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The best job in the firm!

29 December 2020

At the end of August, partners Annelies van der Pauw and Mark Mansell stepped down as co-heads of corporate responsibility at A&O after seven years of leading A&O’s pro bono and community investment (PBCI) programme around the world.

The best job in the firm!

During their time, the number of hours volunteered by lawyers has grown by over 30%, our global charity partnerships have each contributed over GBP1.3m, and our work has been recognised in the FT Innovative Lawyers reports every year for the past seven years.

Here, we speak to Mark and Annelies about their standout moments, the importance of PBCI for A&O’s culture and their respective plans for the future.

It was 2013 when Annelies and Mark took over the corporate responsibility role at A&O, with a particular focus on the firm’s global programme of pro bono and community investment work.

“We knew there was some excellent work going on across A&O,” Annelies says, “so our early objectives were to drive up the visibility and profile of the work, ensure we had clear areas of focus internationally, and demonstrate the impact of what we were doing better.”

An early objective was to ensure we had clear areas of focus internationally.

Annelies van der Pauw, Partner

“I remember realising pretty quickly, though,” says Mark, “that this was a long game. It’s not like becoming head of a practice group – you can’t compel people to do pro bono work – you have to demonstrate the benefits, show the impact and build engagement. I think we both knew we were likely to be in the role for more than the initial four years!”

Building a global network of champions

One of Annelies and Mark’s earliest objectives was to establish a strong global network of champions, including a partner in every country, to drive activity across the A&O network. Now numbering over 100 lawyers and support professionals, the network has been crucial in developing local programmes that respond to specific community needs, as well as mobilising international teams to take on large-scale projects.

“That’s become a real area of strength within our programme,” Annelies says, “bringing teams together to carry out research projects across multiple countries – something non profits generally don’t have the resources to do, but which can have a substantial impact. A recent example was the high-profile report into the discrimination faced by unmarried couples and those in same-sex relationships under Hong Kong law. Another was research into how governments around the world still routinely use ‘evidence’ obtained through torture. Each of these teams had dozens of people from different offices working together.”

An enhanced global Foundation

Another early goal was to raise the profile of the A&O Foundation (funded by contributions from all partners) and bring greater transparency and rigour to the process of selecting the charities it funded.

“The Foundation supported some great charities but the work was a bit under the radar,” Mark says. “So we reset the criteria with which we selected organisations to fund, and also brought in the provision of 100 pro bono hours for every Global Grants recipient.”

“Having greater clarity around the Foundation meant we could communicate more about the impact of partners’ contributions,” says Annelies. “This drove up engagement and ultimately increased the amount they contributed each year. This financial year, our partners put in over GBP1.8m to the Foundation, which is split across the Global Grants Programme, a disaster relief fund, and local A&O foundations to support the communities closest to them.”

A source of pride for everyone

“We felt strongly that our PBCI work should be a source of pride for people,” Annelies continues, “something absolutely at the heart of our business that everyone – lawyers and support professionals – could feel part of. That’s where our global charity partnerships have played a big role – they bring together the best of everything we do: pro bono and volunteering, fundraising, team challenges, in-kind support. Pretty much every office participates in some way.”

The global charity partnerships, Mark says, have also changed people’s impressions of the impact we can make. Through the partnership with AfriKids from 2012-2014, 75 people from 22 offices travelled to northern Ghana to see the impact of its work with street children in one of the poorest parts of the world.

“The experiences people had in Ghana was one of the single most powerful factors in showing how much we can do to help communities,” Mark says. “People came back genuinely changed by their time there and determined to engage their whole offices with AfriKids’ work.”

The AfriKids partnership went on to raise GBP830,000 – more than three times its initial target – and provided over GBP500,000 of pro bono support.

“Making that direct connection to communities became a central element of all our global partnerships thereafter, Mark says. “In fact, each one has gone on to break the previous partnership’s fundraising record. It’s quite incredible what we can achieve when we bring the whole firm together.”

 

You can’t compel people to do pro bono work – you have to demonstrate the benefits, show the impact and build engagement.

Mark Mansell, Partner

Accountability to communities

In February 2015, Annelies travelled to Tanzania to launch the two-year partnership with Amref Health Africa, aimed at providing sexual health education to children in Tanzania, where teenage pregnancy rates were high and pregnant girls were permanently expelled from school.

“Meeting the local Amref team in this remote region – plus the health workers, community workers and the children themselves – it gives you such a strong sense of accountability to that community,” she says. “I wrote a daily blog for the Amsterdam office to try and convey the sense of commitment you feel to help these communities break the cycle of poverty. They know what works, they just need the resources and support to make it happen.”

The partnership with Amref contributed GBP1.72m in financial and pro bono support. The largest project was a training programme on legal advocacy and communications skills, which Amref used to secure an 18-fold increase in local government spending on sexual and reproductive health services.

Overall, Amref has reached 160,000 young people in Tanzania with improved access to sexual education and health services – more than five times its target. Sustainable change is also happening within communities to value education over early motherhood and to eliminate traditional practices like FGM.

Responding to the biggest challenges in society

Mark agrees about the impact of meeting the people our partnerships support. He travelled to Jordan with War Child, A&O’s partner from 2016-2018, to visit two refugee camps and learn about the A&O-funded programme to deliver education and psychosocial support to Syrian refugee children.

“The trips we made really brought home the reality of the refugee crisis,” says Mark. “We were all watching it on the news, but actually meeting the people in the camps made it very real. You see that these people are just the same as us – doctors, teachers, business owners – people who had normal lives but whose entire futures, and their children’s, were suddenly taken out of their control.

