An ever-growing set of business services complements a long-standing reputation in all matters personal at this national firm.
On the occasions when somebody causes somebody else injuries far more severe than anything a plaster and a lollipop can fix, it's usually time for a lawyer to step in. As the famous saying goes, where there's blame, there's a claim – and when it comes to personal injury claims, Irwin Mitchell's got a stronghold among a sea of wobbly ladders. Over the course of its 102-year history, this top 25 UK firm has become a top dog in the personal injury and medical negligence world, accumulating a raft of first-class Chambers UK rankings in both spheres. It also excels in other people-oriented areas like Court of Protection and family law.
That said, you shouldn't assume that money-spinning corporations aren't welcome here. On the contrary, IM's work for business clients has become a real growth area of late: restructuring and insolvency, commercial litigation, and IP are just some of the teams that have recently been bolstered by a string of lateral hires. “The aim is for our business side to match the heights of our personal legal services,” trainees confirmed, and although that feat has yet to be achieved, the signs are certainly promising.
It's not terribly common for a firm to dedicate such attention to two contrasting areas of law, but then again Irwin Mitchell isn't exactly the conventional sort. Its transformation into an Alternative Business Structure (ABS) in August 2012 was big news in the legal press at the time, and it remains the largest firm to date to convert. “It's exciting to be part of an innovative force that's always looking to be one step ahead of the competition,” said our sources, nodding to the fact that this isn't a firm content with resting on its laurels. Case in point: after obtaining a £60m joint loan from HSBC, Lloyds and RBS to fuel its plans for future expansion, IM went on to open its tenth national office, in Cambridge in June 2014. The firm now has fingers in most of the UK's major legal markets and has reaped the resulting financial rewards, with turnover standing at over £200m in 2013/14. In other developments, managing partner John Pickering departed in April 2014 after a 37-year stint at the firm; former head of personal legal services Andrew Tucker has since taken up the position.
In keeping with its propensity for bucking trends, IM's training contract is unlike most others in structure. Before they join ranks, incoming trainees pick one of two 'streams': personal legal services (PLS) or business legal services (BLS). We're told there's very little scope for completing seats outside one's designated stream, so new recruits are encouraged to think long and hard about which is best suited to their career goals. “Neither stream is too restrictive,” trainees were keen to clarify; “there's still a decent level of variety in each.” Still, it's important to note that seat options decrease with office size – in fact, Newcastle, Bristol, Cambridge and Southampton (the smallest offices) only offer the PLS stream. At the time of our calls, there were 17 trainees in the Sheffield HQ, 16 in London, 13 in Birmingham, ten apiece in Leeds and Manchester, four in Bristol and two in Newcastle.
BLS streamers complete the standard four six-month seats, but those in PLS undergo three four-month seats before moving on to a year-long 'qualification seat'. Most interviewees on this end were fans of this system, telling us it helps ease the transition from trainee to NQ. “You're basically doing NQ-level work and have your own caseload by the time the training contract is up,” elaborated one, “so you're already ahead of the game when you qualify.”
Clinical negligence, or medical law and patient rights, is a most popular PLS destination, and rightly so – Irwin Mitchell's prowess in this arena is virtually peerless. The firm boasts lawyers at the top of their trade across a ton of specialist areas, such as brain and spinal injuries, amputation cases and sexual assault allegations in the medical profession. All work primarily on the claimant side. Interestingly, this area of law has seen a sizeable uptick in activity lately – in 2013 alone the number of medical negligence claims brought against the NHS rose by 22%. IM's Birmingham team recently secured a £5.5m settlement for a 12-year-old girl suffering from severe physical and cognitive problems in a claim alleging that a doctor's oversight during her mother's pregnancy resulted in these health problems. Taking on initial enquiries is a big part of the trainee role here – “you basically jot down all the info related to a potential client and make a judgement call as to whether they should proceed with their claim.” There's also the chance to try your hand at drafting – typically for items like court documents, letters of claim and instructions to experts – and client contact comes in bucketloads, with insiders reporting regular meetings with counsel and experts brought on board to offer advice.
IM's court of protection team is one of the biggest in the country. The practice “essentially involves looking after the rights of those who don't have capacity – like someone who's been in a car accident and suffered a severe brain injury. As soon as they're admitted, we're appointed to manage the money they receive from the settlement.” The seat is “considerably more admin-heavy” than others, and trainees are tasked with reviewing paperwork, liaising with potential investors and drafting applications to the Court of Protection. There's plenty of client interaction too, “which gives you a good grounding for dealing with matters of a sensitive nature.”
