Bigger fish, smaller pond
You'd be very wrong to assume that Burges Salmon is just some quaint little regional firm. Despite only having one office, it has a broad reach and is increasingly tapping into the global marketplace too. Private individuals, government departments and many FTSE 100 companies appear on the firm's client list, including recognisable names like The Crown Estate, Eurostar, Lloyds Banking Group and BAE Systems.
Burges Salmon can give established City firms a run for their money – as one trainee put it, “in light of the current economic situation, we've still succeeded in bringing in the big-ticket work – and we can do it cheaper in Bristol.”
Burges Salmon picks up top Chambers UK rankings in the South West for the banking, construction, corporate, dispute resolution, employment and real estate work that it conducts (a very condensed list; there are many more). It also concentrates its efforts on certain sectors, like education, energy, leisure, the public sector and transport.
Burges Salmon is a firm that has remained steadfastly independent throughout its existence and has resisted the lure of potential hook-ups in a marketplace saturated by headlines announcing the latest mergers. It's a strategy that has served the firm well, and apart from a small client meeting space in London, Burges Salmon runs all operations out of its Bristol digs, located within One Glass Wharf.
Bristol is in many ways the perfect location: it has bucked recession trends and is second to only London when it comes to economic growth (other firms, like Simmons & Simmons, have only recently cottoned on to this advantage). With 4% revenue growth in 2012/13, trainees predicted that the firm's overall strategy wouldn't change much in years to come: “I think there'll be a bigger push to target more international clients who are looking to invest their assets in the UK.”
Trainees complete six seats throughout their training, with each one lasting four months. The first four seats will be in the firm’s main departments. Real estate and a contentious seat are compulsory, and then trainees choose from options available in corporate and financial institutions; commercial; disputes, environment and planning; private client and wealth structuring. The fifth seat is an option seat, where trainees can try something new or revisit a department they enjoyed. Then the sixth seat is chosen on the understanding that it is the department a trainee wishes to qualify into.
Sources felt that they were able to get a “broad overview” of the firm and liked the idea of having a potential eight months in an area that they had eyed for qualification. The HR team's allocation efforts were also praised – “they do work hard to place people where they want to be,” and if someone's top preference can’t be accommodated during one rotation, then the team tries to ensure that they are next time round.
Salmon fishing in Bristol
The real estate group has an impressive client list which includes Aviva Investors, Lloyds, Nationwide and St Modwen (one of the UK’s biggest developers). It is also the group that advises The Crown Estate most often, recently helping it acquire Princes House in London, a mixed-use property which houses the BAFTA headquarters and the Princes Arcade.
Trainees work mostly on these big commercial real estate transactions and said that “you play a smaller role on lots of different things – you have ten to 20 different matters, and you’ll be doing bits and bobs on all of them.” It can be “quite hectic,” but the team is “very nice and supportive.” The subject matter is also interesting, and sources particularly enjoyed renewables work, helping to produce option agreements for developers who aim to construct wind farms or solar pods.
Burges Salmon’s banking team has a reputation for high-value mid-market work and also delves into more specialist areas like project finance and Islamic finance. The team’s sector expertise draws in clients from the hotels and leisure industry, and the group assisted YTL Hotels, which is owned by a Malaysian-based conglomerate, during the funding of its redevelopment plan to create a five-star hotel and spa in Bath.
Trainees get “quite a buzz from helping make something happen and seeing a tangible end product: a building which has been funded because of our work.” It also provides “an interesting environment in which to look at contract law.” Trainees will find themselves with “a lot of document management” to get to grips with, like managing conditions precedent lists, and in some cases they also visit “people externally to get documents signed.” Ultimately, our sources felt they were “really pushing the deal through – as if it couldn’t happen without you.”
The corporate perch
Those in corporate said that trainees become “involved with two or three clients, and depending on who those clients are, you can have a completely different experience.” Some had become involved with the transport work that comes into the department, while others had focused on the leisure and recreation sector.
The department has a number of blue-chip corporate clients, including E.ON and FirstGroup, and it’s not unusual for the team to advise on transactions alongside magic circle firms. Corporate lawyers represented the Competition Commission (Slaughter and May acted for the purchaser) during the £807.2m sale of Edinburgh airport in 2012.
Trainees spend a lot of time “researching companies and drafting the smaller documents in a transaction,” while multinational deals enable them to “manage relations” between lawyers in all of the different jurisdictions.
Life in the commercial department is “very varied,” and there are “lots of different elements that come under commercial, like IP, IT, projects and competition.” Trainees said that “they’re very keen for you to keep your experiences quite broad, but you don’t get to become an expert in one particular area.”
The commercial team is included on seven out of the eight panels appointed by the Government Procurement Service (more than any other firm), and the department has a mixture of private and public sector clients, including Ofgem, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Coca-Cola and Thomson Reuters. The latter appointed the firm to advise on an international contract in South-East Asia with Hewlett-Packard, which was worth over £100m.
Trainees generally enjoyed the variety of the seat and had helped “companies get their responses to the Competition Commission, following an investigation of their practices” and made amendments to “large licence agreements for telecommunication companies.”
Siamese fighting fish
Many trainees complete their contentious seat in commercial disputes. Once again, there are a number of specialist areas for trainees to dip into, including: arbitration; fraud and corruption; insurance; IP; professional negligence; real estate and agriculture; and sport.
