Making a positive social impact

Published Date
Dec 11, 2023
Around the world, in many different settings, A&O is drawing on all its resources – from financial to skills, time and expertise – to make a real difference in the lives of people.

A&O’s new global charity partner, Women for Women International (WfWI), is making a difference to marginalised communities all over the world.

A&O started a new global charity partnership with WfWI in September 2023, with a focus on helping displaced people. The charity is dedicated to supporting women survivors of war.

Sara Bowcutt, managing director of WfWI – UK, welcomed the news: “Thank you A&O for believing in the power of women, and committing to make the world more equal, peaceful and prosperous. Together, we will create positive change for women – as well as their families and communities – for generations to come.”

Hilde van der Baan, Amsterdam partner and co-lead partner of A&O’s Social Impact Group (SIG), added: “People being displaced by conflict is a growing issue in the world today so it’s a privilege to be able to boost WfWI’s work supporting women survivors of war. Drawing on all our resources as a global organisation – not just financial, but also our skills, time and expertise – we hope to make a real difference over our two-year partnership.”

WfWI invests where inequality is greatest by supporting those who are often forgotten: women survivors of war. In conflict-affected countries, including Iraq where part of our funding will be directed, we’ll support WfWI’s holistic work equipping women with knowledge, skills and resources to overcome trauma, rebuild their lives and regain hope.

WfWI’s training programmes produce quantifiable results. Graduates generate earnings and join savings groups, on average increasing household income by 199%; they defend their rights, with a 425% increase in women speaking out publicly against gender-based violence; and they strengthen their communities, with a 200% increase in women taking up local leadership positions.

For our previous global charity partner, Street Child, A&O contributed GBP1.5 million and provided GBP1.12m in legal and non-legal pro bono support.

Our funding supported Street Child’s work to keep children in school in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone, education support packages teenage mother support packages where economic barriers lead to poor education outcomes, especially for girls.

Elsewhere, A&O lawyers supported the South Asian Assessment Alliance’s work to improve educational outcomes for the most marginalised children across psychosocial counselling and family mediation sessions for girls schools renovated Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, while the A&O Muslim Network helped raise GBP100,000 for Street Child with its first Iftar dinner, part of its new Ramadan campaign in 2022, repeated in 2023.

This partnership has provided so much more than just funding,” says Tom Dannatt, chief executive and founder of Street Child. “Thanks to A&O’s pro bono support we can be an even more effective and efficient organisation for years to come.”

Key achievements in Sierra Leone

  • 1000 education support packages
  • 828 psychosocial counselling and family mediation sessions for girls
  • 244 teenage mother support packages
  • 17 schools renovated
  • 23 schools reconstructed 

Standout fundraising efforts

  • A record GBP703,000 donated in 2023’s ‘First Hour, First Day’ campaign, where colleagues could donate the first hour or first day of their January pay.
  • More than 175 people from 29 A&O offices took on personal challenges – from cycling, running and climbing to learning a new piece of music – as part of the Around the World Challenge, raising nearly GBP44,000.
  • 12 colleagues travelled to Makeni for our global charity partner’s flagship fundraising event, the Sierra Leone Marathon, taking part in a 10k, half or full marathon, and raising more than GBP44,000 for the charity.

Focus on outcomes

The newly named Social Impact Group (SIG) has been busy making an impact. Formerly known as the Pro Bono and Community Investment team, the group changed its name to reflect our increasing commitment to, and expertise in, corporate and social responsibility.

The move is also in line with our clients’ heightened awareness of global sustainability challenges, such as climate change, social inequality and corporate governance issues, which has led to an increase in social impact legal work and a blurring of the lines between pro bono and fee-paying matters.

As Franz Ranero, co-lead partner of SIG, explains: “This is a shift in the way we define what we contribute to, and how we interact with the rest of the firm. The term pro bono and community investment reflects some, but not all, of the inputs that go into what we do. Essentially, it describes the fee arrangement. We want instead to focus on outcomes – the positive impact we have on the communities we touch.”

‘Impact’ has also gone mainstream, says Hilde van der Baan: “Gone are the days when social finance and investing in social causes were considered solely the realm of pro bono work. With our clients placing more emphasis on non-financial factors and integrating Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) measures into their risk management frameworks, the relationship between pro bono and fee-paying work is more nuanced. With some clients now, we take a blended approach.

“Our team’s role in this broad ecosystem is to provide the social impact lens, working with our ESG and asset management experts. We’re here to facilitate and empower our clients, our people and the firm to maximise positive social impact.”

Belfast apprentices

Outside of legal roles, our Belfast apprenticeship programme has grown to 34 apprentices, working in IT, Finance, HR, Marketing, Legal Tech and Business Projects. Now in its tenth year, our award-winning scheme offers an alternative route to employment and education.

We work closely with local education providers to design bespoke training, enabling our apprentices to gain qualifications and skills, and earn while they learn. Around 80% of apprentices stay with A&O after finishing their two- year course, choosing to progress to a higher-level apprenticeship, or taking up a permanent role within the firm.

