Melissa Bryant, a freelance journalist, 27, had the opportunity to interview the most recent addition to the “I am ABLE” campaign, the sponsor of the “Unseen and Unspoken” poetry competition, Reed Smith.
The “Unseen & Unspoken” poetry competition was launched 4th January 2017 to commemorate World Braille Day, as the first poetry Commonwealth-wide competition in which submissions can be made in braille or an audio or video recording with subtitles.
Reed Smith, a world leading law firm with offices in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, was keen to lend its support to the poetry competition and sponsor the certificates and trophies for winners. Reed Smith has been a dynamic trendsetter in the arena of diversity and inclusion in the City of London and beyond, and an example to other firms. An interview with one of the Partners at Reed Smith, Carolyn Pepper, shares how Reed Smith has achieved success and continues to aim for more.
“There is absolutely a place in law firms for people with disabilities and we welcome applications from them,” said Carolyn, as she explained the various initiatives that promote diversity and inclusion by Reed Smith.
Reed Smith has a number of diversity, talent retention and development networks. WINRS is a women’s dedicated network which actively supports women with advice on promotions, sponsoring them towards promotions and holds discussion forums and events to help women support each other in the workplace. Its existing LGBTI network PRISM was re-launched 2 years ago as PRISM and its spearheading of the firm’s work in the area of LGBTI inclusion has led to Reed Smith securing its place in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers list two years in a row. (This is a list compiled from submissions to the Workplace Equality Index. Each organisation featured has carried out exceptional and pioneering work to help make sure that every LGBTI employee can be themselves in the workplace). Pepper, having worked for 22 years in a large law firm, says that she is really happy to have witnessed the changes that have taken place between when she started and now in terms of how open people feel able to be about their sexual orientation, and to be themselves.
Reed Smith’s most recent initiative is the LEADRS group which was inspired by the Paralympics in London in 2012. It became clear that there were incredible people with disabilities doing outstanding things in sport so they began to question: Why not in law? Pepper explains that now there are now several trainee lawyers with disabilities in Reed Smith and this a huge improvement from where they started, just a few years ago. Although this was a nugget of success – and an achievement which won the law firm over eight awards across 2014-15, given its rarity – she explains that there is more to be done. Reed Smith’s lawyers, human resources staff and corporate social responsibility work together to spot talent and encourage people to apply; and they host events with external consultancies to attract people to the firm.
One big challenge is the fear of applicants to disclose their disabilities because they worry that they will be discriminated against, explained Pepper. However, she hoped that they had managed to change that perception and encourage applications from people with disabilities. One of Reed Smith’s future trainee solicitors and the Commonwealth Youth Council’s advisors to the Office of Inclusion and Engagement, Jonathan Andrews, was recently awarded campaigner of the year 2016 at the European Diversity Awards for his advocacy. Jonathan centred on openness about disability in job applications and the wider workplace. “Reed Smith recognises that there are lots of talented people who have disabilities and think differently”, Andrews says, “and refusing to hire from that pool means a business loses out on talent. They were open to me discussing on my application form, for instance, how certain autistic traits, like attention to detail and loyalty, were advantageous to a legal career – so I didn’t need to hide this, or autism-related work experience.”
Reed Smith can easily be described as a trend-setter. Pepper confirms that their initiatives have attracted a lot of interest among other law firms and businesses in the City of London, with whom they are happy to share what they know about attracting a more diverse and inclusive workforce. “Knowledge like this should not be kept to yourself, but shared so that everybody can help make a difference,” says Pepper. She gives two examples of two other large companies leading the way in this area- Barclays Bank and Channel 4 – who have co-ordinated work placements especially targeted at persons with disabilities where individuals are given the opportunity to spend some time with Reed Smith and some with Barclays or Channel 4. It is clear that people are really thinking about and understanding the importance of diversity and inclusion.
