Q&A: McDermott Will & Emery on volunteering with Young Citizens

We ask McDermott Will & Emery’s corporate associates Jennifer Lee, Dan Ross, Matthew Chen, real estate associate Rosemary McSwiney, and trainee solicitor Simon Margesson about their experiences volunteering with Young Citizens.

Class of students

Tell us about your role

Jennifer LeeJennifer Lee

I advise clients on a variety of corporate matters from mergers and acquisitions to venture capital investments.

Dan RossDan Ross

I act for mid-sized corporates and private equity funds on acquisitions, disposals, investments and other corporate matters.

Simon MargessonSimon Margesson

I am at the beginning of my legal career, and being a trainee means you provide support to the more senior solicitors in the firm through which you learn and begin to develop your legal skills. McDermott is well known for its expertise in various sectors including healthcare and its private client division, so we represent large corporate businesses to ultra high net worth individuals in their family and business affairs.

Rosemary McSwinneyRosemary McSwiney

I advise clients on property transactions including the buying, selling, and financing of office towers, hotels, and student housing blocks.

Matthew ChenMatthew Chen

I advise clients on private equity transactions and cross-border mergers and acquisitions with an emphasis on life science and healthcare matters.

What attracted you to volunteering on this programme?

Jennifer: It was my first time volunteering with the programme, and I was attracted to the programme as I have immensely enjoyed the pro bono opportunities previously offered by McDermott, and also because I have always loved working with younger students.

Dan: I first took part in the programme in 2018. My fiancée is a school teacher and I was inspired by the opportunity to work with young people in London. I volunteer as I find it a fun experience. The participants can have such an interesting take on different matters, which keeps you on your toes.

Simon: I was drawn to the opportunity to mentor students on the legal system and what being a lawyer entails. It is important for students to be exposed to professionals of various backgrounds, as this should help to inform them of the career paths they may like to take. The opportunity to give back and offer my own experience was what drew me to the programme.

Rosemary: I have been involved in the programme since 2018. Experts in Schools is an excellent forum which allows lawyers and high school students (of different social and cultural backgrounds) to discuss and workshop specific legal issues including youth justice, social media and the law, and consumer law. In a relaxed and informal setting, the programme allows the students to speak freely, develop opinions on a variety of topics and further their understanding of the law in relation to many issues which are relevant to their day-to-day life.

Why does your business choose to take part in the Experts in Schools programme and how has it benefited from being involved?

Matthew: We choose to take part in Experts in Schools because we want to be involved in a programme that helps students gain a better understanding of the legal system in the United Kingdom, to increase the access of these students to lawyers, and to show that the legal profession as a whole is accessible to those who are interested in joining it.

Each year Young Citizens asks the volunteers to complete a survey to identify what they consider are the main benefits of volunteering and what they have personally or professionally gained from their experience. The results of the survey are overwhelmingly positive and consistently show that involvement in the programme, amongst other things, improves morale, internal networking, team building, and improves relationships with the community.

How does taking part in Experts in Schools help your business to achieve its corporate responsibility and business objectives?

Matthew: McDermott is firmly committed to its involvement in pro bono and community service. For example, McDermott has implemented several pro bono targets including an annual target that 80% of all lawyers undertake some form of pro bono work and 50% of all lawyers undertake at least 20 pro bono hours.

To demonstrate the commitment to pro bono initiatives and volunteer service, McDermott recognizes lawyer time dedicated to pro bono and community service as equivalent to billable hours. McDermott continues to support and dedicate resources towards pro bono and community services which, of course, includes Experts in Schools.

Experts in Schools is a fantastic platform to allow our London lawyers to work amongst and with the next generation in our local community, to help them find their own voice, develop their own ideas and the confidence to express them. Experts in Schools facilitates this by developing a programme which encourages open debate amongst students which in turn stimulates individual critical thinking and confidence as the students must present their arguments and opinions before their peers.

Why do you think it’s important for young people to learn about the law/economy/media?

Jennifer: It is vital for young people to get practical exposure to the law and the economy since what is traditionally taught in schools does not often cover these areas. Getting a glimpse into a lawyer’s life and interacting with lawyers (and just professionals in general) through these programmes can provide opportunities for mentorship.

Simon: The law covers almost every aspect of life, from the obvious to the not so obvious. Exposing students to the legal system not only gives practical advice but also helps them to gain a greater understanding of how things work and the interplay of the law into their daily lives. It informs a lot of the decisions we take on a daily basis.

