In July 2021, four firms received Gold Awards under the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme (ERS) – linked to the Armed Forces Covenant – Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith Freehills, Irwin Mitchell and Wace Morgan. This doubled the previous number – and along with the launch of MiLNet (a network supporting military veterans and reservists in the legal industry), demonstrates increased interest by firms in what this diverse cohort can offer civilian employers by way of transferrable skills. Whilst the fundamental step of signing the covenant involves a wider promise to the Armed Forces Community, the ERS is about organisations as employers.

However, the increase was of a relatively small number – and other sectors including Councils, NHS Trusts and Universities have been quicker to identify the benefits of the covenant and the ERS – all 407 Local Authorities in mainland Great Britain have pledged to uphold the covenant. Raising awareness in the legal sector therefore remains important.

The relationship under the ERS works both ways – as the firms going for Gold must demonstrate forces-friendly credentials in recruitment and selection, and support reservists by providing at least 10 additional paid days leave for training. They will also be engaged with the Career Transition Partnership. They will have already signed the covenant and worked up from the Bronze Award, a process that can take several years. Pioneering law firm recipients of the Gold Award were largely medium sized, working in communities with a strong military presence – but three firms within the top 25 for revenue this year show a somewhat different profile – together with the opportunity for large internal armed forces networks and champions. However, all these firms share a desire to appeal to ex-members of the Armed Forces, in addition to providing support for that community – and military charities – colleagues, clients and communities.

Several of the firms act for service personnel and their families in various practice areas – and, although this is not a requirement, it is likely to bring firm personnel into contact with the covenant. Many firms who have not signed the covenant already raise money for military charities or engage former military personnel as speakers on topics such as leadership. They may already employ veterans. Taking time to read about the covenant is an easy next step.

The covenant is a promise by the nation ensuring that those who serve or who have served in the Armed Forces, and their families, are treated fairly. Firms can design specific pledges and pathways such as offering discounted legal services to members of the armed forces community. There is a wealth of advice and support available from Defence Relationship Management, which operates on a regional basis and has social media channels so that firms can stay up to date with latest news.

In 2017, then Major General Ranald Munro, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff, with a brief to build up the reserve forces, said that law firms were under-represented amongst organisations who has signed the covenant. His message was that employers as well as individuals benefit when lawyers serve in the reserve forces. At that time, there were no law firms amongst the 48 employers who had received the Gold Award. In that year around 21 law firms had signed the Covenant and in the three and a half years since then, another 54 have been added to the list. This remains a fraction of over 11,000 firms – but many firms who have signed are advocates for the ERS, so the numbers may well increase.

When law firms are considering the covenant, support from the top is vital as it has to be signed by someone in authority – but within firms the interest may initially come from veteran employees, current reservists, the recruitment team – or lawyers working with clients who have themselves signed the covenant. It is worth starting a conversation in the firm – and it can bring together colleagues who may not have regular contact. Doubling the numbers every year would be a start.

Geraldine McCool is a Consultant with Irwin Mitchell: irwinmitchell.com

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