The Prince of Wales Seeing is Believing programme was a key element of the inspiration for international law firm Allen & Overy’s project SmartStart. Its aim is to increase the employability of young people and also to create a more diverse City workforce by encouraging employees from non-traditional backgrounds – thereby tackling a business critical issue for the legal profession.
SmartStart began as a three-day workshop for 100 young people. Over the last three years the scheme has become a company institution and one that delivers a real return on investment. Now the programme involves a week-long programme of workshops for over 120 young people followed by a year long e-mentoring and support programme, Smarter Futures, and a bursary scheme.
Chris Marshall, the firm’s Pro Bono & Community Affairs senior manager who leads the SmartStart project management committee, says the week is a highlight of the company’s annual calendar. “There is a special buzz in the building during the week. Those who take part, colleagues and students, are highly engaged and share a positive dynamic.”
He says key to the success of the programme has been having high level buy-in from Allen & Overy executives from the start. “It can be very difficult to get people away from their desks. But if the global head of your business is passionate and board members are really behind a programme then it is easier to do so. A number of the partners come from non-traditional backgrounds and so see the value of the programme from a personal perspective.”
Marshall says there are logistical challenges in having 120 17-year-olds in the building: “It can get loud, but it brings vibrancy to the firm and we all get a lift.”
The programme enlists students sourced by The Brokerage City Link, a non-profit that works with City firms to engage with students from 14 to 18-years-old with a view to raising their future career aspirations. They are selected on the basis that they are the first in their family to go to university, are the recipient of free school meals, or would be unlikely to otherwise access work experience.
The core cost of the programme is around £20,000, not including the time of the 350 volunteers who contribute between one hour and one day. The firm also makes a wider investment in monitoring and evaluation and on communications. This is designed to ensure the experience is effective and continues to gain momentum amongst young people and in the corporate sector.
Marshall says as well as the ethical and moral reasons for running the programme – “it is the right thing to do” – there are measurable business benefits.
“Colleagues value volunteering opportunities that allow them to develop their skills and share them for the benefit of the community,” he says.
The programme, which is co-delivered with a number of Allen & Overy’s clients including Deutsche Bank, HSBC, GE and Lloyds Banking Group, allows people across the firm to build meaningful relationships with client colleagues that can be leveraged in the work environment.
“We see the success of SmartStart as being the impact that it has on young people's lives in terms of building their skills, their aspirations and we hope, in time, in enabling young people from non-traditional backgrounds to secure City roles.”