Education schemes go from strength to strength

A key theme of our social impact work for many years has been improving access to education for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. A number of schemes we run across our network are going from strength to strength.

The A&O bursary programme is making an impact for young people, with nine bursary recipients going on to work with A&O from the 30 students who have taken part since the programme started in 2010 in London.

The programme offers support to high- potential students from lower socio- economic backgrounds who are about to embark on their university studies and have a particular interest in a career in law. It’s a three-year programme of financial and non-financial support for students who have participated in either of A&O’s social mobility programmes, A&O Accelerate or Smart Start.

A&O increased the number of bursaries from two to six in 2021, and the amount awarded to each student increased to GBP15,000, a total GBP270,000 investment over three years. The students also benefit from a dedicated A&O mentor for the duration of their studies.

Access for all

In Asia Pacific, we support students from ethnic minority backgrounds. In Hong Kong, alongside the Zubin Foundation, we offer scholarships and mentoring to three college students who are currently studying accounting and finance, engineering and law. Another scholarship is also coming soon.

Catherine Husted is head of Social Impact in Hong Kong, chairs the Scholarship Committee for The Zubin Foundation and is also vice-chair of the Foundation’s Board of Directors. “We want to provide more young people with opportunities to pursue higher education,” she explains.

“Many ethnic minority students stop further education after high school, while some even drop out during high school due to financial barriers. Many want to get into the job market as soon as possible to lift the financial burdens off of their families and therefore sacrifice their education dreams and future aspirations.”

In Australia, A&O has been supporting the educational objectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals through its partnership with Career Trackers in which A&O provides internships to high-achieving first nations students on a biannual basis.

In addition, A&O Australia provides funding to the Kulbardi Aboriginal Centre, supporting its aim to increase the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in higher education. Financial support also goes to the Karrkad Kanjdji Trust, which provides bi-cultural education to children in West Arnhem land.

Lachlan Shelley, a senior associate in Sydney, commented: “These initiatives are aligned with A&O Australia’s Reconciliation Action Plan to address systemic issues affecting first nation Australians, and to work towards creating a more equal society in the country.”

Support for displaced people nearly triples

Our support for displaced people continues in our legal pro bono work. Projects in this area have nearly tripled since 2020; in 2023, we’ve continued to support Ukrainian, Afghan and other refugees.

After the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, our Warsaw office worked alongside the Polish Bar Association, NGOs and other law firms to assist refugees. Nearly 1,500 lawyers volunteered in Poland, providing information on issues including work permits and accommodation.

In Slovakia, our Bratislava office contributed specialist asylum law expertise via the Human Rights League’s information line; others volunteered at the border in UNHCR and UNICEF protection and support hubs. We also mobilised a wider international team of 170 lawyers to help refugees wanting to resettle outside Poland.

In the months that followed the invasion, alongside other law firms, we deployed lawyers on two-week secondments to our existing NGO partners, European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL) and Safe Passage International, to provide legal advice to refugees in Polish-based shelters and support centres.

In Australia, we continue to work with the Refugee Advice and Casework service to support visa applicants to prepare for their interviews, which involves work similar to our longstanding collaborative pro bono project in Greece with ELIL.

We’re also continuing to assist Afghan refugees. In the U.S., more than 100 international lawyers have helped hundreds of individuals and their families, advising on many aspects of their U.S. immigration pathways, often in collaboration with our other offices.

We’re helping Afghans reunite with their families in Europe too, joining forces with other law firms and collaborating with charities in France, Germany, Spain and the UK.

It's really special that anyone in any team can contribute to social impact work.

Social finance and impact investing

We have been busy leveraging our Finance, ESG and Asset Management practices to advise on impact-driven transactions.

One of our clients is Five Lamps, a UK-based charity and responsible lender offering affordable loans to socially and financially excluded individuals: an alternative solution to high-cost credit.

Another client is Access – The Foundation for Social Investment. Franz is also a member of the Access board, chair of its investment committee, and leads the A&O team advising the foundation on its various grant- making programmes.

These broad programmes of support are made to social finance intermediaries as part of blended finance packages aimed at strengthening community- based organisations and increasing innovative sources of funding to the market.

Big Issue magazine charity merger

Most recently we advised the Big Issue Group on the charity merger of the Big Issue Foundation and its frontline sales operation into a new community interest company (CIC), called the Big Issue Changing Lives Community Interest Company. Corporate partner Lisa Goransson led the transaction team in London and has since been appointed as a trustee of the Big Issue Invest Trust.

Big Issue magazine street vendors, who are often homeless, earn an income through selling the Big Issue magazine. The merger marks the next stage of the group’s journey, creating a more optimal platform for both fundraising and support for vendors.

Kate Cavelle, A&O’s global head of Social Impact, is proud of the diverse ways A&O is supporting positive change: “From legal advice, to championing charities, to fundraising, our aim is to create varied opportunities for involvement. It’s really special that anyone in any team can contribute to social impact work. Together we’re making a real impact.”

Content Disclaimer
This content was originally published by Allen & Overy before the A&O Shearman merger