What are the three best things about volunteering on the Experts in Schools programme?

Jennifer: The amazing people that I got to meet, the ideas I got to learn from them, and being able to play even a small part in giving back locally.

Dan: The students and their interpretations of different matters, and their unique views on how the topics relate to society. Also, helping young people understand different topics, e.g. how to be safe online.

Rosemary: Firstly, the opportunity to speak to the students about issues that directly impact their lives and their decisions. Secondly, being able to break down preconceived ideas from the students about the “type” of person who can become a lawyer and being able to introduce young people to the profession. Thirdly, to assist the student develop vital employability skills, such as analytical and critical thinking.

What makes the Experts in Schools programme unique?

Matthew: We’ve had a great relationship with the team at Young Citizens since we first got involved in the programme. They are committed to ensuring that the programme goes as smoothly as possible.

The Experts in Schools programme is unique because of the great materials that the Young Citizens team puts together. Each session is really well thought through and makes for a relevant and engaging discussion for the students and the volunteers.

How did you find the sessions?

Jennifer: I was impressed by how creative the students were. I did not need to do much to facilitate the discussion as they were full of ideas and loved debating amongst themselves. They were very eager and presented a lot of great ideas such as coming up with a board game to get their peers more engaged in the topic they were presenting.

Dan: When the materials split up the young people into two groups to debate a point, I think this really encourages engagement. I find this invokes passion (even if they believe they are on the weaker side of the debate).

Simon: The materials were very good and well thought out. The subjects are topical and interesting, and it provides some fun light reading. As the children get to know you, their confidence grows and this is rewarding to watch. It is nice that you get to know the students over the weeks.

Was there anything that surprised you during your volunteering experience?

Jennifer: I was blown away by the level of enthusiasm on the part of the students, and how easy they were to get along with despite the age gap.

Dan: Some of the camaraderie surprised me. If a young person compared the material to a personal experience it really rallied the other participants and inspired them to try and find a solution and help with the issue.

Rosemary: It was refreshing how engaged the students were with particular topics and hearing the different perspectives from young people from different religious and social backgrounds.

What do you think you gained from volunteering on the Experts in Schools programme – in both a professional and personal capacity?

Jennifer: Since volunteering on the Experts in Schools programme, I am keen to look for mentoring opportunities and other ways to get involved with the local community.

Dan: Personally, it helped me be more patient, and explain things in different ways, which is something that we, as lawyers, should also be seeking to improve on.

Simon: It has helped my communication skills and breaking complex ideas down into simple thoughts. I have had to improve the ways I articulate things to become a better teacher. It is also a rewarding task where, unlike some other types of pro bono work, you get to work face to face with your client.

Rosemary: An appreciation for the younger generation and their backgrounds.

What do the professionals who volunteer on the programme gain from participation?

Matthew: I always get really great feedback from the lawyers who are involved in the programme. I think the lawyers all really enjoy being involved in the programme from a professional and personal level. It’s often an opportunity to get to know some colleagues from different departments and to collaborate with them when you might not otherwise have the chance. We also gain a lot from the students’ approach to the programme – we often leave a session feeling inspired by the conversations which the students have led.

What would you tell someone who was thinking about volunteering on the programme, to encourage them to do so?

Jennifer: DO IT! It’s a wonderful and positive experience.

Dan: The range of opinions and perceptions on the same subject matter are so interesting.

Simon: It’s fun, informative, and a great way to start your Friday. For your own mental health, it is a welcome break from the office when work can sometimes get consuming.

Would you recommend the Experts in Schools programme to other businesses? If so, why would you tell them that they should get involved?

Matthew: Definitely. It’s a great experience for the volunteers, which is clear from the fact that they volunteer again in subsequent years. Young Citizens do a lot of the heavy lifting by putting together the materials. It is a limited commitment for volunteers but they will get a lot out of the experience.

In 20 words or less, can you summarise your Experts in Schools experience?

Jennifer: The Experts in Schools experience provides a great opportunity to mentor brilliant young students!

Dan: Fun and educational!

Simon: Thoroughly enjoyable, educational and rewarding. I look forward to returning next year.

Rosemary: A fantastic opportunity to use your own skills and knowledge to assist in the empowerment of London students.

Matthew: A chance to get to know your colleagues and have some really interesting conversations with the students.

Find out more about Young Citizens