If the thought of big City fare makes your eyes glaze over, take a long look at Lewis Silkin...
Beyond the competitive pack of thundering racehorses that dominate the arena of corporate law, you'll spot a quite different creature – a piebald pony that prefers to graze in the fertile legal land between the City and the West End. Here, away from the sweaty braying of the Square Mile, it excels at an unusual variety of practices, from social housing to sorting out libelled celebs. We're referring, of course, to Lewis Silkin. Like the piebald pony, this firm is characterised by variegation, with clients as diverse as Saatchi & Saatchi and Islington & Shoreditch Housing Association, Credit Suisse and TV chef Heston Blumenthal. A hoof-ful of golden Chambers UK rosettes for media, employment and mid-market corporate work attest to its presence in these areas. Founder Mr Lewis Silkin was minister for town and country planning in Clement Attlee's government, and his firm has an enduring commitment to social housing projects. Clients today include Peabody Trust and Notting Hill Housing Trust.
Despite its formidable clout, the firm promotes a sense of approachability – this is, as the website puts it (contrary to our horse-based metaphor) a 'rather more human law firm'. Plenty of places might make out that they mix the cuddly with the corporate, but what's the reality here? “The training contract interview I had at Lewis Silkin was the only one where I felt properly comfortable and not intimidated,” an insider told us – a sentiment echoed by others. Happily, the 'more human' slogan “isn't just marketing spiel – it lives up to the reputation of being a different type of law firm. I've seen people leave and come back!” Six consecutive years on the Sunday Times' list of the '100 Best Companies to Work For' also lends credence to the suggestion that this isn't the most soul-crushing of corporate enterprises.
Until summer 2014, Lewis Silkin trainees completed six seats of four months each, meaning they sampled all five departments and did a repeat seat or secondment. While some thought this breadth of experience was “brilliant,” others felt that “changing so regularly means just as you start to settle into a seat, you're wrenched away and thrust into something unfamiliar.” Individuals with the latter view were no doubt pleased when the firm switched to a four-seat system in September 2014.
Overall sources reckoned that “the way they allocate seats isn't that transparent,” although there's the opportunity to discuss preferences with HR and pick out two priority seats. “The process can be a bit difficult, but it's just because everyone wants to do the same two seats – MBT (media, brands and technology) and employment,” summarised one. A few interviewees mentioned that several in their cohort hadn't been able to do a corporate seat “because of requests from clients to do secondments.”
The media, brands and technology department takes on contentious and non-contentious work such as IP disputes, commercial contracts, defamation and reputation management cases from across the film, TV, music, theatre, publishing, interactive and advertising sectors. The latter is an important area of business for Lewis Silkin. Former chairman Roger Alexander was known as 'the Don' of advertising law during his 40-year tenure; in the 1980s the firm became the first to advertise on a billboard. Along with Saatchi & Saatchi, clients include multinational communications companies like Publicis Groupe and modish independent agencies such as Mother London. Recently the firm helped Jaguar Land Rover create that Bond-style telly advert featuring the combined thespian might of Tom Hiddleston, Mark Strong and Ben Kingsley. For this, trainees “spent time working out the contractual rights of the actors and summarising them to the client.” Another had toiled over a talent agreement “for a footballer who was going to be a pundit at the World Cup.” On the contentious side, the firm recently acted for cosmetic chain Lush in a hefty trade mark dispute with Amazon. “There was bundling obviously, but I also drafted witness statements and was able to attend hearings and conferences with QCs,” recalled a trainee. “I was in the thick of it. If you put in the hard yards then they'll give you a lot of responsibility.”
About 40% of Lewis Silkin's revenue comes from employment work, which perhaps isn't surprising given the size of the department – comprising 94 employment law specialists, it's the second largest in the UK. Trainees warned that “getting seen across the department can be hard if you want to qualify into it, so it's best to sit there twice.” The majority of work is on the employer side, although some claimant issues are taken on. Financial services clients make up a big chunk of business, along with clients from the media, advertising, retail and technology sectors such as MTV, Marks & Spencer and Nokia. Fellow firms Freshfields and Linklaters also turn to Lewis Silkin for help with employment matters. “The work ranges from small tribunal claims for individuals through to big High Court stuff,” trainees noted. “I ran a grievance procedure by myself, which meant drafting all the letters and submissions. There was some photocopying and bundling, but I felt like I was doing an awful lot of valuable work.” Another source “worked on settlement and compromise agreements, and helped to draft employee handbooks.”
