City firm Berwin Leighton Paisner has existed in its current form since the merger of Berwin Leighton and Paisner & Co in 2001. Since then, under the stewardship of managing partner Neville Eisenberg revenues have more than doubled – they stood at £233m in 2012/13, a slight drop from the year before.
“We are an ambitious firm, and we are always trying to do better work and win more clients,” a trainee said. “And there is certainly an aggressive push from the senior levels if you look at what we are achieving. The biggest change I've noticed since I started is the increasing focus on all things international.”
Indeed. Global expansion is now on the menu. BLP has opened five overseas offices in the past three years, most recently setting up in Dubai (2012) and Beijing (2013). It now has ten offices across Europe, the Middle East and Asia (Moscow is the largest).
We've always said in the past that BLP's not a firm where the trainee experience is heavily influenced by the presence of large overseas offices, but it's clear this is changing. In 2011/12 revenues from the overseas offices grew by nearly 45%, and there are also rumours that management is considering an international merger, possibly with a firm in the Asia-Pacific region. “My own view is that that is unlikely to happen,” graduate recruitment partner Tim Smith told us. “Thus far, our international expansion has been successful without pursuing that strategy [of merger], but I would never rule it out.”
BLP bases its work around five core 'pillars': corporate, real estate, finance, tax and litigation (“a coat of many colours,” as one trainee observed). Historically, BLP has always been strongest in real estate, and it arguably has the most highly regarded property practice in the City. Qatari Diar, John Lewis, Tesco, Westfield and investment firm Blackstone are all clients.
Given the firm's prowess in these areas, “technically the line they push is that you should do a real estate and a corporate seat as well as a contentious seat. And you are now encouraged to do a finance seat too.” In practice, many trainees we spoke to had deviated from this course. “The HR team are showing themselves to be more and more flexible on what trainees can do.”
There are presentations about each seat a few months into every rotation, and trainees also have meetings with HR to discuss their next move. “There is a degree of advocacy involved – you have to make your case and give some background on why you want to do a seat.”
Corporate seats can be taken in M&A, public markets, funds and financial services, and private equity. The contentious requirement can be fulfilled in commercial dispute resolution, insurance/reinsurance, restructuring, IP, real estate disputes, employment, competition, contentious tax, planning or construction. The remaining seat options are commercial, tax, debt capital markets and asset finance.
Real estate is “what the firm does best,” according to trainees. BLP is ranked in the top two tiers of all four of Chambers UK's London real estate categories: the only firm with that distinction. The department is split into three groups. “Group two is retail-focused and does a lot of work for Tesco,” a key client, while the others work on large corporate property deals – developments, acquisitions etc. – for banks, investment funds, hotels and other institutional clients.
“A big driver recently has been the cross-border work – a lot of overseas sovereign wealth funds [like Qatari Diar] are involved in big-ticket developments across London. I really enjoyed the number of 'skyline projects' we are involved in – you see things you've worked on popping up all over the city.”
The firm recently helped advise the landowners on arranging the £500m+ lease of a brand-new office building near King's Cross for Google's new UK headquarters. BLP also advised The FA on the £105m development of the National Football Centre in Burton-on-Trent and acted for the investor who has bought up Admiralty Arch in order to convert it into a hotel.
“On the bigger deals I manage and review documents, complete conditions precedent check-lists, liaise with other lawyers, do the scheduling and deal with disclosure,” one trainee told us. Another added: “Usually, you are also given your own files to manage. I dealt with leases and licences and helped sell two restaurants just working with a partner.” It's “a challenge” to juggle both these types of work, but “after the initial 'OMG! moment', it's amazing.”
The various corporate teams each have around 30 to 40 lawyers, and trainees usually join a single one (although they may end up taking work from several). The M&A team is top-ranked for mid-market work by Chambers UK. It recently acted for JPMorgan Cazenove and Canaccord Genuity on the £89m acquisition of famous jewellers Fabergé by gemstone firm Gemfields and advised gaming company Playtech on the sale of its 29%, £424m stake in William Hill's online division to the bookie's main operation.
“I worked on some good mid-market deals,” one trainee said. “It is the sort of work where you close a deal and then see it in the press the next day.” Another added: “I was the key trainee on a big deal for a major private equity client. There were a lot of less glamorous things to do like due diligence, transaction management and dealing with the ancillary documents. But when you see how that feeds into the purchase agreement and actually allows a merger to take place, it feels quite exciting.”
The 'public markets' seat could equally be called 'equity capital markets'. The department is “very strong in AIM work” and recently advised asset managers Schroders on the £100m AIM flotation of its West End property trust WELPIC. There's main market work too. “I had responsibility for the document management and other aspects of a deal in which we were helping a company raise funds and move from the AIM market to the London Stock Exchange,” said one trainee. The firm also recently advised FTSE 250 property investment firm Raven Russia on raising $104m in the markets to help finance the takeover of a Moscow-based logistics company.