The serious injury practice, as you might have guessed, is all about severe incidents that occur on the road or in the workplace. Specifically, the firm concentrates on brain, spinal, amputee and disease cases, with settlement amounts ranging from five and six-figure sums to millions of pounds. Our interviewees described a broad spread of tasks, from liaising with road traffic accident investigators to “considering liability and quantum” for incoming claims. “We always represent the injured party,” explained one, “so a big part of our role is looking for evidence to determine whether or not the other side was at fault.” Drafting is par for the course here, encompassing court applications, witness statements, schedules of loss and letters to experts.
Family is a different proposition from the other PLS seats mentioned here. Much of the department's workload is centred on divorce cases, but there are “less run-of-the-mill” matters too, such as international child abduction cases and custody disputes – “you might have a mother who wants to take her child to live in another country, but it's being contested by her partner.” On the divorce side of the practice, trainees reported preparing forms for divorce petitions, analysing financial documents, helping arrange settlements and drafting the paperwork that accompanies court proceedings. Speaking of which, there's ample court action in this seat, though “you only really occupy the role of note-taker when you go to hearings.”
Much like the firm's BLS offering as a whole, corporate is “an ambitious and growing part of Irwin Mitchell that increasingly picks up impressive work on a national level.” Each of IM's offices has its own set of corporate specialisms: lawyers in Sheffield focus on M&A, private equity, corporate restructuring and capital markets work, for example, while the crew in London primarily handles private capital and equity deals. The former team recently advised Sheffield City Trust on least interest purchases made in connection with a £140m deal underwritten by Sheffield City Council, a transaction that saw it work closely alongside the real estate and commercial departments. A good whack of IM's corporate clients belong to the manufacturing, digital and IT, and financial sectors – like leading mechanical seal manufacturer AESSEAL and financial services giant IFG. Trainees here regularly draft board minutes and Companies House forms, and “we're given a lot of research to do. The work can be tricky to do on your own, but it's nice not having someone breathing over your shoulder all the time.”
According to one interviewee, commercial litigation “doesn't yet have the same calibre of clients” as other teams, though the smattering of household names on the books – River Island, Toni & Guy, Cardiff City FC – seems to suggest otherwise. Insurance matters are the biggest source of business for the department, with lawyers recently representing Arc Legal Assistance and Arag in a landmark case concerning the use of panel solicitors in the legal expense industry. Trainees agreed one of the best parts about sitting with the team is the chance to interact with clients and counsel. “We get to travel regularly to attend conferences, mediations and trials.” Back at their desks trainees conduct research, draft correspondence to opposing parties, write instructions to counsel and prepare bundles.
The real estate department has grown substantially since the hiring of four ex-SJ Berwin partners back in 2010. IM's Sheffield and London offices are particularly strong in the field – the former regularly advises River Island on the retailer's acquisition of new stores and re-sites, while lawyers in the capital recently assisted Wells Fargo with its part in a £4bn property loan book from a subsidiary of Commerzbank. Other big-name clients across the department include Thorntons, ITV and British Land. Post-completion tasks are a common trainee assignment, namely Land Registry and SDLT forms that need to be filled out. “They can take quite a while to do in the beginning, but it's not long before you start churning them out rapidly.” Lower-value deals grant trainees more of a lead role –“on those you're negotiating with the other side, trying to sort out lease terms.”
IM's conversion to an ABS certainly made waves in the press in 2012, but trainees told us that life at the firm “has remained the status quo” since the change. “We haven't felt any of the tremors at ground level. It's mainly just reasserted our approach as a forward-thinking business.”
According to our interviewees, the offices with both PLS and BLS streams can “definitely feel the divide – it's almost like a tale of two firms, though not in a West Side Story kind of way; it's more that we sit on different floors and hardly interact.” Several sources on the BLS side told us the growth from their end has contributed to “an extra air of excitement. The vibe has become a bit more corporate, though that doesn't mean anyone is aggressive or that working hours have become more demanding.” In fact, working hours are “consistently reasonable” across both streams, though we did come across a few trainees who'd had some run-ins with late-night shifts. “There was a period when I was working 12-hour days pretty regularly,” reported one, “but that's unusual. Most days I leave around 6pm.” An apparent compromise for this healthy work/life balance is a salary our interviewees deemed “fairly rubbish.” In 2013 the firm bumped starting pay up to £25,000 in the regions; London first-year salary was further increased in 2014 to £36,000.
Aside from a yearly charity quiz held via video conference, firm-wide shindigs are few and far between thanks to IM's vast geographical spread. Fortunately each branch has a sprightly social scene of its own. Most hold office-wide gatherings over the summer and Christmas periods, plus the odd celebration to mark the end of the financial year, and athletic types can join one of the many sports teams each office has to offer. There are also occasional drinks dos, networking events and impromptu nights out dotted across the social calendar.