Having people with disabilities in the workplace enhances the workplace culture and atmosphere. Pepper explains that it is great to make people understand it is normal to have persons with disabilities in the workplace. It is also crucial that people can see that persons with disabilities can do the work. She pointed out that not only is this a social good but it makes business sense as well -Pepper explains that their clients are asking for diversity and inclusion – especially when asked to pitch for work – and companies that do not practice diversity and inclusion will lose out.
Undoubtedly, Reed Smith is a law firm one would be proud to be affiliated to. Jonathan Andrews says “Reed Smith are definitely a firm to be proud of. I never felt I needed to be anyone other than myself on my vacation scheme – diversity of thought is a big part of their culture – and I know I’ll be able to reach my full potential there. They’ve sensed my enthusiasm to get involved early on; have supported me at awards ceremonies; have assigned me to mentor potential applicants; and sponsored and hosted cross-city initiatives I’ve launched, because they recognise talent regardless of age, seniority or background”. Pepper points out that big business should lead the way and that the firm encourages everybody who has an interest in a particular diversity area to promote diversity in the firm and elsewhere and is very supportive of new initiatives. She describes Reed Smith as very inclusive and diversity as a norm that they adhere to.
It is not the first time that Reed Smith has supported a youth initiative and they have a reputation for supporting young people aged 24 and under (Youth is considered 24 and under in the United Kingdom). Pepper gave examples such as a collaboration with GoThinkBig, where work experience opportunities are advertised and young people can apply regardless of background, family income or social circumstance. The scheme’s objective is to give work experience to people who would not otherwise have known someone who works in a law firm or at a bank, and do not normally have access to these type of work environments.
Reed Smith also schedules about 8 Insight Days annually; these generally attract young people aged 18 – 22 and it is encouraging to see the diverse group of people who attend so that they can learn about the work of Reed Smith. Reed Smith recently supported a project with The Brokerage that runs a mentoring programme in collaboration with a local school for sixth form students, where staff of Reed Smith dedicate time once a week to meet their mentees and help them plan to accomplish their aspirations. Pepper points to the importance of having successful people pass on their knowledge and guidance to the younger generation.
Finally, they also offer work experience to a school where children with disabilities aged 15 are brought into the workplace and work in the reception and marketing team to get a taste of what working at a law firm is like. It also seeks to reaffirm that these City businesses are not out of reach of these individuals. Pepper further emphasised that young people have so much talent and skill, and being able to engage with them during their teenage years and early 20s when they are making crucial decisions that will affect the rest of their lives, is paramount so they know the opportunities that are available to them and can achieve their goals. She also pointed out that no one wants their business to fail because there is no succession planning, and so for businesses to be successful the knowledge and skill must be passed on.
Reed Smith told Bryant why they chose to sponsor the “Unseen & Unspoken” poetry competition,
“It’s a great programme. It is a really inspiring programme. It is great to have new voices heard and shared with other people. We are really proud to be part of it and we were honoured to be asked as well. Not everyone has the same opportunities to speak out and I am excited to see the great talent that will come out of it. Why not a future poet laureate? Or someone who takes up poetry as a career? It is often one single event that triggers something in someone and changes the direction of their life – this could be that one thing that triggers something in an entrant or perhaps a reader and they then become a brilliant poet. What better than that? I am looking forward to seeing the entries.”
Pepper’s appreciation for young people was evident as she stated that every generation has something to teach the last generation and we have so much to learn from young people. She pointed out that the poetry competition has given young people a chance to have their voices heard.
Her final advice for the youth from a Partner of a City law firm:
“Never be afraid to ask people to help you out or support you in the City and elsewhere. There are people who really believe in, and are interested in investing in the future. What could be better than feeling you have done something that has helped someone else? If you want advice or help on moving forward with your career aspirations – be cheeky and ask. What’s the worst that could happen? They might say no. Take every opportunity that you can to meet people and be heard.
Do not be afraid to ask because the answer may often be more likely a yes than a no.”