Working Families is a charity supporting working parents to understand and assert their employment rights. They won the Excellence In-house Award for their innovative legal advice platform that lets busy lawyers pick up and answer queries pro bono. Head of legal advice services Sybille Raphael explains how other in-house lawyers can get involved.

Why did you decide to make an Excellence Awards nomination? 

Mainly because I am very proud of our platform! It’s a brilliant idea that has been very successful that helps both us and our solicitor volunteers. I wanted some recognition and to let the world know. 

From an internal perspective, it’s a great boost to team morale and pride – the win is more than me just telling everyone they have done a great job. 

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of applying for this year’s awards? 

We looked at Optivo, last year’s winners, and why they won. As social housing providers they are doing something for the wider public benefit. If you can show what you are doing has a positive social impact, that can only work in your favour. It’s good to also emphasise your uniqueness to make you stand out. We all hope to do excellent jobs. Why are you truly different?   

What has been the impact of your win? 

Far greater than expected. I’m not massively active on LinkedIn, but my account exploded after I posted a photo from the awards ceremony. It’s been an opportunity for peers to find out a bit more about my role and the charity, and reach out to congratulate me. 

It’s also been a good way to alert the wider organisation and our trustees about the work of the in-house team. Some trustees are lawyers or former lawyers, so the Law Society is something they can relate to. 

How did the platform come about? 

The idea came about after Andrew Taggart, a partner from Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), very generously decided to spend part of his sabbatical volunteering with us on our helpline. At this time, we were offering advice via phone and email. Andrew felt there must be a way to a way for in-house solicitors and in other law firms to help Working Families remotely on the email queries we receive.  

I explored the options on the market and decided on a platform that allowed volunteer solicitors to log in remotely. 

We were fortunate that Linklaters joined us early on. With both Linklaters and HSF on board, it was easier to convince other law firms to sign up. 

How does the platform work and what are the benefits? 

We post the queries we need help with (obviously anonymising everything) with a deadline. Volunteers can choose one they want to respond to and post on the platform their take on the specific legal issue raised. The volunteers are advising us (the Working Families Legal Advice team), so there is no issue of conflict of interest at their end.

We use the answers posted on the platform to draft our advice emails – or not, if we disagree with what our volunteers suggest. The advice comes solely in Working Families’ name, so we take full responsibility, But it’s lovely for us to engage with volunteer solicitors and it usually saves time to have their first draft. 

Any lawyer can volunteer – you don’t have to be an employment specialist as long as you’re willing to research the issue, and many of the queries we get are quite straightforward – you can often find the answers on our website. 

Law firms love it because it means free supervision for their staff from maternity discrimination and parental rights experts. Many of our volunteers’ work is focused on employers, rather than employees. We give them an opportunity to see a legal issue from the other side of the fence! And it is a stress-free way for the volunteers to rack their brain and try their hand at solving an employment issue on bite size chunks. 

Could other law firms or charities adopt your model? 

Yes. I haven’t seen anything similar yet, but I have spoken to some charities that are interested.  

Can in-house lawyers volunteer? 

Very much so! Please email me at sybille.raphael@workingfamilies.org.uk. 

Sybille Raphael will be speaking at our annual conference on 18-19 June at Chancery Lane. To book your place, visit our Events pageEarly booking fees apply until 16 May.