Victoria Anderson, the organisation’s CEO, is a trainee solicitor specialising in media and commercial law after completing an LLB and LLM at Exeter, graduating in 2014. We spoke to her about her career, Big Voice’s work, and the challenges facing the charity.
Big Voice London is a social mobility legal charity who have worked with hundreds of students from non-fee-paying schools over the last six years. Their self-described mission is ‘to empower young people from disadvantaged backgrounds through knowledge of the law, helping them understand their rights’. They also work to give young people access to the legal profession as a career, therefore increasing diversity within the solicitor profession and the Bar.
TA: We are interested in your career path to becoming a Charity CEO while training as a solicitor – it is very impressive for someone who has just left education.
VA: Well, it kind of happened randomly. It was 2013, I had just finished my degree, and was due to start the Legal Practitioner’s Course (LPC) in London. I Googled ‘legal volunteering and pro bono opportunities’, and I stumbled upon Big Voice London, which at that point had existed since 2011.
It was founded as a student project by a Bar student who was then at City Law School, just a few students who were interested in social mobility and helping their local community. They contacted local schools and brought in some sixth form students to teach them about areas of law that they found interesting and it just grew from there; especially once the Supreme Court were on board. The Supreme Court was quite new at the time, and so they were very interested in branching out their educational outreach. Big Voice was a really useful way for them to do that. They have been amazing ever since. They’ve let us use the Supreme Court as a venue, which has been incredible, and the Justices are also very generous with their time. Generally, their education department has given us advice and support.
In 2013, I joined Big Voice as a group leader, which is what we call our teachers. I was teaching Model Law Commission. It allows students to follow the process of the Law Commission on an issue through to the court stage. This was throughout my masters, which I was doing at Exeter at that point, and I commuted once a week to do Big Voice. After that initial project the people running it graduated and went off in different directions, so they were looking for other people to start running the project. Myself and another person were asked to take over, and from then on I’ve been running it. I, along with one of the Directors, decided to make it an official charity, and there it is!
From there, we’ve snowballed and grown quite quickly. We’ve worked with lots of other people, set-up links to schools, brought in volunteers and speakers. We’ve grown connections with lots of different organizations. We still have connections at City Law School, who provide us with free spaces, and Linklaters have been amazing too. They helped turn us into a charity and are helping with our week-long summer school, providing us with volunteers, spaces and refreshments. We’ve also had donations from the legal profession; it’s amazing how generous individuals can be. So now we’re a charity and have formalized our governance, and somehow I’ve ended up as CEO!
TA: How have you been able to grow so quickly since 2013? Has it been down to the support of the Supreme Court and Linklaters?
VA: Honestly, having those names and organisations behind us has been so helpful. Not just for on-the-ground support, having the name attached to us gets us attention and more cooperation. It’s really about the people that have been involved: our volunteers and the amount of time and effort they give up, as well as the diligence of our management board.
Why is Linklaters interested in helping you? What is the role of the commercial legal profession in encouraging social mobility?
In terms of why Linklaters is doing it, I think it benefits them to encourage diversity. It gives them a broader range of candidates to select from, especially from an early age. You only need to look at the statistics to see that there’s something going wrong at the school level, and that something needs to change before we’ll see any sort of impact further along the line. It’s all very well to say that these firms need to recruit better, but unless the candidates apply to them, there’s nothing they can do about it. Having spoken to vast numbers of students across London over the last few years, I’ve realised that the issue is lack of confidence and knowledge about the profession generally. They’re constantly told, you know, “That’s a fanciful idea, why would you think you could do that, nobody from this area goes into the legal profession, law is complicated and you’d be much better off doing this.” And they’re just not given the information that they need to do it, so a lot of them don’t know anything about law degrees, or that they have the GDL as an option, or funding – I mean, funding is a huge issue. So, it’s really getting that information out there, and making them realize that if they have the talent and intelligence, they can absolutely go for it.
