The world needs different

Published Date
Dec 11, 2023
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Becoming a truly diverse and inclusive organisation remains a top priority, as A&O adds disability and social mobility to its focus.

Insightful ideas and creative solutions come from diverse perspectives and varied lived experiences, which is why diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) remains one of A&O’s strategic priorities.

A&O has made strong progress across a multitude of areas, enabling people to thrive in an inclusive culture. Recently, the business has increased its focus on disability and social mobility.

Arina Stelmokaite and Josh Wilkins are two of A&O’s pioneering apprentices. What are their impressions one year in?

Arina said: “Initially I was surprised how friendly A&O is. When people first told me about the approachable and welcoming culture at A&O, I didn’t believe them. A&O definitely defeats the stereotypes of a typical commercial law firm.”

Josh added: “I’ve been taken aback by the quality of work I’ve been immersed in since starting at A&O. At first I was surprised by how much exposure I’ve gained with clients and transactions, and the extent to which colleagues were willing to place their trust in me.”

Collaboration across the legal sector

In the broader legal sector, A&O is also one of the founding firms of City Century, which has seen more than 50 City law firms commit to increasing the number of solicitor apprentices in the City of London.

James says: “We’re one of the six firms spearheading City Century together with the City of London Law Society. Everyone involved is dedicated to identifying and recruiting apprentices, as well as raising awareness of the importance of the initiative in the legal industry. “As part of City Century, we’ll mentor and share best practice with firms which are yet to set up a programme, helping to embed many more successful solicitor apprenticeships throughout the City.”

A&O has also launched a new global virtual work experience programme to enable a wider variety of people to gain insight into life in the legal industry. Two free, virtual legal work experience programmes covering employment law and M&A and technology law are on offer. Designed by A&O lawyers, both programmes are self-paced and can be accessed from anywhere in the world, providing participants with a variety of real life tasks to help them understand the day-to-day work of a commercial lawyer, the skills needed and most importantly the opportunity to practise them.

Top 10 UK employer for social mobility

A&O has been ranked 7th in the Social Mobility Foundation Employer Index 2023 out of a total of 75 companies. This is the fifth consecutive year that the firm has improved its ranking and our highest placement to date.

The index – considered the leading authority on employer-led social mobility – is an annual benchmarking tool for organisations looking to understand how they are performing on social mobility and to identify areas for improvement.

As A&O concentrates on improving social mobility and accessibility for people with disabilities, it’s not letting up on pursuing a more equitable approach across gender, LGBTQ+ and race and ethnicity matters.

Striving for a better gender balance

Jo Dooley, head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, said: “Having achieved most of the gender targets set in 2018, A&O undertook a review of progress and set more ambitious targets in 2022 to ensure the firm continues to stretch itself. We’re seeing meaningful change.”

50% women at every level

  • Associate population has remained constant at around 50%
  • Senior associate population has grown from 35% to 48% in the last five years
  • Counsel population has grown from 30% to 40% in the last five years

50% women partners

  • Currently at 25% globally, up from 18% in 2018

40% partner promotion candidates every year

  • 2023: 42%
  • 2022: 36%
  • 2021: 33%
  • 2020: 45%

30% of women in elected leadership positions

  • 38% of the executive committee are women

LGBTQ+ visibility, representation and inclusion

6% of our partners and employees in the UK identify as LGBTQ+

A&O continues its commitment to ensuring that lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer (LGBTQ+) colleagues know A&O is safe ground, wherever they are in the world. However people identify, whatever their difference, it’s A&O’s goal that they should feel completely able to bring their authentic selves to work.

Ways in which A&O is achieving this include:

  • Focusing on allyship by inviting to A&O LGBTQ+ changemakers who are experts in sharing stories to educate and ignite change, and also widely sharing global allies guidance
  • Launching a global LGBTQ+ mentoring programme, linked to the A&Out network
  • Adding gender confirmation care to the firm’s private medical cover in the UK
  • Growing our network with our A&Out global women’s group having virtual and, where possible, in-person meet-ups

A&O’s global network for its LGBTQ+ community has over 150 members and 750 allies across the world.

Stonewall – the world’s second-largest LGBTQ+ charity – has recognised A&O for its commitment to advancing inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the workplace.

Race and ethnicity – enabling diverse people to thrive

A&O continues to focus on attraction, retention and progression of talent from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds and on ensuring an inclusive culture across A&O.

In 2020 A&O announced new targets for the London office aimed at achieving greater racial and ethnic diversity at every level of the firm.

The global picture when it comes to race varies greatly from region to region, and so requires tailored local action.

Under local data privacy obligations, it’s not always permitted to gather the data required to put targets in place across A&O’s network. But A&O is determined to make a start, and hopes to use its London approach as a demonstration of how committing to targets can lead to positive change.

15% ethnic minority partners by 2025 – now 15% (including our first three Black partners promoted in the last two years)

25% ethnic minority lawyers and support staff by 2025 – now 26%

35% ethnic minority trainees, including 10% Black trainees, each year – now 51%, of which 5% are Black

50/50 Equalised retention rates for trainees and lawyers, in particular retaining more Black associates

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

6% of our partners and employees in the UK identify as having a disability.

