Ashfords is the largest firm based in Exeter, but its influence now reaches well beyond that city.
Expanding the stable
Take a glance at Ashfords' clients and some regionally significant names jump out: Devon County Council and Exeter City Council are two which indicate the firm's regional ties. These come thanks to offices across the South West in Exeter, Bristol, Tiverton, Taunton and Plymouth. But Ashfords may have outgrown the 'regional firm' label: consider the London office, the result of a 2012 merger with a small City firm. This is just one example of how the firm has looked to grow outside the South West and is becoming what trainees called “a burgeoning presence” on the national legal scene. It wins a handful of national rankings in Chambers UK including top-tier recognition for its three-lawyer horse racing sports law practice. Gee up!
A wider look at the client roster reveals international businesses, like National Bank of Australia and Svenska Handelsbanken, scattered along a list dominated by national and regional names. Ashfords' horizons are broadened further still by its status as a founding member of ADVOC, an international work referral network for law firms. Training principal Charles Pallot sees that membership paying off for trainees thanks to “potential future exchange agreements with other firms across the world – trainees may soon be able to go off on short placements to other firms in the ADVOC network, where they can build relationships with lawyers from other countries.” Other signs of expansion include the recent hiring of a new property partner from rival Michelmores, a 9% rise in operating profit in 2014/15, the launching of a legal apprenticeship scheme, and the creation of new patent and health and safety practices.
“Holding a public body's hand during procurement.”
Trainees told us the corporate practice is expanding too: it now has around 40 lawyers compared to 30 five years ago. All three of the firm's core divisions – commercial, private client, and real estate and infrastructure – are acknowledged by Chambers UK. While Exeter is full-service, the other offices are smaller and each has its own unique formula of work: Bristol has a tech twang to its commercial work; Taunton and Tiverton are more concerned with private client; and we hear that in London the projects team has grown, accelerating alongside corporate, which in autumn 2015 added a new partner hired from the London office of a US firm.
The spread of trainees reflects the size of the offices, with the Exeter HQ holding 11 of the 20 trainees at the firm at the time of our research. There were a further four in Bristol, three in London (recruited from paralegals at the firm) and two in Tiverton. Trainees are encouraged to sample multiple locations, although the firm recently rejigged things a bit so each trainee has a secure base – London, Bristol or South West – with South West trainees most likely to switch offices during training. “If you want to move between Exeter, Plymouth, Taunton or Tiverton it's quite likely you will.” In Bristol and London trainees stay put, unless they wish otherwise, in which case “the firm can make it happen.”
In the build-up to their first day, trainees will get an e-mail from HR asking for three seat preferences. Trainees must do one seat in the property/infrastructure group, one in commercial and one in litigation. “I felt there wasn't much weight attached to your preferences in the first year when allocation was determined mainly by business need,” reflected one trainee. In fact, you may not get to do any of your preferences in your first year, but the firm tries to appease this by “ringing you up and telling you why things turned out that way.” Seat preferences are more likely to be accommodated in the second year. Trainees can revise and revisit their preferences (and ask for repeat seats) midway through each seat.
"I can't wait to see how the company grows!”
The corporate/commercial department deals with M&A transactions plus venture capital work for the technology sector. Bristol is the kingpin of commercial tech work. “I've worked on software licences, contracts for software companies, new start-ups and data protection matters,” a trainee told us. The department is also responsible for the largest share of the firm's international work. For example, it recently advised on a $12 million investment in app software company ClusterHQ by Accel Partners, a venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley which had previously funded Facebook in its early days. A trainee who'd worked on a similar venture capital deal told us: “We've just done a deal in which a small company that compares different online payment mechanisms received investment from a global lender. I did a lot on that deal: I drafted ancillary documents and then helped with completion, which was done by obtaining e-signatures. Now I'm doing the bibling and sending out the contracts. I can't wait to see how the company grows!”
The projects team, which usually takes two trainees, has "a reputation for hard work” and we heard the hours are slightly longer than in other seats. The work is split between public procurement –“holding a public body's hand during procurement” – and infrastructure work, which might mean “putting together a project for a renewable energy client.” Bridging the gap between the two is the work Ashfords did recently with the Council of the Isles of Scilly to help it fulfil its so-called 'Smart Islands Vision', which aims to make the archipelago off the Cornish coast energy self-sufficient. The firm helped sort financing from the European Regional Development Fund and drafted the corporate and contractual documents. Stuff like this takes time to do and, a trainee told us, “deals run for a long time, sometimes spanning years, so I was lucky to see a completion. I set up the completion room for clients and had to make sure I knew who had signed what!” While trainees do get to draft segments of contracts, they play “more of a support role for partners – a top-dog investor doesn't want to meet with a trainee, they want to see the partner.”
Money in muck
Trainees told us Ashfords' property work is “crucial to the business” and most end up doing a seat here. The team has around 40 lawyers and takes five trainees at a time. The seat provides “a wide-ranging variety of property work.” Clients include residential developers, house builders and local authorities, and particular specialisms are franchising, waste and energy. The department recently handled the real estate aspects of a new £600 million 'anaerobic digestion plant' (which converts food waste into biogas) for North Yorkshire County Council. Residential property work comes from clients such as Persimmon Homes, Cavanna Homes and Barratt. Trainees found their work “develops month by month" in the seat. "I started by getting to grips with a lot of Land Registry applications and registrations” an interviewee said, adding that they went on to draft leases, licences to assign and reports on titles towards the end of the seat. Trainees run smaller files themselves, for example “acting for an educational college which wanted to install charging points for electric cars on its premises. We reviewed the title, then negotiated the terms of the lease after a review and completed the transaction.”
The work of the property litigation team covers commercial landlord and tenant matters, squatting, professional negligence claims, and trusts and estates disputes. Clients include Biffa Waste Services, Lloyds Bank and the Guinness Partnership (the housing association not the brewers). One notable case in 2015 had Ashfords acting for the sellers of a house after the buyer carried out a flurry of damaging building work before the purchase had been completed. The firm's lawyers ensured that the buyer's deposit was forfeited, and that he had to pay legal costs of £47,000. For trainees there's “a greater amount of supervision in this seat than others. All emails are checked before they go out.” Other trainee tasks include research, article writing, drafting advisory emails to clients and ancillary court documents, and occasionally attending court hearings or meeting clients.
Both the employment and construction departments handle contentious and non-contentious work. Construction clients include waste contractors, utility companies, local authorities and of course building contractors like South Westerners Bovey Construction and Midas. The team works closely with the projects department and is developing its presence in the renewable energy sector with work for clients such as Greener for Life, a company founded by farmers who specialise in sustainable food and energy production. One trainee told us: “I worked on matters of different sizes dealing with disclosure, as well as drafting witness statements and responses. I attended plenty of client meetings.”
Bees, botany, beers and bikes
Something is stirring at Ashfords: “The firm still feels quite regional but there are new hires bringing the best of life at bigger firms with them.” There's a daily (!) newsletter keeping trainees in the loop of what's going on strategically and how this fits into the firm's vision. A trainee commented: “Management has invested in the business development team to shed our small-time firm image. We have good-calibre work, so they've been working hard on improving our branding.” But the new image hasn't rid the firm of its charms – in the name of being green the Exeter office has its own bee hive to protect bees and produce honey.
The firm's ambitions also haven't altered the fact that “everyone is really friendly and keen to get to know you.” That said, there's a big difference between the size of the Exeter HQ (315 staff) and the other locations (the London and Bristol offices hold around 50 staff each). Exeter provides less intimate, cross-office contact: “In Exeter you're likely to get closer to people in your department rather than getting to know the whole office.”
An effort to unite trainees does seem to be in motion, as the firm now brings all of them to Exeter to do a large proportion of the PSC in-house. Other training opportunities are there for the taking too: there are “firm-wide talks every month by external speakers” and more specific departmental sessions –“in commercial litigation we had fortnightly discussions during which we looked over issues arising from recent cases.” Trainees said they really enjoy the advocacy training on offer. “We prepared a case based on real life and then presented it in front of a 'judge' played by one of the partners." Things aren't normally that hierarchical: trainees sit close to partners in the open-plan offices. “It means you can just lean over and ask them a question,” observed one trainee. The exception to the open-plan rule is Tiverton, where trainees described the office as being “like something out of Charles Dickens.”
"It was almost like one of the rounds on The Apprentice."
There's a chance to get more thorough exposure to nature with client events: “I've been invited out on networking cycle rides with partners several times.” As for trainee socialising, some offices are livelier than others: in the London and Bristol offices, which are in their respective cities' centres, get-togethers can be spontaneous affairs, but this is less true in the Exeter and Taunton offices, which reside in out-of-town business parks. “It would be more sociable to work in the city centre, but it wouldn't help my wallet,” reflected one trainee. Possibly as a result “Exeter is more family-focused: people want to go home to put their kids to bed.” From what we heard, trainee hours certainly allow for that with 9am to 6pm being a pretty standard day.
Qualification is a fairly formalised process: trainees are given a vacancy list and then apply for available places with a CV and cover letter before being interviewed. Nevertheless we heard some grumbles: “It takes ages and HR aren't super-clear about when we find out the results," though “they do send around surveys so we can air our grievances. They are trying to learn and improve.” In 2016, eight of ten qualifiers were retained.
Ashfords is recruiting 15 trainees to start in 2019, against ten recruited to start back in 2014 – a sure sign of measured growth.
How to get an Ashfors training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 28 February 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
Ashfords has 15 training contracts on offer for a 2019 start: two in Bristol and 13 in the South West. Candidates need not just a minimum 2:1 but a consistently good academic record to land a spot here. Beyond that, we're told the firm is looking for people who are business savvy, creative, and ambitious – people who are team players and effective communicators. Links to the South West are not required, though candidates will need to show their motivations for wanting to work in the region, and demonstrate a commitment to staying in the area.
The firm's current trainees noted that their intake includes “a fairly even split of career-changers and fresh graduates,” telling us “going into law from another career is something the firm views positively.” Training principal Charles Pallot agrees: “A previous career brings all sorts of relevant experience. Right now, I can think of three or four ex-engineers, surveyors and accountants who are now successful lawyers at Ashfords. But that is not to say that we cannot recognise the future potential of candidates with less direct commercial experience.”
Applicants can either apply for a vacation scheme or a training contract outright. In 2014 the firm received around 300 direct applications and around 260 applications for a vac scheme. Both start off with the same online application form. This examines a candidate's qualifications and previous work experience, and asks several competency-based questions designed to assess their suitability.
Recruiters typically invite 40 direct applicants to the assessment day, and accept 24 onto the summer scheme. (The latter group attends the assessment day at the end of their placement.)
The assessment day includes three elements: a written exercise, a group exercise (including a short presentation) and an interview with a partner and a member of HR. “For my group exercise, a team of ten of us had to build a bridge out of little sticks,” a current trainee reported, “and afterwards we had to present in pairs to a partner and member of HR about our method. We also had to field some questions about it.”
The interview takes around 45 minutes and involves competency-based questions. “I had to show evidence of standard things like working well in a team,” a trainee recalled, “and they also asked 'When have you been put under pressure in the past, and what would you do differently next time?'”
The firm runs three week-long vacation schemes in June and July each year. These take place in both the Exeter and Bristol offices, and there's room for 24 candidates in total. Attendees split their time between two departments, and past participants reported doing substantive, trainee-level work. Candidates spend the final day completing the assessment centre outlined above.
Doing business in the South West
- Partners 76
- Fee earners 274
- Total staff 510
- Total trainees 20
- Contact traineerecruitment @ashfords.co.uk
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Assessment days
- Closing date
- Summer scheme: 28 February 2017
- Training contract: 31 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 15
- Applications pa 550
- % interviewed 12%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary Competitive (Bristol and London uplift will apply)
- Holiday entitlement 25 days (rising to 27 on qualification)
- Post-qualification salary Competitive (Bristol and London uplift will apply)
- Offices Bristol, Exeter, London, Plymouth, Taunton and Tiverton
Main areas of work