Redressing the balance
“Unusual,” “unique” and “innovative” were words trainees frequently bandied around when sharing their thoughts on Irwin Mitchell. We tend to agree: for starters, it's not terribly common for a bulky national firm – one of the UK's top 25, in fact – to maintain headquarters in Sheffield (point one for 'unusual'). Likewise, IM's extremely broad scale of both personal and business legal services makes it hard to put your finger on a comparable peer ('unique' – tick), and its long-awaited conversion to an Alternative Business Structure, or ABS, is nothing if not progressive (here's looking at you, 'innovative').
While the firm dates back to 1912, it's IM's recent history that's shaped the 500-lawyer institution as we know it today. IM's national scope has broadened in recent years to encompass offices in Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield. And while this firm had its beginnings acting for claimants in PI and clin neg cases, its work for business clients has also increased, particularly on the corporate, real estate and commercial litigation fronts. Growth has been fuelled by a desire to give both City and other national firms a run for their money. Still, the firm's commercial side – around a quarter of its business – has yet to invoke the levels of esteem its personal services enjoy (though to be fair, IM has been honing those for a much longer period). In addition to leading medical negligence and personal injury practices – which Chambers UK adorns with many a ranking – IM garners much respect in the areas of public law and court of protection work.
IM celebrated its centenary in 2012, which was marked by a 7% rise in turnover and the firm's receipt of five ABS licences (if you don't know about ABSs yet, see our feature on trends affecting the recruitment market). Among other things, they allow non-lawyers to have a stake in solicitors' firms, and since August 2012 IM's management has brought on board three such people to help steer the firm forward – senior practitioners from PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG and Dart Group. Lisa Jordan, training partner, explains that "we have the legal expertise, but we want to be able to balance that with experience and knowledge from other sectors." It's no secret the firm's hoping to secure cash from external investors, but insiders recently dispelled rumours that an imminent stock market flotation is on the cards, with managing partner John Pickering emphasising a focus on lateral hiring going forward. A lot of new faces have certainly come in over the course of 2012 and early 2013, especially within the commercial groups. Lawyers from Nabarro, Squire Sanders and DLA Piper have all recently joined to help balance up this traditionally litigation-heavy firm.
Business or personal?
Trainees settle on a specific 'stream' before joining the firm: either 'personal legal services' (PLS) for an experience rooted in clin neg, PI and private client, or the more corporate/commercial 'business legal services' (BLS). “It's impossible to request seats in the other stream,” said one trainee, emphasising the need for applicants to be “100% sure” of the direction they wish their careers to take. For PLS trainees, three seats of four months each are followed by a year-long 'qualification seat'. Many of our interviewees appreciated this set-up for its emphasis on providing experience prior to qualification, but some found the idea of a year-long seat rather “restrictive” as “it forces you to make qualification decisions very early in your training contract.” That said, we heard those particularly unhappy with their final seat assignment have the option of splitting it into two, though this is very rare. “It's understood if you stomped your feet hard enough then you'll have got what you wanted in the first place.” Following some rejigging over the past year, those in the BLS stream now complete a more traditional four seats of six months each.
Before joining, trainees discuss their seat choices with the grad recruitment team team, who “ask questions about your preferences but also stress the importance of business need.” While the majority of our sources failed to get exactly what they'd requested, they were largely content with their lot, having “known the score from the beginning.” Certain seats are only available in some locations, so trainees urged hopefuls to “tailor your application to the right office.”
Most of our PLS sources had completed a seat in IM's clinical negligence department, alternatively known as 'medical law and patient rights'. The practice – which Chambers UK top-ranks across Birmingham, London and Sheffield – is “incredibly busy” and offers “a huge variety of cases,” including injuries sustained during operations or birth, misdiagnoses and instances where hospital staff have failed to spot preliminary signs of severe illnesses. “We've got some experts among us, so you really feel like you're working with the best people in this area.” Work is always claimant-side, typically in costly cases against GPs, NHS foundation trusts or other medical professionals. “There's also a small team that specialises in low-value claims,” one source added, mentioning trainees tend to get “a lot of responsibility” on such matters. “We do everything from setting up funding to approaching experts for evaluation to drafting letters to the defendant laying out the allegations.” For the high-stakes matters, trainees have “a more supportive role,” helping review medical records, filing claim forms and other supportive documents, preparing letters of instruction to experts and attending conferences with counsel.
In addition to “a great deal of tact,” a clin neg stint requires the ability to adapt to various situations, trainees took care to point out. “Approaching the failure to diagnose someone's cancer is inevitably different from the way you approach a death that's been caused as a result of a procedure. Each situation is different, as is the terminology involved, and it's up to you to put it in simple terms for clients who are understandably upset and angry. Some of these people have been left with injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives.” A similar skill set is required of those spending time in IM's serious injury or industrial/asbestos disease practices. The former “pretty much does what it says on the tin” – lawyers contend with cases involving “catastrophic” injuries sustained from road or workplace accidents. According to insiders, both seats offer “a lot of court time,” and trainees assume “an active role – they encourage us to take on a lot.” Asbestos-related cases in particular are accompanied by “a real sense of urgency,” as “sometimes the client hasn't got long left – you've got to do your utmost to help them and do it quickly.”
