The quest to recruit more graduates like me

New PRIME chair reached top of Hogan Lovells the hard way

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Hogan Lovells global chair Nicholas Cheffings didn’t think that people like him worked for City law firms.

So the young Cheffings went from Leicester University’s law school, where he was the first member of his family to experience higher education, to join what was then the National Coal Board (NCB). He recalls:

Having only met a lawyer once in my life, to have my passport certified, I suppose I felt that City lawyer life wasn’t for me.

As it turned out, his decision to join the NCB, which had the largest in-house legal department in Europe at the time, proved to be a fantastic one – albeit more down to luck than judgment. The miners’ strike kicked off the year he completed his training contract, 1983, and he found himself at the heart of the action. “The memory of going to collieries to interview people at 2am with the lights off because they were afraid of being seen puts things into perspective when I’m drafting a commercial contract,” he smiles.

Not only was the work exciting but it was varied, with Cheffings doing “every area of law apart from family” during his seven years with the NCB – something which held him in good stead as his career became specialised further down the line. “To be good in a narrow area it helps to have had experience working in a broader area,” he says.

It was a time of huge societal change in the UK, and with the defeat of the miners and the subsequent opening up of the City via the ‘Big Bang’ of financial deregulation in the late 80s. In keeping with the theme of privatisation, around this time the NCB legal department was swallowed up by the law firm Nabarro.

By this stage the City had lost its fear factor as Cheffings had found himself regularly up against solicitors from the big corporate firms in his previous role and realised that “I was just as good as they were”. Having proceeded to specialise and build a reputation as a real estate litigator, he was headhunted by the then Lovells in 1999 and proceeded to watch the elite City firm morph into a leading global player via a succession of mergers which culminated in the 2010 tie-up with US giant Hogan Hartson.

Today Cheffings is Hogan Lovells’ global chair, presiding with his senior colleagues over 49 offices in 26 different countries. It’s a long way from working class North Lincolnshire, where he grew up. But Cheffings is determined that these different worlds remain connected and is a passionate advocate of schemes to boost social mobility in the legal profession, assuming the helm of City law-wide work experience initiative PRIME earlier this year. He comments:

There are some excellent people out there who just need the chance to prove it.

Cheffings takes over the PRIME hot seat from former Allen & Overy senior partner David Morley, another working class lad, who founded the programme in 2011. It now has nearly 100 law firms and in-house legal departments signed up to provide work placements to sixth form students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

“There are actually a lot of us in the big law firms and probably even more among our clients,” says the Hogan Lovells chief, before reeling off a list of colleagues from humble backgrounds in northern towns such as Middlesbrough, Bolton and Leeds, “which can come as a shock to those who perceive our world to be the exclusive preserve of home counties types. Part of the challenge is exploding the myths.” He continues:

Of course, there are pockets of many different types of people at big law firms and to an extent it’s about finding the people who you have a connection with. Whether it’s talking about the opera last night or Gillingham beating Southend, it doesn’t really matter. If you are good at what you do and work hard, people respect you and you will succeed.

With corporate law firms growing hugely over the last 30 years, to the point that the sector is now collectively the main provider of training contracts in England & Wales, Cheffings is conscious that the promotion of diversity rests on making organisations like his more welcoming to students like the one he used to be.

To that end he is a passionate supporter of contextual recruitment – which sees firms consider students’ grades in the context of their schooling and family background – and is proud to reveal that three of Hogan Lovells’ new trainees-to-be were hired thanks to this method. “They did not meet our A-level requirements but what they went on to achieve at university was very impressive and we are delighted to have been able to offer them training contracts,” he says.

The other limb of Hogan Lovells’ diversity strategy is to find students who’ve made it to top universities from tough backgrounds and then sponsor them through their undergraduate degrees. Currently the firm has bursaries in place at York, Durham and LSE, which unlike traditional Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) grants come with no obligation to go on to work for the firm.

The most important thing with all our diversity initiatives is that we are reaching out to students,” adds Cheffings. “Maybe they go on to join us, or another firm, or join another profession altogether. That’s all fine. We just want them to know the possibilities that exist.

