The City

Q&A with Joanna Hughes

Joanna is a co-lead for solicitor apprenticeships at Allen & Overy.

Joanna Hughes is a white woman with medium brown hair that reaches her shoulders. She is wearing a bright pink roll neck top and has matching lipstick. She is smiling. You’re talking to a friend of a friend at a party. How do you describe what you do?

I support alternative routes to becoming a lawyer at City law firms.

If they looked sufficiently interested, I would elaborate and tell them more about the new solicitor apprenticeship route to becoming a qualified solicitor at Allen & Overy!

To date, what has been the highlight of your time at Allen & Overy?

This interview is about my social mobility work rather than my 25-year legal career or my work in the Allen & Overy Alumni Network Team, so I will choose three recent highlights relating to social mobility.

One highlight was receiving in October 2020 the UK Social Mobility Awards ‘Mentor of the Year’ award.

A second highlight was being appointed in May to join the government-commissioned taskforce to boost the socio-economic diversity at senior levels in UK financial and professional services, as a working group member – follow the #WhoGetsAhead hashtag.

Allen & Overy put me forward for both of these opportunities, so I can count them, I think, as highlights of my Allen & Overy time.

Finally, the announcement earlier this year that the focus of Allen & Overy’s next global charity partnership will be social mobility is definitely a highlight of my time at the firm.

Allen & Overy is launching a new apprenticeship programme for school leavers that leads to qualification as a solicitor in the UK. Tell us a little more about this initiative.

Allen & Overy will recruit for the first time in September 2022 an initial cohort of six solicitor apprentices who will be awarded an LLB (Hons) law and legal practice by BPP University and a solicitor Level 7 apprenticeship on completion, as well as becoming a qualified solicitor once they pass the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE).

Legal apprenticeships offer a really important alternative route into the legal profession and are key to law firms such as Allen & Overy being open and accessible. 

The programme is open to all who are completing their A-levels in 2022, and we are hoping to attract a socio-economically diverse pool of high-achieving pupils.

We will be working with organisations this autumn to help us make sure that as many Year 13 students as possible hear about the opportunity, including those living in social mobility cold spots identified by the Social Mobility Commission. 

In addition to time in Allen & Overy’s legal practice groups, apprentices will also have the opportunity to work in Fuse, the firm’s tech innovation hub, as well as the markets innovation group, legal tech, ediscovery and project management teams. 

We want Allen & Overy to be the destination for the best people, regardless of background.

By proactively tackling what is sometimes an overlooked aspect of diversity, we are creating a workplace where background does not define success.

The taskforce that I am supporting has a vision of ‘equity of progression’ – where high performance is valued over ‘fit’ and ‘polish’ – and I hope that our new solicitor apprenticeship programme will be the embodiment of this.

Give us one piece of great advice you received. 

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.

I think these words are credited to Aesop, so I can hardly claim to have received them directly, but it’s great advice.

What needs to happen to attract and retain diverse talent in the City?

I'm happy to share my views on attracting and retaining talent from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The attraction element is in many ways the easier lever to control.

Allen & Overy does excellent work on attracting diverse talent both in terms of raising aspirations (for example, through Smart Start, our flagship work experience scheme) and being open and accessible (for example, by providing our new solicitor apprenticeship route to becoming a qualified solicitor). 

As to retaining diverse talent, Allen & Overy has taken part in two cross-sector studies in the UK by the Bridge Group – an organisation that promotes social equality – alongside nine other major law firms.

The first looked at early careers and found that trainees from lower socio-economic backgrounds were statistically more likely to be in the top decile of performers, but also more likely to leave their firms early. 

The second study, published in 2020, showed that lawyers from lower socio-economic backgrounds take on average a year and a half longer to progress to partnership than their peers from higher socio-economic backgrounds – a trend reflected in other sectors.

In addition to an inclusive culture, any solution needs to include data collection. You can’t change what you can’t measure. The new guidance published on 24 November last year by the Social Mobility Commission for employers to make measuring socio-economic data easier will be important, not least because it is very practical. 

I love the work that the Law Society is doing to make it clear that creating a more modern, diverse and inclusive profession is a priority.

What book is on your bedside table?

I always have a social mobility-related book on my bedside table, and have a long list of recommendations if anyone is interested!

I have just finished The End of Aspiration by Duncan Exley and on my bedside table now is Born to Fail? Social Mobility: a Working Class View by Sonia Blandford.

We know that COVID-19 is exacerbating inequalities and having a disproportionate effect on the most disadvantaged young people and I want to educate myself as much as possible on the issues.

Also on my bedside table is Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth because my two youngest children still like being read to.

Favourite city?

London! But everyone says London, I expect, so happy to add Sydney.

I lived and worked in Sydney for a short time after law school and have many happy memories of my time there.

Any pet peeves?

Bullying – in a work context, out of a work context, in any context.

In your opinion, what are three key skills lawyers of the future will need?

Innovation skills, emotional intelligence and resilience. But we have all needed some resilience since March 2020, haven’t we?

What is your biggest hope for the legal profession?

That lawyers will eventually reflect the society we advise and serve.

In rare moments of calm, how do you relax?

I read books. I laugh in bars and restaurants with friends.

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