Having a disability, whether it’s physical, neuro or any other kind of difference shouldn’t be a barrier to anyone starting a career or achieving their potential.

A&O understands that the levels of support and types of adjustments required vary for each person, so A&O works closely with colleagues to understand their individual needs.

AccessAbility Network

A&O’s global disability network, AccessAbility, was formed to support colleagues, end stigma, and embrace the talents of every individual. Ghazi AbuYounis co-chairs AccessAbility with London workplace manager Phil Whaite. Ghazi, a senior associate based in Dubai who has a visual impairment, comments: “I’ve learned that disabilities don’t have to hold you back. At A&O anything is possible because the support is there. We’re building a truly inclusive culture by smashing through barriers.”

Phil adds: “We want colleagues to feel able to talk about how disability might affect them in the workplace. Sharing our stories is important, and AccessAbility is a safe space that encourages open discussions to take place.” One way A&O is improving accessibility is through its introduction of a workplace adjustment passport – a digital record that holds all information in one place to identify the support and changes colleagues may need in a workplace. So if, for example, you’re moving to a new team, attending client meetings or training, there’s no need to re-explain any adjustments you need to perform your role, and you can be sure you’ll get the support you need.

"I’ve learned that disabilities don’t have to hold you back. At A&O anything is possible because the support is there. We’re building a truly inclusive culture by smashing through barriers."

Ghazi AbuYounis

Senior Associate

AccessAbility has also launched the firm’s first Neurodiversity Peer Support Group in London, specifically for colleagues who have neurodivergent conditions, or care about someone who does.

Neurodivergent conditions include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, autism and Tourette’s, as well as chronic mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

“At its heart, neurodiversity is challenging the assumption that great minds think alike”, says Lisa Nguyen, regional DE&I partner for the Americas. “Many of us excel because of the way we see or do things differently, not despite it. It’s important to recognise that neurodivergent colleagues can often have unique strengths, perspectives and abilities that positively contribute to the workplace.”&O launched an internship programme in Paris for talented law students with disabilities and, after a successful three years, it has launched in Luxembourg too. The Légal à Egal programme aims to remove the obstacles students with disabilities often face when trying to enter the legal profession.

Légal à Egal – internship programme for law students with disabilities

The programme includes two internships – one in a law firm, and one in a company legal department – and, with just one application process, students avoid repetitive explanations about their disability and the workplace adjustments they may require.

Légal à Egal has been extended to include students from universities in Luxembourg, France, Belgium and Germany. Clients involved include Chanel, Total, BNP Paribas and Bank of America.

Jean-Baptiste Lebelle, head of HR in Paris, commented: “The programme has been very well received in the local legal market and by our clients, and has opened up conversations about disability. It’s helping to break down barriers in the industry and change perceptions, so that with the right support and adjustments the students have the opportunity to thrive in their legal careers.”

Boosting social mobility

A&O strives to be open, accessible and inclusive and believes that nobody’s background should determine their future. Working with the Social Mobility Working Group, A&O’s Social Mobility Network aims to influence and shape policy on social mobility issues within A&O, in the legal industry more broadly, and in relation to recruitment and retention of talent.

Often role models and representation make the biggest difference to people believing they belong and can excel in an organisation. A&O’s social mobility mentoring scheme for colleagues from lower socio-economic backgrounds offers mentees the opportunity to learn from more senior mentors from similar backgrounds. Through the scheme, introduced by the Social Mobility

Network, colleagues can find support as well as gain career insight and advice from someone who understands their experiences.

A&O knows that young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds still find the legal profession, in particular, harder to access in many countries. And if they do join the profession, there may be additional challenges. That was one of the reasons why A&O enthusiastically introduced solicitor apprenticeships in September 2022, which represents an important step in broadening access to A&O and the legal profession more widely.

The first six apprentices started at A&O in September 2022 as part of their six-year programme to qualify as solicitors in England and Wales. A&O was one of the first leading law firms to introduce such a scheme.

The initiative provides an alternative route into law direct from school, giving young people who haven’t attended university the opportunity to earn a salary while gaining academic qualifications and becoming a lawyer.

“University isn’t for everyone for a host of reasons, including financial,” says James Partridge, early careers recruitment partner, and chair of A&O’s Social Mobility Working Group. “Having an alternative route like this helps to bring the legal profession in reach of a wider range of talented young people.”

A&O apprentices spend time in the legal practice groups, and have the opportunity to work in Fuse, A&O’s tech innovation hub, as well as the Markets Innovation Group, Legal Tech, eDiscovery and Project Management teams. Apprentices spend four days a week working in the business, with one day allocated to study.

“Regardless of their background, we want A&O to be the destination for the best people,” James adds. “Our backgrounds should never limit our opportunities.” 

"Regardless of their background, we want A&O to be the destination for the best people. Our backgrounds should never limit our opportunities."

James Partridge



Jo Dooley

UK Head-Diversity & Inclusion


Jo joined Allen & Overy in 2015 and is responsible for the delivery of the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion strategy. She began her car...
Jean-Baptiste Lebelle

Jean-Baptiste Lebelle

Head of HR


Phil Whaite

Phil Whaite

Workplace Manager