Commercial dispute resolution is by far the biggest contentious department. “We do general breach of contract and misrepresentation work, but there is also a growing financial crime and fraud team,” a trainee said. The firm recently defended HSBC Private Bank in a $300m High Court claim brought by a businessman who the bank had declined to perform various transactions for because of a pending SOCA case. A trainee told us: “I got to go to court for one big six-week trial. It was great to see the final piece of the puzzle after putting in weeks of work. My task on that was predominantly bundling – there were 80 bundles in total – but on other cases I have drafted witness statements and application notices, and I had the opportunity to appear before a Master to make a request for an application.”
Another seat option we should give a mention are the stints overseas. “The number of international opportunities is increasing fast as we seem to be opening new offices every few months,” one interviewee told us. Trainees can currently go to Brussels, Moscow, Abu Dhabi and Singapore to complete seats in competition, corporate, contentious construction and finance respectively. All but the Brussels placement are assigned a short while before the other seats, with interested trainees asked to give a brief written statement of why they want to go. No special qualities are needed to win an overseas posting, and once out there trainees can get involved in a “broader range of activities” than they would in an equivalent London seat.
In the first two to four weeks of each seat, trainees get the benefit of some “excellent” and “well-organised” training. “In my first week in this seat I spent a third of my time in training, and then today I did something that had been covered in that training,” said one. There are mid-seat as well as six-monthly reviews, and with all the help available from supervisors, partner-mentors and other formalised networks trainees always “feel like we know how well we are doing.” Supervisors are either partners or associates, and trainees share an office with them.
Trainees are also kept well informed of the qualification process. “The HR team and the partners don't like people trying to schmooze certain departments, but if you like a department you let them know you are interested in a job there and keep your face around.” Second-year sources were relatively optimistic about qualification, even though retention rates were not as high in 2012 and 2013 as they had been in previous years. In 2013, 33 of 43 qualifiers were kept on.
In other less good news, mid-2013 saw the firm announce a redundancy programme affecting 100 employees – over half of them lawyers – in a bid to cut salary costs. Keeping firm finances under strict control is clearly on management's mind. Perhaps this is in preparation for a merger, or it could be a reaction to the continuing sluggishness of the real estate and corporate markets.
BLP is based in the Grade II-listed Adelaide House next to London Bridge. “It is a lovely location – I'm looking at the Shard right now,” cooed one trainee during our interview. But there's plenty more to do at BLP than stare at the view. A newly set-up choir performed a carol concert at Christmas. “We started it because it previously always felt like you had to be a sportsperson to join a club,” one trainee told us. The tag rugby, hockey, netball and football teams are indeed all very popular, and there's also an annual firm bike ride.
The corporate department has a weekly drinks trolley, while real estate's subdivisions into “mini-teams” makes informal socialising easier. And after a bit of pestering from trainees, there's now a trainee social budget for get-togethers every six months.
“When you first start as a trainee you do an awful lot with your intake – breakfasts, drinks, going travelling” but as new recruits meet more people within the firm this tapers off – a testament to the “inclusive” character of BLP as a whole. Trainees can always head up to The Monument or The Fine Line as “there will always be people from BLP in there on a Friday, even if it's just for one drink before heading off elsewhere.”
BLP's extensive careers website says that what it is looking for in recruits is 'BerwinLeightonPaisnericity'. Once you get past this cringey bit of Newspeak, some nifty interactive tests will tell you that what this phrase (mostly) refers to is having excellent client interaction skills.
So, take note of that and the fact that the snazzy new website is all part of an effort to “increase awareness of BLP's brand – there is a lot of advertising and client pitching going on.” You might also seek the firm out on Twitter, where it's been quite active running various competitions aimed at students.
Related to all this branding, pitching and advertising is another trend: over the past few years we've tracked something of a shift in BLP's firm's culture – or at least a shift in its reputation. “We are becoming a more serious firm with a more corporate environment,” said one trainee, “and there is a sharp edge to our ambitions.”
Another interviewee commented: “There are times when you have to do long hours and maybe pull an all-nighter or work over the weekend, but that is not the norm. You work hard, have deadlines, but you go home when you don't.” Some trainees did demur at the suggestion there had been a 'culture shift', indicating that we mustn't over-egg any perceived changes.
And anyway, sources believed “the firm is still retaining its friendliness – people here are driven and hard-working but also very supportive. The senior people always want to integrate you into the team, and when you talk to someone it doesn't have to be just about the task at hand.” Another added: “People here do like having a decent lunch break where they can not focus on work. And if there's a team social event, the overwhelming majority of the partners get stuck in and some will start buying you Jägerbombs!”
BLP's efforts to big-up its brand, expand internationally and attract ever-better clients are attracting more and more applicants of an increasingly high academic calibre.
You may also be interested in:
The other 'silver circle' City firms:
- Herbert Smith Freehills
- King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin
- Travers Smith
Our practice area feature on property/real estate