From bricks and mortar to stocks and shares, this sterling top-20 firm offers a wealth of matters to explore.
Berwin Leighton Paisner is one of the big law firm success stories of the noughties. Created via a merger in 2001, it thrived through the recession, despite its reliance on the particularly hard-hit property industry, and even managed to achieve coveted silver circle status. It hasn't been all smooth sailing post-recession, though: the past couple of years have seen a wobble in profits and a spate of high-profile partner departures – including head of real estate finance Laurence Rogers and head of finance Matthew Kellet – and in 2013 the firm slashed salaries and cut 58 legal roles. Still, BLP's lawyers are convinced a rosy future lies ahead. “We've had a rough patch, but this is still an exciting place to work,” said trainees, nodding to “innovative” strategies like the firm's freelance service 'Lawyers On Demand' and forthcoming legal service delivery team in Manchester. “You can feel the firm becoming more international too,” they added, mentioning its growth in the Far East. BLP added a Beijing office in mid-2013, bringing its overseas office count to eight, and is picking up more and more work from mainland China. “We've moved from a more easy-going firm to one that's stepping it up and refusing to rest on its laurels.”
BLP's success initially sprung from its expertise in all things real estate, but the firm is currently turning its attention to its expanding corporate finance offering, bringing in laterals like ex-A&O partner Simon Baum. According to our interviewees, this push has caused a slight divide to emerge in the firm's working culture: “They're trying to lessen the gap between us and the magic circle, and things have become noticeably more high-octane on the corporate finance front, whereas real estate remains quite protective of its slower-paced culture and working hours.” Indeed, sources in the latter practice reported “a predictable 9am to 7.30pm day,” while those in the former said “it's increasingly the norm to stick around until 9 or 10pm, and there are times when you have to stay late into the night.”
When it comes to seat allocation, “the party line is that you should do both a corporate and a real estate seat, though it's not a hard and fast rule.” New recruits list up to five seat choices each rotation, then discuss them with HR. “It's a two-way process; you have to fight your corner sometimes.” This is particularly true on the overseas seats front: “There are only a few, so it's not as easy to get them; this isn't a firm with guaranteed international opportunities.” At the moment, seats are available in Moscow (corporate), Brussels (competition), Abu Dhabi (contentious construction) and Singapore (finance). There are also a handful of client secondments on at any given time, including a major financial institution and a national retailer.
Trainees had positive views on BLP's custom of sending new joiners off to the University of Law in Moorgate for their LPC: “A big plus of that is that you have a ready-made group of friends when you arrive.” Once they start their training contract, rookies benefit from “very well-organised training – it's something the firm does well.” Tutelage comes in the form of regular department sessions and in-house PSCs, some of which involve external modules like an advocacy course. “It's kind of front-loaded at the start of your seat, but it's pitched at the right level and helps you prepare for all sorts of things that come up.”
Most of our sources had done at least one real estate-oriented seat. The team achieves top Chambers UK rankings for its big-ticket and hotels and leisure work, and it also scores on the real estate finance front. Recent highlights include advising Ballymore on the £105m sale of Victorian gem Old Spitalfields Market, and helping King’s Cross Central sell a site to Google for the tech giant's massive new UK headquarters. The hefty practice is split into five divisions. “In general the work they do overlaps a lot,” though there is one group devoted solely to work for Tesco, one of the firm's biggest and longest-running clients. The supermarket chain cemented this status by dropping former co-advisers Ashurst, naming BLP its go-to firm for purchase and site development work. Our sources who'd sat in the core group “completely loved” the levels of responsibility they'd encountered: “I had huge exposure to clients and was running my own files from early on.” Such matters typically include licenses and leases, land registry registrations, and tax returns for a mix of London-based and nationwide clients. Meanwhile, those who'd spent time with the retail team spoke of lease management work for big merchants like John Lewis, Nike and Apple: “I was conducting property searches, writing up reports on titles and arranging insurance – all sorts of things crop up in this type of work.”
Most of BLP's real estate clients are domestic, but the firm has seen an increase in work for international investors lured in by the UK's rocketing property values. For example, real estate finance lawyers recently assisted Californian healthcare REIT Griffin with its acquisition of 44 senior housing and care facilities in England, Scotland and Jersey. The team also advises financial institutions like Aviva, Barclays and ING on the funding and refinancing pf property developments. Such matters regularly run into the millions or hundreds of millions, and the loan facilities and agreements at hand tend to be complex. “The seat is pretty overwhelming at first – it's quite technical, and they expect a high level of performance from trainees from the off. Plus, it's common knowledge we've lost some important people recently. The hours can be pretty intense, but a trade-off of that is the high level of client contact.” Trainees reported there's “lots of scope for drafting” in the way of security and corporate authorisation documents, and also spoke of running conditions precedent lists, “which have real estate, finance and tax conditions to be satisfied on a short timescale. It can be challenging co-ordinating all the people involved.”
