Social mobility is not just for Londoners

Social mobility is a huge concern for the legal profession, and in recent years most major firms have put increasing effort into developing programmes to help raise aspirations in their local communities.

This is great news for underprivileged children… or at least it is for those who happen to live in inner London, with many of the world’s biggest law firms on their doorstep.

It is, of course, commendable that firms help their local communities, but such a narrow geographical focus risks alienating those in smaller communities some distance from the capital (or any other major city for that matter). The City of London attracts talent from all over the world, yet in communities across our country little is known about these opportunities.

It’s always been my belief that children across the country should be able to aspire to pursue a career in international law if they have the talent and inclination to do so. Luckily, my sentiments were fully supported by our very broad-minded diversity and inclusion committee and Impress was set up to help address this imbalance (17 October 2013).

The scheme is a partnership between Norton Rose Fulbright, Durham University and the Ashington Learning Partnership (ALP) and helps to raise the aspirations of 30 gifted students aged between 12 and 14 across three of ALP’s schools.

Ashington is a former mining town in Northumberland. While London has inspirational landmarks like the Shard, Ashington’s main landmark comes in the form of Woodhorn Colliery’s winder towers that hark back to the town’s industrial past. They have come to symbolise a decline that has led to high rates of unemployment and child poverty. Yet Ashington is home to many bright youngsters and, in ALP, an educational trust that recognises the benefits of initiatives like Impress.

But Impress isn’t just about raising aspirations; it also aims to equip the children with the skills and knowledge to help them achieve their (hopefully ambitious) career goals. Having grown up in the town I know how so many students are pleased just to go to university without realising how their choice of institution will affect the number of doors open to them when they graduate.

The great thing about partnering with Durham University is that they are able to gain a snapshot of life at an elite university. This year, we noticed a few of the students felt intimidated when they first visited Durham yet at the next event they were completely relaxed and even considering studying there.

There is a competitive element to the programme where the 30 students have to apply for the 12 places available for the final part of the scheme: a residential event at Durham. The answers the students provided on their application forms demonstrated the impact Impress is already having, citing the new skills they had acquired and their newfound interest in studying at an elite university and perhaps becoming commercial lawyers.

At the end of the day though, it’s not about creating 30 wannabe lawyers – as long as our students complete the programme feeling more confident about their future and knowing a little more about how they can succeed in any career they choose, everyone will be happy.

Adam Smith is a trainee solicitor at Norton Rose Fulbright and founder of the social mobility initiative Impress