One source had been busy “drafting cease and desist letters for an international food and beverage chain that had got wind of other businesses selling products with their name – it was the first letter of that type to be drafted for the client, so it will be used as the precedent going forward.” Another had experienced an agricultural partnership dispute, in which they wrote “all of the witness statements” and had become experts in “20 years of quite complicated family history – in the end I knew more than the partner and the barrister!” The department is “always very busy” and has “a London feel to it, with quite long hours and good cases.”
Some of the smaller teams, like planning, employment and environment, can be “oversubscribed because they only take on one or two trainees.”
One seat that doesn’t seem to suffer from that problem is pensions, which is perceived as “dry and dull” at first, but the feedback we received was unanimously positive: “So many people have been sent there, and they really enjoy it in the end.” Chambers UK adorns the practice with a top ranking in Bristol, and sources had reaped the benefits of “attending several trustee meetings, having direct client contact and drafting some challenging work – pensions is a technical area of the law.”
A tax seat is similarly technical and is great for “building up relationships with solicitors in other departments because there are tax aspects to many of the matters we are involved in firm-wide.”
Client secondments are often available, and trainees have recently completed them in banking real estate, environment and commercial clients. Trainees who had been seconded felt that firm support was there if they needed it and enjoyed the chance to gain an insight into the kind of work that clients “keep in-house, like consumer and regulatory work. They have the internal know-how to deal with it, so it doesn’t make sense to get anyone external involved.”
And... this is Bert
Burges Salmon’s new office is “very bright,” and our sources felt “lucky to be in it.” We heard the canteen is “excellent” and serves some “dangerously good Americanos,” while the ground floor is home to Bert, the “resident gorilla” – a statue which is decorated for St Patrick’s Day and other special occasions (“I always wonder: what is Bert going to be dressed as today?”).
Our sources concurred that having everybody based in one location was great for the firm, leading to a “sense of cohesion and togetherness.” With the move to the new office a couple of years ago, Burges Salmon left behind the city centre and set up shop in “a more corporate area: we’re right next to Temple Meads station, increasing our connectivity to London.”
Some trainees felt this physical move cemented atmospheric changes that have been occurring at the firm, as it pushes itself to become ever more established not just nationally but on an international level: “There’s a more ‘City’ feel to the firm now. I remember that the advertising material used to highlight the combination of London-quality work with Bristol-quality life, but they’ve made a conscious effort to move away from that message. I suppose the point to pick up on is that you shouldn’t expect to be leaving at 5pm.”
Others agreed to a certain extent but opined that “City-firm atmospheres tend to go hand in hand with unhappy people, and that’s not the case here – a sense of the regional remains, even if it isn’t in the marketing materials any more.”
Trainees were certainly happy at Burges Salmon, and an active social life preserves their contented outlook. We heard of departmental “kitchen parties,” monthly charity ‘dress down’ days which culminate in firm-wide drinks in the canteen, vac scheme placement socials and many informal trainee get-togethers.
The firm places an emphasis on charity fund-raising events and hosts evenings which emulate some of the nation’s most treasured TV formats, including ‘Burges Salmon’s Got Talent’ and ‘Strictly Legal’. The former featured hula-hooping secretaries and a partner-shaped human pyramid, while the latter saw partners embark on a series of dance lessons to perfect their performance on the night. All of their efforts clearly paid off: the firm raised over £84,000 for charity in 2012.
“There’s a real culture of grafting” at Burges Salmon, with people “taking their work seriously," though not at the expense of "humanity; people aren’t robots here.”
While trainees didn’t specify a certain ‘type’, they did appreciate the mix of those with law and non-law backgrounds as well as those with a previous career behind them: “Other firms say that they have an equality and diversity policy in place, but in reality they only want people in their early 20s. Here they actively welcome people who are older and have experience in other fields – they mean what they say.”
The prevalence of training sessions which delve into the firm’s sector specialities made trainees feel more enmeshed in what was going on as a whole. These are run once a month and are open for anyone to attend. “They’re really interesting, and there’s a Q&A session at the end, which produces some good discussions because everyone is coming at it from a different angle. I read the Farmer’s Guardian for one! It just enables trainees to have a two-tiered perspective: first, of the work you’re doing and second, of the broader context in which it is occurring.”
Every trainee is allocated a partner principal who acts as a mentor. There’s a budget set aside for mentors and mentees to meet up, but trainees said that “in practice, the principals aren’t particularly relied on unless certain issues arise.” In the end, most trainees felt that they had enough support stemming from their supervisors and other colleagues at the firm.
With a 100% retention rate in 2012, trainees this year were quietly confident that a job would be waiting for them at the end of their contract. They liked the fact that the NQ recruitment round starts reassuringly early (some of our trainees knew where they would be qualifying by early April) and found the process very relaxed. “You just go to HR and have a chat and express your feelings about where you would like to go. There are no interviews for positions, which takes some of the stress out, and they keep the decision focused on your performance throughout your training contract.”
Trainees warn that this firm has an increasingly 'City' feel to it, so don't assume that life at Burges Salmon will be an easy ride. That said, trainees love this firm, the work and the location, and most wanted to stay on as NQs. 21 out of 23 did so in 2013.
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