“But you also see what we can achieve there. You visit the classrooms, meet the children and parents, and realise that early intervention with those children makes a dramatic difference to their futures.”

The stories shared by War Child and the A&O teams who visited strongly resonated across the firm.

“People’s engagement with War Child – as part of a broader programme of support for displaced people – showed how important it is for us to respond to the biggest challenges out there,” Mark says. “In pure fundraising terms, War Child became our most successful partnership, raising GBP1.5m.”

Education, education, education

War Child’s emphasis on education also resonated with Mark’s strong belief that education is the most effective way to address inequalities in every community the world over.

“The work we’ve done in this area is something I’m very proud of – everything from our grass roots programmes with local schools, to supporting the Fair Education Alliance – a coalition of 170 organisations working to tackle inequality in the UK education system.”

A standout moment for Mark was seeing Smart Start receive the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2017 – one of only six businesses recognised for outstanding achievement in Promoting Opportunity through Social Mobility.

“It was such well-deserved recognition for the community investment team, who’ve put so much dedication into building the best work experience programme for underprivileged teenagers in our sector – 1,500 students have been through Smart Start now. It’s won so many awards over the years, but seeing the team receive the Queen’s Award was special.”

Innovative work year on year

Smart Start is one of the seven A&O programmes that has featured in the FT Innovative Lawyers Report since 2014. This year, an ambitious multi-firm project to provide assistance to asylum seekers in refugee camps on the Greek Islands’ has won the overall Innovation in Social Responsibility award (See p8.).

 

More and more, people want to know who we are as a firm, not just what we do. It’s the values and culture of a business that attract and keep people and clients. Pro bono is central to that.

Mark Mansell, Partner

So how do we ensure our work remains innovative year on year?

Annelies has a simple answer: “It’s down to the PBCI team. They are such an experienced and dedicated group, always working with our network of champions to find the gaps in how people can access justice, or education and employment, and figuring out what more is needed, where can we achieve more impact.

“It’s also helped to have clear areas of focus. When I came into this role, I felt strongly that we should focus on doing what we do best. Providing financial support for charities and NGOs is of course important, but we are a big international law firm and with the people we have we can really do a lot to advance the rule of law around the world.”

“I completely agree,” Mark says. “I think people sometimes underestimate the level of good that lawyers can do!”

Driving broader sustainability goals

A&O’s pro bono work is also playing an important role in supporting the firm’s diversity and inclusion aims, with women’s rights, racial equality, LGBTQ+ rights and social mobility being the focus of most PBCI work. Climate change is a growing area, too, in particular its impact on the human rights of the communities most affected in developing countries.

“Pro bono work is key in how we make progress with our wider aims around social responsibility,” Mark says. “Take the Black Lives Matter movement – one of the ways we can best support that is by helping to provide access to justice through pro bono support, which we’ve committed to do more of, particularly in the U.S. (See p9.)

“The way we maintain strong engagement is by being relevant – like with the Grenfell fire, for example (in a London tower block, which killed over 70 people mostly from disadvantaged and marginalised communities), we responded within 48 hours by seconding lawyers to the local law centre to support the huge relief effort needed. Our people felt proud of that.”

Both Mark and Annelies also stress the role a strong PBCI programme plays in the firm’s culture.

“More and more, people want to know who we are as a firm, not just what we do. It’s the values and culture of a business that attract and keep people and clients. Pro bono is central to that,” Mark says.

I think people sometimes underestimate the level of good that lawyers can do!

Mark Mansell, Partner

“I think also, for the individuals who do it, it broadens the scope of your work and your life a great deal,” says Annelies. “It brings you out of the bubble of your team and the firm. You meet new people and you learn so much.”

“Doing this work massively enriches you,” Mark agrees, “it makes you a better lawyer. We’re all part of the communities around us and we have a huge ability to contribute to them.”

Plans for the future

Annelies retired from A&O in September after 20 years. “I don’t have a specific plan for what I’ll do next, but I’ve been involved with the arts for many years and that is still a big area of interest for me. I’m on the board of the AzkoNobel Art Foundation here in Amsterdam and I’ve also been taking on other supervisory roles in recent years, one with Maastricht University and another with a bank, which are really interesting. So I’ll continue with those while also taking some time to think about what else I can do.”

Mark retires in April after more than 30 years, and until then is continuing to lead A&O’s Social Mobility Working Group. A personal area of focus is mentoring people leaving prison. “I’m chair of a local charity that supports prisoners’ reintegration into communities,” Mark says. “If you’re looking for disadvantaged people in society, all the indicators of inequality are concentrated in the people who find themselves in prisons.

“Also, having been involved with small charities for a long time, I think there’s an opportunity to improve cooperation and resource-sharing between them, so my plan is to develop a way for charities to work more collaboratively – I’m a great believer in scalability.”

A&O’s new PBCI partners, Hilde van der Baan and Franz Ranero, started on 1 September – so what advice would Annelies and Mark pass on?

“One of the things I’m most proud of is that pro bono and community investment are seen as part of what we do now,” Annelies says. “People really value this work – our lawyers, support professionals, clients. I think it’s a great base to continue from and an amazing opportunity to make a difference in the world.”

Mark says that working with Kate Cavelle (A&O’s head of pro bono and community investment) and the wider PBCI team has been an “honour and a pleasure” for both himself and Annelies.

“I would say, keep pushing forward and, most of all, enjoy your time in this role. I genuinely believe it’s the best job in the firm!”

One of the things I’m most proud of is that pro bono and community investment are seen as part of what we do now.

Annelies van der Pauw, Partner

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