Nicholas Cheffings is the chairman of PRIME.

25 Comments

Bello ius cogens

I went to a state school and then a redbrick university. One of the worst things about working in the City are the sheer number of arrogant and snobby private school Bristol/Durham associates and partners who immediately judge you and your ability based on University attended years ago. Its very prevalent and can be quite hard to fight against.

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Anonymous

agree although Bristol is of course one of the original 6 redbricks. All of which are pretty highly regarded these days.

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Anonymous

Not sure why you leave Oxbridge associates/partners out?

They are definitely not any better… and they do together take a higher proportion than Bristol/Durham.

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Bello ius cogens

Some Oxbridge have been snobby, but I feel at least it is a more difficult Uni to get into and they tend to not have anything to prove. The difference between a Manchester/Leeds/Birmingham LLB and a Bristol LLB is nothing, it comes down to choice for many, yet the snobbery persists often due to insecurity. I don’t have it the hardest. Some smart kids end up at City/Kent and are made to feel like they don’t belong in the City regardless of their backstory. This culture needs to change.

(8)(1)
Anonymous

I wholeheartedly agree with this, ‘lesser’ RG universities and even non-RG universities can produce extremely capable and well-rounded lawyers who have to work extremely hard for positions in the City – all because people can’t look past their own snobbery at the name of a university.

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Anonymous

Manchester/Leeds/Birmingham law degree is respected, but not as much as Bristol’s or Durham’s. There is a difference – on average, students at Bristol are brighter (academically of course), and so the volume will reflect that.

Now, City/Kent are not comparable at all. There are always bright people at every uni – some will succeed, most won’t. You can’t blame a recruiter for wanting to recruit from higher calibre institutions.

(2)(6)
Anonymous

The higher calibre/lower calibre university debate is becoming increasingly tiresome, though. Smart people tend to succeed, whichever university they attended – you do have to be bright to be a successful lawyer in a successful firm, granted, I just think it ignorant to assume that the most intelligent and most worthy of a law career go to a certain set of universities.

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Anonymous

Tiresome or not, it’s how it is. There will be a higher proportion of ‘smart’ people at high calibre universities, whether one accepts it or not. Recruiters targeting these more is both logical and expected.

Now, I do think there’s some personal blaming there – but you can’t entirely blame firms for this. Most have really opened up, most notably Freshfields which dropped its A-Level requirements and visit MANY universities. You can’t say they’re stuck up…

(2)(5)
Anonymous

You are correct there – a number of firms have opened up more, not just with the drop of a-level grades but with CV-blind interviews, contextualisation of grades (as previously mentioned) and working with companies such as Rare. All this screams to me that the name of one’s university just simply isn’t enough anymore and perhaps that’s indicative of how EASY it is to get into university these days – you could ‘bag’ a place at an RG with lower grades than what’s required to apply to a firm.

I’d like to point out that I don’t blame any firms for seeking to recruit at the higher calibre universities, that’s well justified. My problem is the insistence from people (Legal Cheek commentators, etc) that the best lawyers will come from the ‘top’ universities, there is no need to overlook the bright students in the lower calibre places.

(2)(0)
Anonymous

On your second point, if it is actually ‘that easy’, why don’t people just go for it instead of complaining?

On average, they will – because these unis send more people to firms (it’s quantitative, not qualitative per se). Many will thrive outside, though.

(0)(0)
Anonymous

Seriously? You want to have that discussion that Bristol grads are smarter than at other RG redbricks with exactly the same entry standards (and where according to the league tables, Bristol has lower average entry grades than some of the others)? Yeah go for it. Not sure why you have an overinflated view of your uni but I am not sure others think it’s in a league of its own as you do.

(4)(2)
Anonymous

Such as?

Rankings are most of the time straight out false – you will see Surrey above Imperial for Maths and you’ll be asking yourself what’s happening (it actually happened in 2013-2014). In all honestly, when ALL other ‘red bricks’ have been in clearing every single year, it’s hard to take your word for it.