Sources who'd spent time in funds and financial services agreed that “the responsibility levels drop off here compared to real estate. Trainees mainly review documents, work on company search reports and take minutes at board meetings.” Much of the work has a real estate flavour, and there's more work still for Tesco – lawyers recently advised the grocer on a £490m secured loan for four stores and three sites under development. The team also holds lucrative spots on panels for RBS, Barclays, Santander, HSBC and Credit Suisse.
This side of the practice also incorporates an asset finance team that specialises in aviation, rail, equipment and shipping finance. “It's a good seat if you want to see things from the start to finish,” said one trainee, who went on to praise the international dynamic of the practice: “Sometimes there are tons of jurisdictions involved with the financing of one small aircraft – you're delivering it to Chinese clients one day and then leasing it to a South American operator the next.”
BLP makes a strong showing on the corporate side, scoring high rankings in Chambers UK for its mid-market M&A work. The team recently advised gaming software development company PlayTech during its £424m sale of its stake in William Hill Online, and counselled professional services firm Towers Watson on the $250m disposal of its global reinsurance broking business. A note of caution from trainees: “A lot of our clients are insurers and pension funds with property assets in their portfolio, so it can feel like you're doing real estate deals in a corporate wrapper.” Indeed, the firm is certainly trying to grow this line of work, but it's doing so by way of its real estate forte, so those with their heart set on a more pure corporate offering might want to think twice.
You could cook a meal and wash up afterwards courtesy of litigation clients Tesco (yes, again), Thames Water and National Grid. BLP's team is big in the financial services, real estate construction, sport and energy sectors, and nearly half of its work involves cross-border elements. Lawyers recently acted in the biggest cartel damages action to hit the English courts, advising National Grid on a £350m damages claim after it was overcharged for power substation components by cartelists across six countries. The firm has also been representing the shareholders of Bumi in the wake of a $1.5bn internal investigation at the Indonesian coal producer. In line with the firm's growing finance offering, “we're very much pushing banking litigation,” sources said. Indeed, BLP has recently added a spate of (unfortunately confidential) international financial institutions to its client roster, which already features the likes of HSBC. Trainees with litigation experience told of encountering clients and counsel “from all over the world. The matters are very big here, so the trainee role usually revolves around bundling and doc review, though you can get meatier stuff too – I got to take a stab at drafting witness statements, and I even got to go in front of a master at one point.”
New recruits at BLP usually share an office with a senior associate or partner supervisor. Our sources praised this arrangement, telling us that “it's nice to have someone nearby who can keep an eye on you and your workload.” Each rotation feature mid and end-of-seat reviews, the format of which depends on individual supervisors. “Some offer helpful and constructive advice while others might engage in a casual chat without much detailed feedback.” There were a few grumbles about this lack of uniformity, with trainees lamenting the way “different departments have different measuring systems.” Still, they mentioned additional support on hand from assigned mentors and in general felt “pretty positive” about qualification, although we heard that the process was delayed this year. In 2014, the firm retained 31 out of 39 qualifying trainees.
BLP's digs are split between two buildings in London Bridge: “Adelaide House is nicer to work in – it's a quirky old art deco building, with a really cool décor and front entrance, and it has our canteen; Magnus House next door is kind of dark.” Either way, sources agreed the location is a big plus: “We're just over the bridge from Borough Market, and our canteen looks right onto the river, which is lovely in summer.”
Our “very sociable” sources told us the trainee cohort – big though it is, with 85 trainees – is “really close; you're very quickly assimilated into the crowd.” Trainees often make for river-front seafood peddlers The Oyster Shed or the Fine Line on Friday nights, and there's a trainee social committee that hosts regular outings – recent dos include a casino night, a summer boat party and a riotous evening of “curry on Brick Lane, followed by bowling and karaoke.” A number of social events surround the firm's charity efforts, too: “We've done lots of things for Mind, our 2014 charity of the year, including a dress-down day, quiz and Grand National sweepstake.” There aren't too many firm-wide soirees to attend, but individual departments have their own traditions – for example, the projects team's Friday Beer Club – and client events often prove a “good source of fun. I got to go to the races at Ascot, complete with a coach and champagne and dinner!”
With 494 lawyers in total, BLP's medium size proved just right for one Goldilocks trainee, who told us that “we're small enough to have a more personal feel than the magic circle but big enough that there's still a wide selection of seats you can do.”
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 October 2014 (winter); 31 January 2015 (spring and summer)
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2015
Application and assessments
BLP gets around 2,000 applications each year for its 40 trainee places on offer. These flood in via online forms that detail applicants' knowledge of the firm, reasons for considering a career in law, and work experience. The application process is the same for those aiming for a vacation scheme spot as well as straight-to-training-contract hopefuls.
Those whose forms impress sit an online verbal aptitude test, and from here recruiters select between 550 and 600 candidates to attend an assessment day. This begins with a drafting exercise in which applicants write a letter to a client on the basis of various contracts they're provided with. A one-on-one role-play and group negotiation follow. The day concludes after a group lunch and trainee-led tour around the office.
