The 2020 Interviews: James Partridge of Allen & Overy

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James Partridge is the graduate recruitment partner and training principal at A&O, previously a partner in litigation.

What have been the most exciting developments at A&O over the past year or so? Could you cite any particular areas of growth in the firm?

We’re continuing to look to strengthen our presence in the US and Asia and evolve our advanced delivery and solutions offerings including our A&O Consulting practice. On the people side, there’s been a big focus in the firm on mental health and wellbeing which is one of the strategic priorities of the firm. It’s been interesting to see a greater openness around mental health and the tools we have made available such as Headspace, have been really useful for employees during the pandemic. We are also building on our internal ‘Minds Matter’ programme which has encouraged an open culture of discussing mental health. This was led by senior individuals in the business, from both the fee-earning and non-fee-earning side, who recorded videos and talked about their own experiences and challenges – which was very powerful. The trainee population, have also formed a trainee mental health working group. I meet with them once a quarter and they share their ideas. My role is to act as bridge between them and the wider firm. For example, for some time there has been inconsistency between departments around flexible working for trainees, so, as a group, they came up with a policy document which we rolled out in January (which was timely) making flexible working available for trainees.

Based on our trainee calls, we heard the seat allocation process has undergone another change this year. Could you tell us more about the use of the seat planning app and ranking system?

We have recently revisited the seat allocation process. In the past we had a system where you were guaranteed a priority seat, but we noticed an overconcentration of interest in certain parts of the business which meant we weren’t always able to accommodate people’s preferences. Now trainees  rank  the groups they want to work in (on a scale of 10 to 1, 10 meaning you really want to sit in that team)  and although you don’t have the concept of a guaranteed seat, you’re making your own application and you have a choice as to what you put down, so trainees feel as though they have more control. The algorithm then produces suggested seats, taking into account all trainee preferences, and this is then reviewed by HR, to ensure there is a still a human element to the process. The feedback has been positive from trainees so far..

How have A&O’s practices been affected by Covid-19 and how has the firm been managing the increased workload? Has there been a redistribution of resources?

It has obviously been a very challenging time for everyone, not just law firms. We transformed into a virtual law firm in a very short space of time, during which, we were also in the middle of a long-planned IT update. I think the feeling is that this went as well as it could have done. Our revenue for the past financial year ending April 2020 (which included the first two months of lockdown) has gone up by 4%, so we are pleased with this result. At the moment, as you would expect, certain parts of the business are busier than others, for example our restructuring  team are very busy. There have been also been instances, as always,  of practices thinking of how they can deploy associates in agile way, for example the London litigation team helping to resource a big matter in another region.

Obviously the first priority was around protecting the business and the people in it.  From a trainee development  perspective, we were thinking of how to support our current trainees as well as future trainee cohorts, so we had WebEx meetings early on in pandemic with those currently on the GDL and LPC courses to tell them what we could and to reassure them. It’s been challenging but we were able to make the transition to remote working at quite a rapid pace of change, We are now thinking about the future and how we can avoid reverting to old habits and how we embrace the opportunities for agile working that have come out from this. We’ve seen a huge acceleration in the use of technology and as an organisation we are aware of the benefits of having greater flexibility around how and where work is done, for example in terms of wellbeing, social mobility and and efficiency. For trainees and more junior members of staff, we definitely want to focus on how we can maintain training, development and networking with less time currently being spent in the office. We’ve been encouraging trainers to involve trainees on calls even if they aren’t needed, in order to create learning opportunities remotely. It is obviously a worrying time for a lot people but also one that has created opportunities for thinking about new ways of working.

Has there been a drastic impact on the training contract and/or the qualification process with the shift to remote working? I’m aware the firm has cut the NQ salaries for this year.

No, I don’t think so. I had a conversation with all the practice heads early on and we were all keen and conscious that at this time in the cycle you don’t want to be deferring training contracts or losing people, if possible. So, I’ve been pleased, but not surprised, that people have been focussing on retaining our trainees. We’ve tried to have a transparent and open dialogue with trainees and make sure there are opportunities. The HR team worked very hard to make sure we can match trainees to different opportunities across the business. This year has been our highest retention figure for some time. We have also tried hard to maintain secondment opportunities where possible in our global network. We’ve been able to keep virtual overseas secondments in offices in appropriate time zones. Unfortunately, for the coming six months we aren’t continuing with our Asia Pac or New York secondments since it’s difficult to service those secondments virtually. However, we have continued with secondments in continental Europe and UAE (and hope those will all go ahead as physical secondments as restrictions relax) and we have significantly increased the number of client across all practice areas.

In light of the Black Lives Matter Movement, how has A&O's response been structured internally and externally?

The events surrounding the death of George Floyd and the subsequent spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement forced all of us to focus on issues relating to systemic racism in society and in the work place. We know that these challenges are not new and so as a business we have been looking for some time at how to address the issue of racial and ethnic diversity at A&O. This started last year with a large scale project looking at our data on the recruitment and retention of black and ethnic minority lawyers at A&O and culminated in a strategy to help us achieve the race and ethnicity targets we have set and recently announced.

In the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd news, there was a very powerful message sent internally and shared externally from senior partner, Wim Dejonghe and managing partner, Gareth Price, it then falls to each part of the business to encourage conversation and reflection. We are encouraged to see how and what we can change. For example, the first seat trainees got together and had a virtual discussion about the resurgence of the BLM movement and have shared some suggestions with me on what they think we should be doing from both a recruitment and retention perspective.

Externally, we will be working alongside Aspiring Solicitors on a Black Lawyer Mentoring Scheme. We are also working on a revamped Inclusivity Series for the next recruitment cycle, to give students and graduates an insight into the inclusive culture at the firm, as well as signing up to the Race Fairness Commitment with Rare Recruitment.

Internally, we continue to offer mentoring to all ethnic minority lawyers and this programme has been extended to current and future trainees. It’s been an extraordinary time in terms of the effects of what happened in the US but also how this has translated across our global network. The aim is to be the leaders in the area, recognise the inequalities which exist and do everything we can to change our workplace and the wider network. The bigger thing is much more around inclusion and retention and making sure that when people are in the business, they feel comfortable and have every opportunity to succeed.

On the topic of D&I, we’ve heard A&O has some work to do on the recruitment of trainees from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Could you tell me of any initiatives which exist in the current recruitment process or those that are in the pipeline to help take this in to consideration?

We work with Rare Recruitment and sponsor their Articles and Discuss programmes. We also work closely with Aspiring Solicitors to improve our access to students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. In addition we run a programme called A&O Accelerate, where we work with sixth-form students from low socio-economic backgrounds and cold spots in the UK to give them an insight into commercial law and hopefully  inspire them to apply to the firm in the future.

This autumn there will be a shift in our interview process from being face-to-face to a virtual process. We will do our best to make the process as transparent as possible and ensure candidates invited to interview feel comfortable with the technology. We also will replace in person events with virtual ones, which will increase our reach to both Russell and Non-Russell group students who meet our entry requirements. This will mean we will touch a lot more universities than we have in previous years. Ultimately, we are looking for students with potential, regardless of their university and background, who have enthusiasm and drive, are team players and who can thrive in this fast-changing environment.

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