Provided you're sure which career path you want to head down, Irwin Mitchell's excellent calibre of work makes it an attractive option all round. In 2014 the firm kept on 36 of its 45 second-years.
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2015
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2015
Application and telephone interview
Irwin Mitchell receives over 2,000 applications each year for its 50 or so training contracts up for grabs. Applications begin with a cover letter and some questions on “your reasons for choosing to apply to Irwin Mitchell, what you believe you could add to the firm, and your motivations for applying for a particular stream,” graduate recruitment officer Alex Burgess tells us. (Read our True Picture on the firm to learn more about these 'streams'.) There are also the usual competency-based questions, plus ones covering work experience and qualifications.
Around 850 applicants make it to a telephone interview conducted by an external organisation. This typically lasts between 20 minutes and half an hour and, in Burgess's words, aims to find out about a candidate's “determination to succeed, flexibility, adaptability, commercial awareness and client focus.” There are usually some Irwin Mitchell-specific questions too, so be sure to brush up on your knowledge of the firm's practice areas and geographical coverage.
Roughly 270 people go through to the assessment centre, which involves a group exercise, an instruction-taking task and an interview, plus a tour of the office.
The group exercise varies each year, but IM always looks closely at “how candidates interact with each other and combine forces to achieve the desired goal.” For the instruction-taking task, candidates listen to a phone message from a potential client and prepare a brief in order to discuss the potential case with them. This tests their ability to extract relevant info and analyse it effective.
Then there's the interview, which is carried out by a partner and associate or member of the graduate recruitment team from the office the candidate is applying to. This involves a mix of questions covering the candidate's CV, their motivations, their knowledge of the firm and competencies like client focus and discipline.
IM recruits around 75% of its trainees through its two-week vac scheme (aka 'legal work placement'). The programme is offered in each of the firm's English offices and begins at the end of June.
There's no set number of places, but Burgess tells us around 60 students overall participated in 2013, and 80 in 2014. Vac schemers usually sample two different departments during their visit; in the London and Manchester bases, however, those on the business legal services stream get to rotate around three. According to our sources, the firm “tries to let candidates experience at least one area of interest.”
At the end of the two weeks is an interview that covers questions about the candidate's “motivations and career aspirations, their reasons for wanting to work at Irwin Mitchell, and their awareness of what's happening in the legal world.”
How to wow
Burgess says there's “no strict cut-off point” when it comes to academics. “If someone has lower grades, they'll lose some marks, but then they can gain marks in other areas.”
More broadly, IM is looking for “well-rounded individuals with a good amount of work experience behind them.” It's particularly important to demonstrate interpersonal skills. As Burgess tells us: “While a strong academic background is great, candidates also need to be able relate to clients as they'll be dealing with them every day.”
Every year when the Student Guide speaks to IM trainees, there's something new to report on. “They do seem to like changing things,” one trainee joked. “They want to be the first to react to new developments. We are expanding and want to be at the head of the pack.”
It started with splitting the firm into 'business' (BLS) and 'personal' (PLS) parts. Since then IM has welcomed two non-lawyer business management to its partnership (thus becoming a Legal Disciplinary Partnership or LDC); innovated with conditional fee arrangements; teamed up with the AA, the RAC, Marks & Spencer and the Daily Telegraph to provide legal services; and restructured its fast-track and multi-track PI practices. Much of this has happened to allow the firm to smoothly transition into being an Alternative Business Structure.
This business model was made possible by provisions of the Legal Services Act (LSA), which came into force in January 2012 and allow outsiders to invest in law firms. (The same provisions mean that non-lawyers – from the Co-op Bank to the AA – are also able to provide legal services. That's why the LSA is often referred to as 'Tesco law'.) IM was one of the first firms to announce its intentions to covert to ABS status, and in August 2012 it received approval for the change from the SRA.
How much have trainees been told about all this? “The firm has been very good at keeping everyone abreast of developments,” we were told. “They have told us there will be no big changes ahead for trainees, but we are no longer just a law firm and that we all have to think in a more business-like way.” Training partner and clin neg specialist Lisa Jordan has this to say: “Almost all the changes we have made – including the restructure into PLS and BLS – were linked to the preparations for our applications to become an ABS.”
