Are you thinking what we're thinking?
“TLT is an exciting workplace,” interviewees chirped. “It's not stuck in the old ways." The firm was created through the merger of two Bristol firms in 2000 and has grown rapidly, doubling its lawyer count since 2005 and tripling turnover since 2002. It expanded into the London market in 2005, and in 2012 TLT announced two more ambitious moves – a merger with Scots firm Anderson Fyfe to give it two offices north of the border, and the opening of a practice in Northern Ireland. There's no getting away from it – TLT can now only be described as a national firm.
Trainees love all the energy and ambition. “There are almost monthly hires in the London office,” one told us. “Sometimes they are from magic or silver circle firms. It's great to see, as it tells you they're thinking what you're thinking.”
Clients include “big names like EDF Energy, Nationwide, Barclays and WHSmith” – TLT recently advised the latter on its expansion in the Middle East and Asia. It has adopted a sector-focused strategy, and financial services clients now account for over 40% of the firm's turnover. The other sectors are leisure; retail; technology and media; public sector; housing; and renewables.
There are a potential 20 seats available to trainees in Bristol, although in practice not all of these become available every year. “A list is sent round with the available seats and we rank our top five preferences.” There are “a large number of seats in real estate and in banking and financial services litigation, so trainees tend to work in one or both of these departments in their first year. We might not necessarily choose these seats but they are a good introduction to the firm's work.”
The other choices include: banking and asset finance; commercial dispute resolution; construction; corporate; corporate defence; corporate recovery and insolvency; employment; family; pensions and incentives; professional negligence; regulatory; social housing; and tax and estate planning.
The majority of trainees are based in Bristol but some (seven at the time of our calls) are hired specifically to the London office. This is more heavily geared towards financial services work, but seats in shipping, maritime and international trade, real estate and commercial dispute resolution are also on offer.
London trainees chat among themselves about what they want to do and sort things out in a gentlemanly manner. It's unusual for them to take a seat in Bristol, or for Bristolians to spend time in the capital (not counting meetings), but NQ positions are open to all qualifiers regardless of location, and “quite a few Bristol trainees have qualified in London recently.”
A large chunk of the London-based banking and asset finance team's work is carried out for financial institutions. It has a lot of Indian banking clients: Chambers Asia ranks TLT highly for its work for the likes of Bank of Baroda. “The asset security might be ships or helicopters. The nature of the work means trainees can't get involved in every single aspect of it,” said one source, “but I was always going to client meetings. Trainees get given a task that they can take and run with until the end, which is good for building a sense of belonging and purpose.”
Interviewees said that banking and financial services litigation (BFSL) is “a good seat to take as the firm has had a lot of success and growth in it. You name a bank, we work for them.” True enough, this is one of the largest teams of its type outside of London, and clients include Barclays, Bank of Ireland, Nationwide and Bank of India. The work of this department involves chasing down debtors on behalf of banks and recovering money from fraudulent transactions. This makes it a “very interesting department to work in. They let trainees do advocacy at court on charging order hearings. They really build your confidence.”
Back in the office, “there is a lot of drafting. I worked on an appeal and wrote general correspondence to clients, the courts and the opposition,” one source said. Due to the smaller files, “some trainees don't think it has the prestige of other departments. However smaller files mean more responsibility for us. It definitely has a Marmite element and it depends on personal preference whether they love it or hate it.” One source declared: “The work can be a little dry and repetitive.”
A favourite seat among our sources was commercial dispute resolution, which one source described as “really hardcore technical stuff.” The team only takes one trainee in each city at a time, which means “lots of really meaty stuff and loads of client contact. I worked on a complex international contract case for the majority of my time, where I was exposed to litigation, evidence, investigation and research. There were peripheral matters too, including IP and technical contract cases. My supervisor was more than happy for me to take control, but they looked after me the whole time,” one trainee enthused.
Another claimed: “It was my favourite seat – very exciting. I had two main roles: acting as trainee support for the team, and taking the first attempt at drafting most documents. You get good practice at cases without dealing with anything too big.” A “wide variety” of clients include WHSmith, Merlin Entertainment and Barclays.