Over in the corporate department, there's a focus on work from the media and technology industries, with plenty of M&A activity among major companies and start-ups. Recently, the firm helped Publicis Groupe acquire a 75.1% stake in media agency Walker Media from M&C Saatchi for ��36 million. On acquisitions, typical trainee fare includes “drafting share purchase agreements, shareholder resolutions and board minutes.” Some sources reported tackling an AIM flotation, which allowed for “very good exposure to clients. I led a meeting to talk through various sections of an admission document that I'd drafted.” Research tasks are also “a classic part” of the corporate seat.
The real estate/development department covers commercial and social housing work. A stint in the former group exposes trainees to “big deals with tech, advertising and retail clients.” The trainee workload might involve “some research, looking into tax issues and responding to client enquiries as well as drafting simpler leases on small projects for example if a client is just taking one floor of a building.” Social housing involves “loads of contact with housing association clients to organise their insurance or licences. I helped one of the councils to organise a lease.” This obviously isn't Candy brothers-esque stuff – the firm works on the affordable housing element of projects like the £1.5bn regeneration of Elephant & Castle. “It isn't especially glamorous,” muttered an interviewee. “Things move quite slowly.” It seems that both halves of the department have a Marmite effect on trainees: “Some love it, but it's not for everybody.”
Interviewees were fairly chipper about their hours: “I can get away by 7pm pretty consistently and rarely work at weekends.” Of course, “at peak times you stay later.” When the day's legal business is done, sources told us that “there's always somebody to go for a drink with.” The small trainee intake is fairly close-knit (“they've chosen people who bond quite strongly”), and there's a budget for social events. Firm-wide, there are annual summer and Christmas bashes, with drinks trolleys regularly doing the rounds. Charity “is taken seriously” here, so there are frequent fund-raising events. Some intrepid trainees completed a sponsored cycle ride from London to Amsterdam, while others reassured us that the firm is still keeping bee hives on the roof – the resultant honey is sold in the canteen, raising funds for a good cause. “Ultimately it's still a business,” said trainee of the firm's fêted culture. “But they're very supportive. They want you to succeed and stay with them.” In 2014, three out of six qualifiers were kept on.
“There isn't a type – apart from being unpretentious – although a lot of trainees have previous experience in creative industries.”
Training contract deadline: 30 June 2015
Lewis Silkin receives just under 600 applications for training contracts each year. These are made via Apply4Law, and there are no CVs are involved.
The firm shortlists around 40 applicants to attend a pre-selection written exercise, which doesn't require any previous knowledge of the law. Following this, 16 are chosen to take part in an assessment centre that involves a group exercise and interviews with two pairs of partners, plus a tour of the firm and a chance to speak to current trainees.
According to HR officer Abdi Alin, the group exercise is “fun and tongue-in-cheek,” but candidates “should still be careful in how they come across – we are marking them.” Last year, he tells us, the exercise centred on a brand management-related scenario in which “a fictitious betting company approaches a creative agency to set up a wacky sponsored sporting event like the Red Bull soapbox race in Hyde Park. It allows candidates to show their personality.”
To impress, successful candidates need to demonstrate commercial awareness, 'personal effectiveness' and people skills. “We look for positive indicators – for commercial awareness that would be an understanding of the objective of the task and an awareness of the client's needs,” says Alin. “In terms of personal effectiveness, we look at whether they understand instructions and demonstrate a clear thought process. For people skills, we're looking to see if they get along with each other, if they create a team environment and act as a natural leader. We keep an eye out for negative indicators too – for example, a limited contribution to the task, and an unwillingness to make decisions and express opinions.”
To bag one of Lewis Silkin's six training contracts, Alin tells us, you need to be “a bright, open-minded and curious lateral thinker, without the baggage of machismo, arrogance, bravado or working at the expense of others.”
Of course, “there's not a single type of person that the firm's looking for,” our sources agreed. One of the firm's current trainees told us “everyone in my intake is sociable and hard-working, but there's quite a wide age range among us, from 24 through to 36. And a lot of different backgrounds too.” It's worth noting that “a lot of trainees have work experience in creative industries like media and advertising,” though that doesn't mean those fresh out law school can't nab a place.
Lewis Silkin no longer runs a vacation scheme. Instead the firm has two two-day workshops at the beginning of April that involve a variety of presentations by partners, associates and business services managers, plus a Q&A with trainees.
Attendees also get participate in an interactive speed networking session. “We give them some soft skills training, and then we let them loose with 20 staff from across the firm and get them to try to find answers to a set of questions,” Alin says.
There are between ten and 15 spots available per workshop. Applications are made through Apply4Law.
Lewis Silkin LLP
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