Here’s a first for Adam Smith, Esq.:  I’m issuing a challenge to US law firms, and to others throughout the English-speaking legal world.

The challenge is to create and sustain, on our side of the pond and elsewhere, an initiative to rival what leading UK firms have created, PRIME.

If you haven’t heard of PRIME, it was launched about a year ago at the initiative of David Morley, senior partner of Allen & Overy.

The idea is to get leading law firms behind the first plan to offer real work experience to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Here’s the beginning of the story, as reported last September in The Lawyer:

In late March this year [2011], a handful of representatives from City firms sat around a table at Allen & Overy (A&O). They had been invited by A&O senior partner David Morley to discuss an issue that had suddenly gone right to the top of the diversity agenda: social mobility.

“I called up the senior partners at some other big firms and said ’what if we got together?’,” recalls Morley. “We’re all doing things in this space but it’s really fragmented. What if we came up with a common set of standards and started looking at best practice?”

Initial attendees included representatives from Freshfields, Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Slaughter and May, Hogan Lovells, Herbert Smith, and Norton Rose.

The initiative is premised (as their website says) on this irrefutable reality:

Work experience is now an essential stepping stone to learning about the world of work. However, it can be hard for talented school-age students to access these opportunities if they come from a less privileged background or don’t have the right contacts to call on.

Later, Morley added:

“It is harder now than it was 30 years ago to get into the legal profession if you’re from an average or below-average income family. As a profession, we must change that. By collaborating across the profession, PRIME will create a step change in the legal sector’s commitment to fairer access, giving more students their first insight into the wide variety of career opportunities available in the legal sector. I would urge all law firms to join us in supporting PRIME.”

It’s open to students who meet the following criteria:

  • attend a state (non-fee paying) school; and
  • are [ages 14—18]; and
  • are or have been eligible for free school meals (or the participant attends a school that is significantly above the regional average in terms of number of students eligible for free school meals); or
  • would be of the first generation in their immediate family to attend university.

Firms commit to give at least 30—35 hours of relevant work experience to students who are accepted, and also commit to providing an annual number of work experience placements equal to 50% of the firm’s trainee intake, which is a demanding goal.

The 23 founding member firms include:

Addleshaw Goddard
Allen & Overy
Arthur Cox
Ashurst
Blake Lapthorn
Brodies
Clifford Chance
CMS Cameron McKenna
Dickinson Dees
DLA Piper
Dundas & Wilson
Eversheds
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
Herbert Smith
Hogan Lovells
Linklaters
Maclay Murray & Spens
McGrigors
Norton Rose
Pinsent Masons
Shepherd & Wedderburn
Slaughter and May
Trowers & Hamlins

PRIME also gained the endorsement and support of the Law Societies of England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

So is this just early recruiting by another name?  Trying to get students interested in being lawyers and especially (if so) interested in your firm?

Not at all.  It’s about giving students who, “despite being 20 minutes away, haven’t seen the Thames” (see below) genuine work experience-exposure to a world they may never before have seen first-hand. It’s exposure to possibility. From the PRIME site:

12. Is PRIME just for people who want to be lawyers? 
This is about giving students from less privileged backgrounds fair access to quality work experience, not training the lawyers of tomorrow. PRIME endorses work experience which gives students an insight into the range of careers available in the legal sector (for both lawyers and non-lawyers) and the potential routes into those careers, including the relevance of university education.

Make no mistake that inviting perhaps dozens of teenagers into your offices for closely monitored, structured, and supervised experiences takes a lot of planning and organization, as The Lawyer recognized in a follow-up feature on PRIME last September:

The cultural challenges for law firms, however, are substantial. ­”People seriously underestimate the sort of organisation that is needed to get this to work,” warns Freshfields’ [corporate partner Barry] O’Brien. Freshfields’ current work experience scheme takes up an entire month of his colleague Juliet Holden’s time, for example. For commercial lawyers used to instant response, it may be a culture shock dealing with a classroom-based profession that is not tied to a BlackBerry.

And then there’s the close supervision. “Not one of those kids are ever left alone, not even in the office,” says O’Brien. Furthermore, hordes of teenagers change the dynamic of an organisation, even if they are there for only a fortnight, he continues. ­”People get more comfortable over time with this. They used to be quite startled at seeing crowds of teenagers, but now they swarm in on a Friday afternoon for mentoring and nobody bats an eyelid.”

“The mentoring that we do works best when the kids come to us,” O’Brien adds. “We definitely learnt that – it genuinely helps to raise ­aspirations. Despite them being only 20 minutes away, half the kids haven’t seen the Thames, so getting them to come here is important – it’s a process of presenting themselves at reception, finding their way to the room where their mentor is going to be.”

“These things are very logistically challenging,” notes [Clifford Chance partner Laura] King. “With this age group there are legal restrictions in that you have to go though police checks to run events. And there are challenges such as transport. You have to set up a hybrid structure where you go out to the school. It’s a huge ask for a teacher if you say ’can you get on a bus and bring 40 kids to the office?’.”

But lawyers are good at organization; this shouldn’t be daunting if the commitment is there.

And while all recognize that PRIME is no quick fix, one year in the early reports are extremely encouraging.

The Senior Partner of one leading UK-based, multinational firm wrote this (private email which I have anonymized):

Dear xxxx,

These are our PRIME students this afternoon, at the end of their week with us [photo attached].

They’ve been fantastic (one of my colleagues says “inspirational”!). I’ve just watched their final activity, when they presented in groups on subjects such as “Euthanasia: a right or a crime?” and “If you could change one law, what would it be?” (lowering the voting age to 16, as it turned out). They performed at a level way above what I’d expected, and made me realise just how much potential they have and how much value there is in PRIME.

It was the first time we’ve worked with a group of this size and type, so there’s lots that we’ve learned, which we’ll put to good use next time, but we’ve got off to a great start, and PRIME has had a huge impact on some of our own people as well, which is a real bonus.

All the best,

yyyy

Imagine the feeling of gratification (“inspiration”).  Wouldn’t you like to share in that?

So:  I ask you again.

Why shouldn’t there be a PRIME/US, PRIME/Canada, PRIME/Hong Kong, PRIME/Australia?

Who is prepared to take Step One?  I cannot do it for you, but I can promise ample publicity right here on Adam Smith, Esq. to those who lead.

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