In corporate, trainees “get less of a shot with clients,” said one source. “I got to do the first draft of a few things, like board minutes, but you'd never get to run the case yourself.” The group advised the shareholders of Cornish brewery Sharp's (makers of Doom Bar, ale fans) on its sale to international giant Molson Coors, and WHSmith on the acquisition of 22 stores from the Sussex chain British Bookshops & Stationers when it entered administration.
The regeneration game
The massive property department is split into several different areas including commercial property, residential property, planning, property litigation and social housing. TLT has recently been advising Swan Housing Association on the Blackwall Reach regeneration project. It's worth around £300m and is going to transform a 1960s housing estate in the East End into 1,600 homes with open spaces and community facilities including a mosque. One trainee described their property seat as “pretty varied. I did a lot of residential conveyancing and bits and pieces of commercial property. The work goes out in your name and there's lots of client contact.”
The construction team is “busy and growing quickly. The work is interesting and complex.” On the contentious side of the team, said one source, “I helped with a closure and was involved in an adjudication. On the non-contentious side, I helped prepare building agreements. There are lots of client meetings to attend.”
Regulatory is all about “defending the firm's clients against health and safety, trading standards and accusations of environmental violations. The non-contentious side includes advising clients. Trainees deal with a lot of advertising and labelling. A lot of the work was pan-European and it's interesting as a lot of the time we were dealing with new product launches and they want advice on alcohol and food labelling. Those clients tended to be big names such as multinational banks. Health and safety prosecutions are a bit more of a mix, with big and small clients such as household names and some I'd never heard of. It was an interesting and varied seat.” The outcomes at stake in this seat (in terms of money and prison) mean trainees don't get much client contact.
Trainees in the tax and estate planning seat see “interesting work, drafting wills, company administration and lots of private client work. I did a preliminary task in a probate process where the client had passed away and we went to their house and checked what was of value. We found £300 cash. I didn't expect that kind of task,” one said.
TLT provides a training programme, Tto2, “for all trainees and NQs. There are a lot of lunchtime seminars which provide an introduction to different practice areas,” one trainee explained. Appraisals are “good,” another told us. “We have almost weekly meetings with our supervisor and detailed mid-seat and end-of-seat reviews. My supervisor was hot on the objectives. If I didn't make one, they scrutinised why not.”
“Trainees are not treated as babies,” one interviewee said. “One of the things I love about TLT is that they really embrace the younger guys. It's not a culture which is reliant on the older generation. We are brought into things and involved in things early. As a trainee, you feel like you and your opinion are worth something.” Trainees think the firm looks for “energetic and genuine people.”
The hours, say trainees, are “excellent,” and “the office is pretty empty by 7pm. Working long hours is the exception, not the rule – and when I have worked late, I've got cake,” a sweet-toothed source chimed.
Skittles and tipples
An active charity committee “arranges lots of events over the year, such as horse-racing nights, baking sales, fashion shows and balls.” Otherwise, the social life is “mainly organised by the trainees.” In Bristol, “there's been bowling, pizza nights, karaoke and general drinks. There's a consensus that we should try and do something every couple of weeks, but there's no pressure.” A few Bristol sources mentioned Toto's wine bar as a venue of choice. The firm organises monthly trainee drinks events “where they put a tab behind the bar.”
In London, “the pub is a great way to socialise with people more senior in an informal setting.” The summer party is the big bash: all lawyers from both offices head to Bristol, where the firm rents out the Ashton Court estate.
Internally, the offices are the spit and image of each other; however, from the street it's a different matter. Londoners are based in a “nice building” midway between St Paul's and the Bank of England; Bristolians, on the other hand, walk into a “bleak” 1970s tower block every morning, which one trainee referred to as “the cheese grater.” We hear the views are great though. There's the occasional chance to get out of the office entirely and go on secondment – recent placements have been at Barclays, Bank of Ireland and Triodos Bank.
The identical offices are open-plan and “trainees sit with their teams. I sit next to a partner and opposite my supervisor.” Our interviewees loved this arrangement: “It breaks down barriers of hierarchy. You hear partners on the phone, dealing with clients, always hearing what's going on. It's great to know what everyone is working on, and it's great for keeping up to date with all the gossip.”
TLT marches boldly onwards and that's just the way trainees here like it. In 2012, 14 out of 17 second-years were retained on qualification.