Jordan tells us the firm is not yet fully committed to inviting any and all outside investment, but management does acknowledge it is an “attractive proposition.” If – or more likely when – investors do turn up at the door, they will want to know what they are investing in and whether it's profitable. As one trainee put it: “The firm has realised it has to make things more transparent in terms of the costs and overheads it has as a business. We want to be seen to be as profitable as possible to attract outside investment. There has been a big push on that front.” Presumably, investors will also be able to put their money into either the BLS or PLS sides of the firm or take a flutter on the multi-track rather than the fast-track work. The possibilities are manifold.
What's in all this for trainees? Over the past few years they've already noticed several changes: the splitting of the training contract into business and personal streams and “an increased focus on business development which everyone gets involved with.” We also wondered whether the firm's heightened interest in profitability and the bottom line means trainees will have to work longer hours. “I don't think it will,” Jordan told us. “Our focus is on working more cleverly and more efficiently, not on working more hours. Everything we do will be focused on providing an even better service to our clients.”
Trainees agreed with Jordan's sentiment, although we have noticed a small uptick in the hours they work over the past few years. Trainees also believe the ABS conversion “will make the firm more stable.” That makes sense. With more transparency and outside scrutiny, IM will have to make sure everything is ship-shape all the time. (Don't forget that Halliwells' 2010 demise had its origin in a back-room deal between partners in which they agreed to pocket a multimillion-pound property-premium windfall.)
For trainees “there has been an increased amount of internal training because there are so many new areas in which we have to be compliant to new rules because of the ABS. It involves a high level of regulation.” What's more, we wouldn't be surprised if the ABS conversion spurs IM on to pursue new strategic aims. Perhaps the firm will look for a merger or acquire 'bolt-on' teams to add to certain practices. It might even come up with an interesting way for investors like private equity houses to put money its way.
Whatever the case, IM is certainly a legal innovator, and so far its strategy seems to be paying off, with revenue breaking the £200m point in 2012/13. Another area where IM will have to show some fancy footwork over the next few years is in the world of legal aid. Some of the firm's clin neg work is still funded through legal aid. That funding is threatened by the controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. IM is among the act's many detractors.
Lisa Jordan tells us: “We have done a lot of work to deal with the changes coming in through this bill. We made representations to the government, and we were involved with submitting evidence to the House of Lords. Because of our diversity of offering, it will have less of an impact on us as as a firm than it will on some smaller specialist claimant firms. But what I am worried about most is the act's impact on our clients, including students, the severely disabled, the elderly and children. They are the ones who will lose out most, and that's disappointing.”
Whether you're interested in the personal legal services (PLS) or business legal services (BLS) stream, Irwin Mitchell has a ton of seats for trainees to choose from. Read on for a closer look at a few of the ones we didn't cover in the True Picture.
Trainees who'd completed IM's workplace injury/illness seat reported working on a lot of asbestos cases, mainly involving people “who had been exposed to it in the 50s and 60s but have only recently been diagnosed with a related illness.” The team has a long-standing presence in this area, having advised on such matters for nearly 30 years, and it's also big in non-asbestos disease claims and general workplace injury matters. Cases here “have a very quick turnaround,” meaning it's important “to determine the size of a claim as swiftly as possible so the sufferer in question can actually make the most of the compensation they receive.” Typical trainee tasks that crop up in this seat include interviewing clients and preparing schedules of loss.
Employment is a seat available on the BLS side. The team has plenty of big-name clients on its books, including the Law Society, HSBC and everyone's favourite chocolatier Thorntons. A recent highlight saw IM lawyers successfully defend Reliance Mutual Insurance Society in an employment tribunal claim brought by a former employee on the grounds of unfair dismissal, equal pay and sex discrimination. One trainee described the seat as “a bit of a baptism of fire” but enjoyed it nonetheless. They got to draft compromise agreements and prepare bundles, take notes at meetings and attend mediations.
The banking and finance department is “very busy right now,” according to a trainee who'd recently spent time there. The team handles huge matters for virtually all the country's major financial institutions, including RBS, Santander, Lloyds Bank and HSBC. Lawyers recently acted for the latter on the provision of a £14m financing package to Naylor Industries, which the British manufacturer used to aid its international growth plans. Sources described the seat as “a steep learning curve,” adding that they'd drafted ancillary documents like board minutes and dealt directly with bank representatives.
IM's insolvency group also represents most of the UK's biggest banks and advises three of the 'Big Four' auditors: KPMG, Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers. It's been busy assisting OCS Group, a total facilities management provider, with a massive restructuring deal that ended up saving over 500 jobs at Sheffield-headquartered EDS Group. Trainees here reported involvement in “a mix of debt recovery, corporate insolvency and personal insolvency work,” encompassing both contentious and non-contentious matters. Typical trainee fare includes preparing documents for deal agreements, making applications to court, advising directors on their actions and drafting letters of claim.