That aside, Bristol is better, whether you like it or not. I chose ‘my uni’ on the basis of what will offer me the best chances, not on grudges and dismay (having gotten unconditionals from Durham, KCL and LSE, though rejected by Oxford). I’m not trying to elevate my uni – even if I did, Legal Cheek, the paradise of whiners in the UK, would be the last place I’d be doing it.

You may well not be sure, but my experience thus far has been entirely oppositional to your opinion. I have just got a mentor from a MC firm, the law fair is among the largest around, firms hold events on a weekly basis – and that is even though this is not London. Ie, HSF has just opened a workshop for Bristol students, others organise trips – you’ll see stuff you don’t see at your ‘average’ unis.

But, don’t just take my word for it – here it is, to see if I’m inflating things: http://www.chambersstudent.co.uk/where-to-start/newsletter/what-universities-do-most-trainees-come-from

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Bello ius cogens

Perhaps you are right. However if two kids from Kent end up in Freshfields, then they have been deemed good enough to be there. As good as the 40 from Oxbridge, perhaps in a different way but their talent has been recognised. They don’t need to be made to feel like they don’t belong there by the chippy partners and associates and not given work.

Also if you read my first post, I was suggesting that why should someone who went to boarding school at £30,000 a year and then Bristol feel they can look down on someone who went to a comprehensive/grammar school then Leeds. That was my own personal gripe as I’ve come across many of those snobbish c**ts in my time. People who have been coached within a inch of their lives to get a decent education feel they are more deserving of places in the City than others who didn’t have the benefit of such an expensive secondary schooling. I was never one to hold people accountable for where their parents sent them to school but when I hear Cheltenham Ladies College/Bristol associates braying that their friends are so much more deserving of TCs than a kid from east london with an LLB from City, I get annoyed, particularly when they make fun of the way said latter kid speaks.

(10)(0)
Anonymous

Side note, this is exactly what I thought you meant in your first comment and again, I wholeheartedly agree.

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Anonymous

I never said I don’t agree with your first point – if they both end up at Freshfields, they are obviously both very good in their own ways. I’m talking from a statistical basis.

Look – looking down on someone because of their university alone is obviously not right, no matter how accomplished one is. But that is also rather arbitrary. I just can’t imagine how anyone at a firm would do this so blatantly as to say ‘he’s from City – end of discussion’. Not a chance (referring to non US-firms of course). Firms are visiting more and more universities, and of course they will consider students from a wider background than these universities. The ‘issue’ is that City/Kent graduates will have to go a step further on their own initiative to make themselves stand out, acknowledging how saturated the legal market is (even for Oxbridge graduates). Surely this can’t be horrible trade-off? And if you’re certain a firm won’t consider you because of your university (which I repeat is highly unlikely on its own), just apply to those which are actively promoting their diversity in terms of university backgrounds.

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Bello ius cogens

I am not disagreeing with you are saying. But you are focusing on recruitment. Once you are in, there is a very different dynamic at play, its a lot more of a social game. A lot of people in firms are very closed minded, obviously recruitment and certain partners aren’t, but the vast majority of partners are conservative and often work with associates who are like them, and part of that means similar schooling and breeding. Fine if you went to Eton and then Newcastle, it may not be an issue as such, however if you went to Comp then Keele, you will be isolated unless you have some other form of redeeming feature (and I include shallow ones in that). I honestly believe firms are getting better in terms of diversity for entrance, and Universities too. But again once in, you find the same chaps (and now increasingly chapettes) getting all the work and progressing.

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Anonymous

I went to a local comprehensive school, studied at UWE, trained at a small national commercial firm and now at a silver circle firm in the city. I hate seeing the snobbery around universities. Yes it is harder coming from a uni like UWE because of the snobbery in law, but by no means is it impossible. Don’t let these LC trolls dampen your spirits!

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Anonymous

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Anonymous

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Anonymous

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Anonymous

0.45% is a reflection of the fact that UCAS admission statistics put white working class attendance at university at 9% not 12.8%.

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