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European law firms are crossing the globe to use their skills and experience in initiatives that promote human rights and the rule of law. Equally importantly, firms are taking a problem they encounter at home more seriously: the lack of diversity in the workplace.

Firms are recognising they can use knowledge acquired through their commercial work to support civil society organisations. For example, for more than 10 years White & Case has worked with New York-based non-profit organisation the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation on a programme that helps governments monitor and halt the processes that can lead to mass atrocities, and trains government, police and military officials in genocide prevention.

The relationships and experience White & Case has built up through the programme have also increased the value of the services it offers to corporate clients. “We’re doing the right thing. But, also, atrocity prevention is another form of legal risk management,” says Owen Pell, the White & Case partner who spearheaded the initiative.

At Linklaters, the approach has been to use the firm’s intellectual capital to promote the rule of law. More than 200 of the firm’s lawyers worked for five years to help Liberia rebuild its legal infrastructure by producing an indexed digest of the country’s jurisprudence dating back more than 150 years.

Meanwhile, for some firms, the focus has been closer to home, particularly on efforts to increase social mobility and diversity in the legal sector. Some are also looking far beyond traditional recruitment pools to promote social inclusion. Through its Smart Start work experience programme, for example, Allen & Overy brings young people from underprivileged backgrounds into its offices for a week.

The youngsters’ activities include mock deals, for which they act as advisers. In one session, teams negotiate the buying and selling of a football club, with A&O staff playing sheikhs and oligarchs, the potential buyers.

The sessions build confidence, as well as skills such as writing a CV and making public presentations. They also expose young people to the workings of a law firm. “None of them would have any idea about what law is, so this brings it alive,” says David Morley, A&O’s worldwide senior partner who conceived the programme and chairs it.

The Smart Start programme has now been extended into Prime, a national initiative in which 88 law firms participate. “Every firm does it slightly differently, but a minimum standard is set in terms of the quality of the work experience,” says Mr Morley.

For Baker & McKenzie, statistics were what prompted a focus on diversity in its London office. In 2006, it discovered that just 4 per cent of trainees and only one partner in the office — the firm’s largest — were from black and minority ethnic groups.

Rather than paying external consultants to hire new staff, the firm created the BakerEthnicity initiative to address systemic barriers to diversity. A range of programmes includes widening the diversity of recruitment panels and giving interviewers training to combat unconscious bias.

Many of the ideas for initiatives came from the staff. “The way we’ve tackled some of these things has been from the inside out,” says Sarah Gregory, inclusion and diversity partner at Baker & McKenzie. “We’ve used the energy and ideas of people from across the organisation — that’s been really important.”

As critical, however, has been the recognition that, like so many social responsibility initiatives, promoting diversity makes strategic sense. “We see this as having an important business benefit,” says Ms Gregory. “Because, as a law firm, if we don’t look like our clients and represent their values, we’re going to be less effective.”

Case study: iProbono

While studying at the University of Warwick’s law school in 2003, Shireen Irani wanted to apply her research to promoting human rights. Her difficulty in identifying opportunities to do this led her to create an online marketplace that now has a network of more than 50,000 volunteers and has provided services to the social sector worth more than £7.4m.

Ms Irani tapped into a groundswell of demand from lawyers to use their skills and training to help solve global problems. “Because of time constraints and lack of visibility as to what existed, they weren’t able to find anything,” she says.

Social networks were still at a nascent stage, as were law firms’ corporate responsibility initiatives, and no forum existed where lawyers could easily find projects that matched their individual passions with their specific skills. In 2009, therefore, Ms Irani secured the support of her law firm, Fieldfisher, to create an independent organisation and technology platform that would become iProbono, with headquarters in the UK and India.

Non-profit organisations post projects on iProbono, which sends alerts to the most appropriate lawyers in the network. Organisations are subjected to due diligence by iProbono, which works with them so that, rather than making open-ended requests, they develop projects that are clearly defined in scope.

Examples of the work volunteer lawyers undertake include creating contracts, representing vulnerable people or securing adequate compensation for abused children. Such cases not only help these people, says Ms Irani, but also pave the way for fairer judgments in future cases. “That’s strategic litigation,” she says. “It’s individual justice, but we’re also advancing the legal system.”

In the process, iProbono is meeting demand by lawyers to use their skills for public good. “For this generation of professionals, there’s a real hunger for these opportunities,” says Ms Irani.

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