The next step to getting a training contract for both vac schemers and direct entrants is an interview with two partners. This usually includes questions on applicants' technical knowledge, core knowledge of law, and motivation for wanting to work at BLP. “We hope to make our interviews quite informal, so there's often a lot of discussion around topical events or news stories that will affect our clients,” graduate recruitment and development manager Alan Demirkaya tells us.
Between 60 and 70% of BLP's trainee intake comes in through its vacations scheme. BLP takes around 100 vac schemers a year, spread across five placements. There are week-long winter and spring schemes, plus three two-week schemes in the summer.
Each placement features presentations from partners from the firm's core areas, a strategy talk by managing partner Neville Eisenberg or another member of the management board, and a few socials like charity bake sales or ping pong tournaments. Still, it's not all fun and games – Demirkaya warns that “throughout their time here they are assessed for a training contract. We give them real tasks so we can get a real indication of how they'd perform trainee-level tasks, and ultimately how they'd fit in with our culture.”
Alongside these tasks attendees complete group task – for example, a client pitch involving an international topic – in which they produce a draft of written work and deliver a presentation in groups of four.
BLP's peppy graduate website declares that the firm is looking for what it's deemed 'BerwinLeightonPaisnericity' – a special mix of passion, fearlessness, intellectual rigour and what the firm deems 'inner steel'. Demirkaya elaborates: “One of the cores qualities we look at is someone's motivation levels and how driven they are to succeed in a career in law. A lot of applicants will still have two years' study ahead, so we need to know they're fully committed to us, and that we can see them potentially making partner here.”
The firm targets 20 universities across the country in search of its future partnership by. A good whack of trainees have traditionally come from Russell Group institutions, though our sources this year noticed a growing number of Oxbridge recruits joining ranks. Mature applicants also get a look in. “We have people coming from previous careers in industries like finance and construction – areas that resonate well with our clients,” Demirkaya tells us. “It's essential to have a mix of backgrounds as our five core practice areas are so different.”
Whatever angle you survey property from, BLP's a good place to be. The firm's 61 partner-strong commercial real estate team is the largest of its kind in London, and is top-ranked in Chambers UK for its performance in the real estate litigation, big-ticket real estate, retail and planning spheres. The team also receives nods for its social housing, real estate finance and construction work. Here's more on how BLP's clients fit into the bigger picture of the London property scene.
The booming London property market is such that 'big-ticket' is an understatement when describing some of BLP's highest-profile deals, most of which involve huge corporations like Google taking out leases on commercial property. You might think your rent's too high, but insurance big'un Markel is signed up to pay £65 per sq ft of office space – a whopping £3.5 million a year – for new digs in 20 Fenchurch Street (aka The Walkie-Talkie), courtesy of BLP and the work it's been doing with Canary Wharf Group and Land Securities.
BLP also works with global property developer Oxford Properties, which is currently building London's latest skyscraper: the Leadenhall Building, affectionately nicknamed The Cheesegrater for its wedge-shaped, metal-framed exterior. As the recession lifts, the London property market is on the up, and high-end commercial property in the capital is a crucial investment for countries like asset-hungry China, as well as private investors from less stable regions like Russia and the Middle East. BLP represents private equity super-firms Carlyle and Blackstone, both of which are canny investors in the UK market. Private equity firms are traditionally known for buying struggling businesses, investing in them enough to get them back on their feet, then putting them back on the market to make a huge profit. Blackstone bought 50% of office and retail development Broadgate back in 2009 for £77m, taking advantage of previous site owner British Land's recessionary woes. Four years later, Blackstone sold the investment on for more than £1.7bn. The improved market these days means there are fewer bargains to be scored, sp private equity investors are increasingly setting their sights on new real estate targets – in the case of Blackstone, industrial property in the Midlands and North of England.
They might not have the headline-grabbing glitz of commercial real estate deals, but BLP's work on social housing transactions can involve equally dizzying sums. The firm regularly works with local authorities and the Homes and Communities Agency, and recently advised Berkeley on a £1bn, 4,600-home redevelopment in Hackney called Woodberry Down. The current buzzwords in social housing are “mixed-use developments” and “urban regeneration,” with contracts up for grabs to developers willing to blend of social housing, luxury flats, retail spaces and leisure facilities into one handy package. Such deals are not without consequences, though: since its redevelopment Woodberry Down has caught flack for increasing living costs for existing social housing residents. As it happens, more than 55% of the first phase flats were sold to overseas investors, a move that artificially inflated property prices in the area.
As London's recession eases and economic instability elsewhere in the world grows, the sums exchanged at the top end of the capital's property market look set to continue rising. A stint in one of BLP's real estate seats is miles away from the experience of a trainee in residential conveyancing at a high-street firm, and for trainees with their eye on corporate, it could prove streets ahead too.
Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP