Don't be fooled by the Bristol postcode; this firm is a headline act and often outshines its City competitors.
A couple years back one of Burges Salmon's more prominent graduate recruitment adverts prompted aspiring trainees to question whether they were sardines or salmon. Its implication that life in Bristol offers a rose-tinted alternative to sweaty commutes on the packed Central Line was part of a broader pitch to persuade City hopefuls to consider the firm on par with the London outfits they might be targeting. While this is a marketing angle the firm has since decided to ditch, its current trainees – weary of deflecting assumptions that Burges Salmon is some small-fry regional outfit – remain keen to emphasise the firm's respectable market standing and the various perks of training there.
"It's frustrating the opinion still pervades that we aren't as well trained as those at City firms,” said one. “It's a real shame – we do excellent work and are given a huge amount of responsibility early on. What's more, the trainee wage is fantastic, and Bristol is a phenomenal city with loads going on." Indeed, most felt the salary, though obviously lower than at your average London firm, actually sways the balance in their favour once cost of living is factored in. There's also the area's stability to consider – Bristol proved particularly resilient during the economic downturn and even continued to grow between 2008 and 2010, a time when most other cities were shrinking. At the time several London firms like Simmons & Simmons flocked to the scene to snap up fresh candidates from the region's law schools, but Burges Salmon has steadfastly held its own.
In fact, if there was an award for best independent firm outside London, this one would certainly be a contender. Burges Salmon hauls in top Chambers UK regional rankings across nearly all of its practices, and it's flagged as a national leader outside London for construction, corporate/M&A, employment, IP, litigation and real estate work. Where other firms have merged and opened offices across the country, Burges Salmon has stayed a one-site operator, and it looks set to run as such for the foreseeable future. This hasn't stopped the firm from reeling in big-ticket clients, though; its books are swimming with both home-sprung and global companies – from Bristol airport to Eurostar and Starbucks – plus a host of governmental bodies, such as the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the Met Police. “The South West is certainly an important region for us, but the vast majority of our work comes from outside the region – either London, the wider UK or overseas,” says trainee recruitment partner Keith Beattie. The firm has a swanky hub in New Street Square for meeting its many and varied clients, though this space doesn't house anyone permanently; Burges Salmon's 300 lawyers and 50-strong trainee cohort are based in its similarly swish, waterfront premises in One Glass Wharf. Still, trainees can expect to find themselves "hopping on and off trains to London" throughout their contract, we're told.
Trainees undertake six seats here, each lasting four months. Seat options fall into three broad groups: real estate, contentious and transactional. A pick each from the first two categories is compulsory, and most spend their sixth seat in the practice they're planning to qualify into. Our interviewees appreciated the broad experience and exposure to different lawyers this system offers – in fact, it was one of the most commonly cited reasons for choosing the firm in the first place. They also had good things to say about HR's role in the allocation process: “They try to give your first choice wherever possible.”
Real estate is one of the firm's biggest departments and in 2014 won a coveted place on the Crown Estate's legal panel for its rural portfolio and Windsor estate, which covers forests and agricultural land along with residential and commercial properties. The group is also big in the energy sector and recently advised Low Carbon on negotiations for a series of UK solar projects. These are just two highlights of a very busy year – lawyers closed nearly £1bn worth of deals in December 2013 alone. "There's so much going on that they really let trainees go for it,” said interviewees who'd sat in the general real estate seat. “You're in charge of matters from inception to completion. It's daunting to deal with clients on your own, but by the end of the seat you have so much confidence in your own abilities." Those who opted for planning, meanwhile, reported attending planning inspectorate tribunals to get planning permission for energy projects such as offshore wind farms. "It's brilliant to experience a more niche department like this – there's still a lot of high-end work."
Many fulfil their contentious requirement with a stint in commercial disputes, which covers areas as varied as arbitration, IP, insurance, agriculture and sport. It's considered one of the more demanding seats in terms of hours, but "it's more rewarding as a result of that," our sources agreed. Most had spent their time here drafting witness statements and instructions to counsel, handling disclosure, putting together bundles for hearings and attending trials. Construction also counts as a contentious seat and is a popular trainee pitstop. “It's a small team, so you get to work directly with partners.” The group frequently collaborates with the real estate and environmental teams on large matters – for example, asset manager Bluefield's acquisition of a £21m solar farm in Swindon, a deal which involved all three teams, plus reps from corporate and banking.
Over on the transactional side, there's the commercial team, which handles competition, IT, IP and projects matters for a mix of private and public sector clients, among them Bristol University, the Ministry of Justice, HMRC and Coca-Cola HBC. Much of the work falls into the energy, transport, renewables and defence sectors – on the latter front, the firm recently advised joint venture DiSCS on its bid to act as a service provider for a £6bn Ministry of Defence project. We hear it's a "fun team with great socials," but insiders assured us the work is far from light. There's plenty of drafting for trainees to get on with in the way of pitches, tenders, and contract clauses and summaries, plus research and, if you're lucky, negotiations with clients. One trainee spoke of attending one client's office “every single day on my own for a few weeks – it was like an unofficial mini-secondment.”
Spending some time with the corporate team "gives you a good oversight of the whole structure of a deal and a proper taste of cross-departmental work," interviewees agreed. Indeed, the team regularly works in tandem with lawyers from Burges Salmon's banking, insurance and tax arms, operating across five key sectors: energy, food and drink, leisure, financial services and transport. A major client in the latter sphere is FirstGroup, which lawyers recently assisted with the £79m sale of two of the company's London bus operations. Other highlights of late include advising The Competition Commission in connection with BAA's £1.5bn disposal of Stansted airport, and assisting tech company Cobham with its £85m acquisition of Axell Wireless. Trainees told us drafting, research and completion exercises comprise a decent chunk of their role. “We're responsible for checking all the documents that come in electronically,” said one. “There can be some long nights leading up to closure, but it's worth it when you see the press coverage and realise how you were part of making that happen.”
Interviewees who'd opted for a spell in banking had worked on insolvency matters and amendments to loan agreements. "The partners like to get us roped into big projects so we get an understanding of what's going on in the department – I got exposed to some very complicated pieces of work." The team primarily handles mid-market work and counts the likes of HSBC and JPMorgan Chase among its esteemed clientele. Deals here often have a cross-border component – for example, Beechbrook Capital's funding for the acquisition of a consultancy with subsidiaries in France, Luxembourg and the States.
Pensions has proved a popular destination among the current cohort. "You'd expect it to be dull, but nearly everyone who spends time there loves it – the team is known as one of the best in the UK.” Meanwhile areas like employment, tax and wealth structuring are all slightly less subscribed, though we did hear positive reviews from trainees who'd sat with these teams.
The firm regularly offers client secondments: "There always seems to be at least one person on a placement at any one time." Recent ones have been undertaken in the energy and environmental sectors. Reflected one trainee with in-house experience: "You get much closer to the business by spending time with their legal team. You learn how to approach matters as a lawyer while remaining commercial in your outlook."
With “substantial amounts of responsibility” on offer for trainees, how does Burges Salmon ensure they're up to the task? For starters, trainees sit directly alongside their supervisor, usually a senior associate, “which makes it easy to learn by example.” They're also assigned a trainee buddy from the year above and a dedicated partner principal, though sources revealed that in practice this is “someone you'd only really go to if you'd exhausted all other routes.” Finally, there's plenty of structured training: "Every time you move seats you have at least ten training sessions. On top of that are optional talks and seminars, and each department has its own training day." New starters might be disappointed to learn that 'October Fest' is one such day rather than the piss-up the name implies.
Still, there's no shortage of opportunities to grab a beer with fellow lawyers. Trainees can join a social club that organises tickets to sports events and other outings, and on the last Friday of the month the firm puts on free drinks and food, a gathering well loved firmwide. "They make a big effort to encourage people to socialise. Trainees go out at least once a week together, and we all go away for a weekend together each year." Indeed, only one of the 46-strong cohort missed out the latest annual trip, which took place in Wales. The group is comprised of a mix of fresh grads and more seasoned workers, newcomers to Bristol and others with ties to the area alike. “We're all hard workers but remain pretty modest about it – that's what I'd say trainees here have in common.”
According to interviewees, Burges Salmon takes its charity efforts as seriously as it does its socialising. It has a nominated charity of the year and carries out periodic fundraising initiatives on behalf of that cause. Over 2013 the firm managed to raise more than £100,000 for that's year's charity, the Grand Appeal. Meanwhile, everyone is permitted a day off a year to volunteer with an organisation of their choice, and the firm also offers legal assistance to various charities.
At the time of our calls, the firm's second-years had just received news of its retention results for 2014 – of 22 qualifiers, 20 netted an NQ role. The process is fairly simple: “You meet with a member of HR and give your first and second choice of department, then you wait to hear,” explained one insider. “I get the impression that if you're flexible, your chances of a job are pretty good. The firm's growing, so management is keen to take people on." As another interviewee reflected: "It was great how many supervisors came out to congratulate people who'd landed roles. You don't expect that of an organisation with 600 people in it, but it's so easy to get to know people here on a personal level."
The work/life balance is not to be scoffed at here, where departures around 8pm constitute “a fairly late night,” according to trainees.
A bit about the city
Nestled between the borders of Somerset and Gloucester, Bristol is commonly labelled the 'gateway to the South West', thanks largely to one Isambard Kingdom Brunel – the esteemed, cigar-chomping Victorian engineer behind the Great Western Railway, which links Bristol to London Paddington. He was also responsible for one of the city's most iconic landmarks: the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
These achievements have had a lasting impact on Bristol's position and status in the country: after Brunel kick-started the city's connectivity, Bristol went on to become the success story it is today.
'Bristle' used to be a bustling seaport that thrived on maritime commerce. These days, the Port of Bristol no longer plays a vital role in keeping the city afloat. Instead, its prosperity is far more dependent on the aerospace, technology, media, financial services and tourism industries. Major companies that operate in and around Bristol include multinational aerospace and defence outfit BAE Systems and American IT giant Hewlett-Packard, which has national research laboratories based in town.
The forecast for Bristol over the next few years is very promising. Property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle predicted in 2013 that Bristol would be a key force in the recovery of the economy, outperforming every city except London in terms of the number of high-value jobs created. The 'City Deal' – a deal agreed in 2012 between the Mayor of Bristol and the government which empowers the city to draw in a sizeable amount of private investment – will no doubt help to boost Bristol's strength in coming years. According to early estimations, this investment should hit £1.5bn and forge around 40,000 jobs over the next 30 years.
All in all, the city's horizon looks pretty rosy.
The city's legal market
Bristol has long been recognised as an important hub for legal services. There used to be a time when Bristol was solely the turf of strong native firms like Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke. Slowly over the past few years, however, bigger national and international firms have begun to see the allure of Bristol. CMS Cameron McKenna was the first to cotton on to the city's potential, launching an office all the way back in 1990, but since 2010 Irwin Mitchell, RPC and Simmons & Simmons have all set up shop too.
That London firms are drawn to Bristol underscores the legal community's confidence in the city as a viable hub for business. The knowledge-based economy in Bristol tallies with many of the aforementioned firms' existing and target clients, and a Bristol base means firms can drive down costs – a key factor in Simmons & Simmons' decision to open in the city.
The emergence of non-native players hasn't dislodged the performance of the city's home-grown firms, though. Burges Salmon posted a record-high revenue of £73.7m in 2013 (its fourth consecutive year of growth), while Osborne Clarke saw its turnover rise by 25% to £142m in 2014. Fellow Bristolian TLT too has grown substantially over the past few years, posting £57.9m in turnover in 2014.
Where the firms go, the legal education providers go, and Bristol is no exception. The University of Law stormed into the city in 2010 to join long-standing providers BPP and the Bristol Institute of Legal Practice (BILP), and it didn't take long before ULaw brought up the rear, securing deals to educate Osborne Clarke's and DAC Beachcroft"s incoming trainees.
Life at a Bristol firm
Bristol firms have a long history of poaching City lawyers tired of excruciatingly cramped, rush-hour tube-journeys followed by 14-hour days in the office. Burges Salmon has embraced this stereotype quite strategically over the years, producing adverts that depict 'sardines' (hapless tube-passengers with their faces squashed against the doors) placed above the bold word 'salmon' (a nod to the free-flowing solicitors merrily leaping upstream to work at BS). Another advert simply depicted ecstatic lawyers in wetsuits, implying that you can have enjoy a desirable beach lifestyle if you decide to practise at the firm.
There's no doubt a refreshing walk down a tree-lined hill is a million times more enticing than a sweaty crush on the Central line, but we should point out that life in Bristol isn't always a nine-to-five paradise. At Osborne Clarke, for example, our research shows trainees – especially those in transactional departments – occasionally encounter the kind of late-night shifts seen at City firms, though the average day is still a reasonable 9am to 7pm. As our trainee sources confirm, the atmosphere at such firms has become increasingly 'corporate' over the years, and many are keen to dispel the myth that life at a Bristol law firm is a piece of cake.
Indeed, the pressure's cranking up as the stakes get higher, and the city's legal market has become more competitive as a result. In 2011 Temple Quarter, near Temple Meads station, was declared Bristol's upcoming enterprise zone, and as many firms – including Simmons & Simmons, Osborne Clarke and Burges Salmon – have since relocated to the area. As such, many trainees in Bristol today have quite a different experience than what they would have ten or so years ago – one with more of a 'City' flavour. As one Burges Salmon trainee told us: “Temple Quarter is a much more corporate area than where we were before, which does change the overall atmosphere at the firm.”
With this change has come a bigger range of local, national and international work for the aforementioned firms, plus more opportunities for client contact for their young lawyers, so we get the impression that Bristolian trainees feel they are very much coming out on top.
Things to do in Bristol
Bristol has lots to offer on the social side. Here's a quick run-down of the main areas in the city, as well as a few perks Bristolians are privy to.
Bristol City Centre: Home to the shopping quarter and perfect for anyone who likes to scour for a good bargain. If you appreciate the creativity that can emerge from a spray can, know it's also the place where Bristol's permanent street art project, See No Evil, is found.
Clifton: The ideal solicitor's retreat, chock full of beautiful Georgian architecture. Many a bar and restaurant can be found in Clifton Triangle, while Clifton Village is where you'll come across Bristol's iconic suspension bridge.
Gloucester Road: North Bristol and a popular suburb of the city. Also a great place to get an authentic Jamaican curry.
The Harbourside: Bristol's leisure space, which played a very important role in the city's history. It's popular with trainees in the summer, who flock here to catch some rays and take a break. It's also the place where you can hop on a boat tour and find many of Bristol's attractions, including At-Bristol (a science centre), Bristol Aquarium, Brunel's SS Great Britain and the Spike Island art space.
Old City: It's in the name, and it's all rather picturesque. Here you can walk along the Christmas Steps: an ancient, meandering street with an array of old novelty shops to contrast the shiny ones in the city centre.
Old Market: This once formed part of a key road into London, but it's now a hotspot for Bristol's gay community.
South Bristol: A farmer's market will keep those with a preference for local produce happy, while avid theatregoers will appreciate the Tobacco Factory, a locale for many touring productions.
Stokes Croft: Bristol's cultural quarter – perfect for those who appreciate the finer things of life. Come here to imagine your life as a bohemian artist, which isn't hard to do, as the area is heavily populated with studios and exhibitions. Fans of Banksy are in for a treat: here resides some of the artist's most famous work.
The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta: Europe's largest hot air balloon event, held each summer in the grounds of Ashton Court. We couldn't write a feature on Bristol without mentioning this.
Museums: There's the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, as well as M Shed.
Theatre: The Bristol Hippodrome is the largest theatre, while The Theatre Royal is a grade I-listed building and one of the oldest in the country. The Bristol Old Vic (an offshoot of London's Old Vic touring company) keeps the quality high.
Sport: You've got two football league clubs – Bristol City and Bristol Rovers – to get rowdy about, as well as the Bristol Rugby union club if that's more your thing. Those with the stamina could also enlist themselves to run Bristol's annual half marathon.
Music: Famous bands like Massive Attack and Portishead forged their careers in Bristol, and there are plenty of live venues to catch your favourite acts, including Colston Hall, Bristol Academy and The Exchange.
Burges Salmon LLP
1 Glass Wharf,
Remuneration: £250 per week.