The Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme is one of the ways that Freshfields tries to promote social mobility. But the programme is a two-way street: as well as providing development opportunities for black men from less socially mobile backgrounds, Freshfields’ own people gain unique perspectives from the smart, dynamic scholars.
‘Project week’ is a crucial part of the scholarship scheme. Scholars are challenged to create a comprehensive report on an important issue, giving an accurate experience of working in a high-pressure professional services environment.
Without any prior notice, scholars are given a brief on Monday and have only the rest of the week to create a comprehensive response. This year, scholars were tasked with advising a fictitious international logistics company coming under pressure from non-executive directors and shareholders to clean up their act and respond meaningfully to climate change concerns. The committee had to urgently come up with a strategy before an industry event where Greta Thunberg was rumoured be attending to give a keynote speech, the scholars were told.
Scholars were empowered to tackle these thorny issues with a packed weeklong agenda of lectures and workshops where experts gave insights into the many facets of the problem. Freshfields partners led sessions on technical corporate-law topics like ‘governance and disclosure’ and ‘class actions’, and on the benefits of a circular business model.
Perspectives from outside of Freshfields also included ‘investor/funder expectations’, with further views from a regulator, an insurance broker and an expert in climate change modelling.
Scholars were provided a structured space to discuss the best way to respond and prepare for a presentation on Friday. A ‘research centre’ replicated the kinds of materials Freshfields lawyers have access to in this kind of work and a range of people, from associates to our subject specialist ‘knowledge lawyers’, were on-hand to offer advice as needed.
A rewarding, realistic project
“This is as close to real client work as you can get without being a qualified lawyer,” says Freshfields Partner Annette Byron, who is closely involved with the Stephen Lawrence scheme. “Project week is a really great way to help the scholars studying a variety of subjects take a strategic approach to work, and for those interested in a career in the legal profession or the City to start to see information through that lens and to build skills and confidence. And we have chosen to encourage scholars to take an holistic view of something that is very topical. Their work has impressed everyone: it would be a credit to qualified associates in many firms.”
The Stephen Lawrence scholars themselves admit that the project week is hugely challenging but say it ultimately gave a real sense of achievement. “I think everyone will probably say this, but the project week was my highlight,” says Zen Crichlow, a law student at Nottingham University, a 2018 scholar looking back on his scheme experience. “It was the hardest I think I’ve ever worked – ever! I think the best part was, even though we never thought we’d make the deadline, at the end of the week we realised we’d really achieved something together.”
Connor Brylczak, a law student at Manchester Metropolitan University, agrees: “The project week was a particular highlight. I think it’s always better looking back on it once you’ve got through it: at the time I wouldn’t have told you that! But I appreciate it was designed to test us – and test me it did! I felt afterwards, reading the report again, I couldn’t believe we’d actually produced something so good.”
Tim Wilkins, Freshfields Global Partner for Client Sustainability, was involved in the project week, giving insights into sustainability leadership strategies. He says that the scholarship also benefits Freshfields through offering different perspectives. “Getting a fresh view on this type of problem can be very valuable, especially in areas like this at the cutting edge of law. We at Freshfields formally launched our client sustainability practice in May 2019 so it’s a relatively new area,” he says. “That said, the scholars’ findings were consistent with our own approach: they understood that organisations have to restructure to put sustainability considerations at the heart of their business model. I was really impressed. The world will need smart, capable people like these scholars.”