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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.