Do you think it’s possible to achieve your objectives through policy, or ways other than charities like yours?
That’s a difficult one, unless you have the schools on board, and I think most people realize that schools have quite a lot on their hands already. It’s very difficult because schools are trying very hard to get the best results they can, but they can’t think beyond that because they already have too much to deal with.
It would be great to see law become more of an area in the national curriculum, though. That would be a step in the right direction, getting more students thinking about it earlier on and knowing that it’s there as an option. If they have that sense of “Oh, that’s a topic I know something about”. And having law in the curriculum would at least deal with a part of our objective – information. Most students don’t know their rights, they don’t know anything about the law or equality.
What do you mean by teaching them their rights, exactly?
We always try to target rights that will be of use to them now and soon. So, a recent topic we’ve done is the right to be forgotten, which is important to students who are engaged in social media from a very early age, not knowing the impact that that can have and not having control over what’s out there. After that, we had a lot of students come up to us and say “I never knew that, it’s ridiculous that I’ve been using Facebook or Twitter for all these years, not knowing this.”
Then other practical things like employment law, which is really important for students when they leave education. They may be on a zero hours contract, and they should be in a position where they are able to say “Well, this is the state of employment law, and you can’t do that to me”. They should be in a position where they can fight back. We do a lot of that sort of stuff.
Is there a specific success story that stands out in your memory?
There is. One particular student who finished all four of our projects. He came to us quite shy, one of the students you notice in the back who’s not talking much but you can tell is listening. He was engaged, but shy. He then went onto the second project and won a competition, which was incredible – he was getting all this positive feedback from one of our High Court judges. He came up to us afterwards and said that no one had ever told him that he was ever going to achieve anything. He genuinely didn’t think that he could work in anything like the legal profession. And now he’s applying to law at university – at impressive universities. That one does stand out in my mind, because of the progress he made.
When you approach a school, do you find that they’re generally enthusiastic? Does anything change after worked with them?
It’s a mixture. We’ve had wonderful schools who’ve got us venues, whose teachers have come in as volunteers, who know they have students who are interested in law and are looking for a way to help them. Equally, we’ve had schools who completely ignore us. Like I say, schools are having a challenging time now, struggling to keep up with their commitments without having to worry about an extra project – it’s completely understandable. But we’re hoping that as we grow, we’ll be able to physically go into schools and reach not only the students whose teachers aren’t interested, but also the students that wouldn’t apply to us. At the moment, we take applications directly from students who are interested and want to be a part of it. But if there are students with absolutely no confidence, they’re not even going to be able to apply. We’re hoping we’ll be able to reach those students as well.
So, is that are your future plans?
The plan over the next couple of years is to expand. All the projects that we run, I’m confident we could take into schools and run as a one- or two-hour session. Then the students that are interested, we’d take to do our sessions in London, taking them around the venues – the Supreme Court, Linklaters and so on, so they gained that experience as well. Eventually it would be nice if we could expand outside of London, but that’s a huge jump that comes with funding and resourcing issues.
Are there opportunities for students to get involved, either with your charity or with the effort more generally?
We recruit for summer school group leaders annually, a teaching role where you plan the curriculum and guide students through a session. We also recruit for the Model Law Commission, which starts in October and runs for three or four months. All our sessions are between six and eight on Thursday evenings, so they don’t get in the way of study or work. We also have coordinator positions, who take care of arranging venues, contacting schools and getting speakers in – we’re currently looking to recruit two to help run Big Voice, for two months but possibly with extension. We like them to go to as many sessions as possible to see the impact of what they’re doing. We also want a fundraising assistant for August. Otherwise, get in touch with us if you’re interested in helping, we tend to take on ad-hoc volunteers if they’re interested. Just apply to us! It is good fun, a lot of the volunteers we’ve had are now in training contracts or pupillages, and still ask to come back for a sessions now and then.