawyer, paralegal or legal PA, or working in finance, IT, marketing or HR. The week is challenging but interesting and fun, and importantly provides skills the students can build on in the future,” Sue says.

The importance of mentoring and financial support

While the main workshops have stayed constant, Sue and Emma have added to the wider programme every year, offering mentoring, bursaries, university summer school placements, employability support during university and work experience with clients.

Over 500 students have now been through the online mentoring programme, Smarter Futures. “They benefit so much from having that ongoing support at a time when they’re making big decisions,” says Emma. “In many cases, they don’t have anyone else like that in their lives – someone outside their existing network, totally focused on them, who can bring different experiences and contacts.”

Ten years ago, the main decision was whether to apply to university. But now, Emma says, at age 16 young people have around 12,000 choices – from school leavers programmes to apprenticeships and higher education qualifications.

“That’s why mentoring is more important than ever, because ‘network poverty’ creates real inequalities among young people. Depending on your upbringing, you might never hear about many of these options. Or you might experience complete choices overload and not know how to make the right decision.”

The bursaries of £10,500 awarded to two standout students every year have helped address another concern for most Smart Start participants: funding the cost of higher education. “We see a lot of confusion and anxiety from students about university fee structures, as well as how to fund the cost of living. It adds another layer of stress for low-income households,” says Emma.

The volunteers that make it happen

The Smart Start programme is delivered by over 150 volunteers each year, with 40% coming from A&O’s clients – many of whom return each year bringing more colleagues with them.

Jonathan Price is a Director of Legal at Aviva and has volunteered for the past six years in nearly every element of the programme. He is also a mentor and is helping Sue and Emma to target students across East Anglia through a skills and assessment day in Norwich.

“I started off doing the speed networking event in 2013 and got hooked,” Jonathan says. “Smart Start removes the mystery around careers in the City and makes them seem attainable. Over the course of the scheme, you see the students’ confidence grow – partly from the core skills they’re learning but also by becoming comfortable in this environment. They leave the scheme positive and ready to aim high. They see the City as somewhere they have every right to be and, importantly, as a place where they can succeed.”

Since becoming a Smarter Futures mentor, Jonathan has seen all of his students go on to have successful university careers. One now has a training contract with A&O, and another Smart Start student has just started a summer internship with Aviva.

“I’m in contact with nearly all of my mentees. I learn just as much from them – their enthusiasm and drive is something we should all aspire to. I’m also continually inspired by what Sue and the team manage to deliver – it’s a huge operation, delivered at scale by a small team.”

Rachel Donelan is a Litigation associate and has been volunteering with Smart Start for five years.

“I always take part in a couple of different sessions each year – one of my favourites is the speed networking because you meet such a variety of young people. It amazes me how mature and engaged they are with Smart Start and their future careers,” says Rachel.

“I enjoy working with this age group because they’re starting to grapple with big questions about what to do when they finish school. Smart Start is an amazing opportunity for students from less privileged or less academic backgrounds, particularly as it helps them develop important skills like teamwork and interviews, which aren’t always the focus at school.”

Rachel is also a Smarter Futures mentor and sees how important this support is for students. “It means they get a different perspective on questions like: is it possible to have a job while studying at university? How do I choose halls of residence? Should I go to the same university as my boyfriend? Being able to raise concerns in this way helps them to manage stress and have confidence that they’re making the right decisions for the right reasons.”

The benchmark of quality

Smart Start remains the first and only scheme across the legal sector to be formally accredited by City & Guilds, the vocational education organisation.

“The accreditation process was rigorous,” Sue says. “City & Guilds reviewed all our materials and activities, interviewed volunteers and spoke to lots of students. It was tough to achieve, but we really wanted to show how Smart Start stands out for its quality. It also means the students get a certificate of attainment to use in CVs and interviews – something very tangible for them.”

As Smart Start has developed each year, the list of awards and accolades has grown too – a particular highlight being the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2017 for ‘Promoting Opportunity through Social Mobility’, one of only six businesses to receive this.

But, as Sue and Emma say, the real pride comes from seeing the difference Smart Start makes to the students themselves.

Businesses have an important role to play

“Since we opened up the programme to students across the UK, teenagers are coming to us from as far as Sheffield, Cardiff, Bradford and Hull – around 60% are from outside London now,” says Sue. “For some, this is the first time they’ve got on a train and left home – it’s huge for them. When they walk into A&O, most have never experienced anything like this before.

“When I see kids – who at the beginning of the week were so shy and nervous they could barely speak – become confident and enthusiastic about their future, and when parents tell me their children have come home buzzing with excitement, that’s the point of Smart Start.”

Emma agrees. “It was never about finding lawyers – we have great programmes in graduate recruitment for that with a strong focus on social mobility. Some of our students go down that route and get training contracts here or with other firms, which is fantastic. But our original aim was to support the young people who have potential and ambition – just no idea how to realise them.

“With the help of our volunteers – who put everything into this – these students start to unpick the big decisions, learn about their options and what they might be suited to, grow in confidence and ultimately build a picture of what they can do with their lives. I love hearing the conversations that go on between the volunteers and students. I’m proud of the way A&O comes together to make that happen.”

As Emma points out, businesses have a big role to play in getting young people ready for the world of work and providing access to opportunities for everyone, regardless of social background. That is one of the objectives of A&O’s Social Mobility Working Group, she says, “to challenge ourselves to think more about this, because coming from a disadvantaged background still creates so many barriers.”

And that, says Sue, is what motivates her to keep pushing to do more every year – “the thought that otherwise these young people might not get this chance, and we know they’re capable of achieving so much.”

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