The court of protection team deals with “people who don't have the ability to handle their own affairs” – clients can range from elderly people with dementia to cerebral palsy patients. It's up to trainees to make court applications, attend meetings with financial advisers and “keep on top of things like clients' outgoing expenses and doctor visits. There's so much client contact.” Over in a public law seat, lawyers are faced with “some novel challenges” relating to health, welfare, prison, education and professional regulation issues. “It's a really exciting seat – I was going to court almost every day,” said one source. “Unfortunately, cuts to legal aid make such cases increasingly difficult to fund.” Read our bonus feature to find out more.
Other seats in the PLS stream include travel litigation, armed forces claims, fast-track claims, public liability, employers' liability and workplace injury, as well as private client options like family, and contentious probate.
What's your business?
Recent lateral hires from DLA Piper and Nabarro have boosted IM's corporate department, which handles “mainly private M&A work” across the manufacturing, precision engineering, financial and digital and IT sectors. The London team recently oversaw the €200m sale of a Turkish shopping centre business, while lawyers over in Sheffield advised a subsidiary of AES Engineering on the acquisition of share capital of Ultimate Vacuum – Denmark's leading hoover pump distributor, apparently. Some BLS trainees reported a “quiet and not overly exciting” corporate experience, but others relished the “extra drama” they encountered on the transactional side. “You're not just doing the strict ancillary documents,” said one interviewee, who mentioned drafting the “bespoke clauses in an SPA. As the seat progresses you get more involved, especially with clients.”
The real estate team handles a fair whack of development and property finance work and also advises businesses on their operational property portfolios. Clients include banks like HSBC, Santander and The Co-operative, plus large property development companies such as Henry Boot Developments. Sources reported “some big deals in the works,” especially in light of IM Manchester's January 2013 hire of four commercial property partners from DLA Piper. Trainees told of “brilliant” supervision in the department and plenty of formal training: “I must have attended 12 different sessions!” Initially, “there's a bit of grunt work, like putting together title packs and deeds,” one explained, “but the more you prove yourself, the more you're given – by the end of my seat I got stuck into some big real estate finance matters.”
IM's commercial litigation team is known for its expertise in the insurance field, working for big industry names such as Aviva, AXA and Allianz. However, litigators deal with disputes in areas as varied as competition, construction, defamation, product liability and professional negligence. A lucky few sources who'd seen a case through as far as trial told of “drafting court documents like the pleadings and the particulars of claim.” Other seats in the BLS stream include employment, pensions, banking & finance IP, insolvency and regulatory.
So far, IM's conversion to an ABS “hasn't had much impact on our day-to-day job,” trainees agreed, though “things could change going forward on that front,” some thought. “IM has traditionally been known as a PI firm, but management is really trying to improve the external perception and credibility of our business side by recruiting lawyers from firms above us in the corporate league table,” said one. “They know PI work alone wouldn't keep us afloat much longer.” According to some, this push on the BLS side is starting to add more of a “corporate edge” to IM – a few insiders described a shift in atmosphere from the “friendly and relaxed” vibe cultivated by a history of people-oriented services towards one more in line with “a big corporate firm.” However, others dismissed this notion entirely, emphasising “there's not much interaction” between the two streams as “each sustains a separate working environment” in most offices. That said, this may not be the case forever, as they admitted: “There's a big push to further integrate the BLS and PLS streams so the firm can cross-sell its practices.”
Salt of the earth
Our interviewees proudly characterised IM as “not posh, potentially because management focuses on recruiting a diverse range of people.” Thanks to an open-plan layout – present in all offices – “a healthy degree” of communication is sustained across the firm: “It's easy to pop over to someone's desk to ask a quick question or go speak with a partner.” When it comes to working hours, sources were largely satisfied. “We're not worked to the bone when it's not necessary. No one will tell you to cancel your theatre plans or watch you like a hawk.” However, there's a trade-off: “Our salary's not the greatest,” a few pointed out. “We don't do magic circle hours, but it's not like we're working nine to five, either.” For the record, salaries have increased in 2013; first-seaters in the regions pick up £25,000 while their counterparts in London start on £33,000.
Firm-wide social activities aren't terribly common, but we did hear about a “smashing” annual charity quiz, which sees all the offices compete via videolink. Occasional departmental away-days also bring people together across the firm, but most socialising occurs within the individual offices. Office-wide Christmas, summer and end-of-financial-year parties are thrown each year and supplemented by ad hoc departmental dos and diversity-related events like drinks and film nights. Luckily, “there's no pressure to be part of the crowd. How much you get involved is up to you.”
IM's qualification process divided opinions among interviewees, some of whom wished to be “informed more regularly about what's going on.” Indeed, without an official jobs list, “you kind of have to do your own digging and fight for what you want.” Still, many highlighted the lack of a formal interview as a plus and took comfort in the firm's historically high retention rates. In 2013, 38 out of 46 qualifying trainees stayed on.
PLS trainees love IM for its “rewarding” spread of work, while BLS trainees envisage a future where the breadth of the firm's business capabilities matches that of the personal teams.