Matthew Smerdon, chief executive of The Legal Education Foundation, discusses the organisation, its work and how it adds value.

Matthew, firstly, can you tell us a bit about your own background?
I have worked in the charity sector for 18 years and been a volunteer in various ways since before then. One early memory of being involved in social action was when my parents diverted our family holiday in France (I was 12 and my two sisters were nine and eight months) to go to the Mauritanian Embassy in Paris and call for the release of a prisoner of conscience that their local Amnesty group had been assigned. The five of us filed into the office of the Chargé d'Affaires and he was quite surprised to see us, but very courteous and reassuring that our friend would soon be released, which he was.

When did you become chief executive of The Legal Education Foundation and what drew you to the role?
I joined the Foundation in October 2013 shortly after its official launch in July that year. I have been fascinated by the law since working at Community Links in east London where I saw how the opportunity to use legal remedies can have such an impact on helping people to take more control over their lives. In 2004, I moved into the grant making world and since 2008 have focused on support for the legal advice sector. Coming to work at the Legal Education Foundation offered the chance to bring together these interests in the role of the law and how independent grant making can support the efforts of those in the field, particularly at this crucial time when income is under pressure and legal needs are ever-present.

What’s the history of the organisation?
The Legal Education Foundation is the new name for an older Royal Charter charity - the College of Law. The charity's purpose is to advance legal education and the study of the law which was done by running law schools. In 2012, the governors decided to sell the training and education business and use the revenue generated by the sale (a net £200million) to create an endowment. The Foundation was officially launched and the income from that endowment is used to provide grants that support our objectives.

What are the main services it offers?
We principally distribute grants in response to applications from organisations working in professional, academic and public legal education.

What are its main aims and objectives?
We are in the process of developing our strategic plan. Key themes are:

• Increasing public understanding of the law;
• Meeting legal needs in effective, sustainable ways and at scale;
• Increasing access to employment in the legal profession; particularly addressing questions of social mobility and diversity

Two further objectives underpin these programme areas: to make sure that our work is underpinned by solid evidence of needs and of what works; and to explore and support the role that technology can play across our areas of interest.

Where does it operate?
Grants are provided across the UK. Our main office is in Guildford and we have a base in London.

How does it add value to the legal community?
In many ways...

~ Our main value is providing financial support to projects that develop thinking, training and practice in our areas of focus. Many charitable organisations have the additional focus of attracting donors and raising funds; but without this requirement, we have the freedom to be bold and to look at the long term, as well as to bring people together to share experience and to use our knowledge, networks and independence to influence those who can effect change.

~ We facilitate collaboration between grantee projects and we are already part of a number of joint funding initiatives with other charities and foundations. We have funded a range of experiments and new work and are supporting a major conference in London this December; it’s being run by Legal Voice and will share lessons from the programme.

~ We also act as a bridge for the legal community into other sectors. For example, I'm interested in how we help non-legal organisations to recognise where issues they are tackling may have a legal dimension or solution. We are founding members of the Early Action Funders Alliance; a group of funders interested in focussing on prevention rather than dealing with problems after they've happened. We bring a distinctive focus on legal education to this effort and, in turn, benefit from the knowledge that other sectors can offer to our work.

How does it collaborate/ work with the wider legal profession?
The main vehicle for this is through our reactive grants programme. However, we are increasingly seeking to address emerging issues proactively. For example, we were concerned about the lack of opportunities for law graduates to secure training contracts or pupillages in social welfare law. In response, we have established the Justice First Fellowship which will support the next generation of lawyers in this field by providing fully-funded, two-year training contracts with eight of the best legal advice agencies in the country. The pilot was launched in August this year and we expect the first fellows to be in place in January 2015. We plan to expand the scheme in the future in both number of fellowships but also to include barristers and legal executives

The legal market is changing all the time so how easy is it for The Legal Education Foundation to evolve and stay current?
In the front of our minds is how we help the law to play its vital role in supporting civil society, economic development and democracy. The themes we are fixing on are broad and give us flexibility to respond to new challenges and ideas. We draw on many sources of intelligence via our staff, our governors, our relationships with organisations and other funders in the field and through the research that we support and the output of the wider research community. We have identified technology as a key theme and have commissioned work looking at global trends in the use of digital technology. This work will help inform how we take this important agenda forward.

What’s the vision for the organisation over the next five to 10 years?
We will be publishing our strategic plan in December. The vision driving this is to support a society where everyone understands the role and value of the law and has the capability and opportunity to use it to ensure their rights and to fulfil the obligations that accompany these rights.