Ashfords gives trainees projects to run with, and exposes them to interesting mid-market commercial, public sector and private client work in the South West, London and beyond.
"I wanted to be in a city – an up-and-coming one, not in the middle of a concrete jungle, so Exeter was perfect," one trainee told us. "I really wanted to work in Bristol," another told us. For obvious reasons, Ashfords' locations and Southwestern identity had great appeal with our trainee interviewees. Since the firm took over a London office five years ago, the original league of five offices – Plymouth, Bristol, Tiverton, Exeter and Taunton – has started "looking in a national-firm direction," a trainee mused. But for the moment the firm's impact is felt most in the South West, according to Chambers UK, where the firm picks up high-class rankings across a spread of core commercial areas like banking, real estate, M&A and litigation, as well as more specialised sectors like IT, construction, social housing and even equestrian law.
"I liked the idea of a smaller-scale firm but with big-ticket work," reflected one trainee on their decision to join. And indeed there are high-profile clients littering the firm's CV, like Subway, RBS, Majestic Wine, HSBC and London boroughs. But most striking about the work is that it's not woolly City matter; it's more tangible, often infrastructural, and leaves a footprint on the firm's locality. Being able to see the impact of your work as a junior lawyer is hugely underrated, we'd say. By virtue of their roles, trainees all felt their colleagues were “pretty commercially-minded.” We also sensed a rather cosy, cheerful vibe from the trainee cohort, via stories about their extra-curricular office pursuits like "bee-keeping, building ponds and flower-planting.”
Money in muck
"We recently acquired an aviation litigation team," training principal Charles Pallot informs us. This joins the firm's other core sectors, reflective of the region's economic activity: agriculture; charities; marine, transport and logistics; public sector; retail; sport; technology; andenergy and waste. The last features prominently in the firm's work, exhibiting a lot of innovative renewable energy projects, such as representing Mariana Capital Markets on a prototype water turbine project in South West England. The firm also appears to be specialising in a series of resourceful projects that turn waste into energy, such as a 500KW anaerobic digestion plant in Cornwall. The wide choice of seats is a draw for many trainees. The recent addition of a family seat is a “reflection of the good business” going on in the private client area, we were informed. Private client, aka trusts and estates, got strong endorsements from trainees because "you get a lot more independence" there than in more commercial areas. "My supervisor let me grow and develop, initially drafting wills and documents, and researching points of law," a trainee reported. "But towards the end of the seat I was discussing matters with clients, and doing client meetings without supervision."
Trainees apply for a contract either in Bristol, London or the South West. Exeter takes the largest number of trainees – it had 12 at the time of our calls, while London had five, Bristol four and Taunton three. (A quick note: in London the firm only recruits trainees from its own paralegal pool.) We heard that Bristol deals with a lot of technology matters, while London works a lot on projects. Trainees in the capital grumbled about the restricted practice areas, while those in the South West said that if you're “willing to relocate, you're abundantly more likely to get seats you want.” And although international opportunities are rare at firms outside of London, the firm's membership of the ADVOC alliance has opened up opportunities for junior lawyers to “basically do a work experience placement at a law firm abroad,” we heard. Before joining the firm, trainees are asked to provide three seat preferences; thereafter seat allocation involves a meeting with HR, with the opportunity to "discuss what you are looking for.” The firm told us that, unlike in the past, there are no longer any compulsory seats. “Second-years tend to get preference” over seats, but if you've got your heart set on working on those dung-dynamo projects, "talk to the partners," we were advised.
"You have to be happy with high levels of responsibility, which at times can get stressful."
Ashford's corporate and commercial department deals mainly with M&A, capital markets and private equity. Bristol's technology spin means trainees might be working on licensing or data security in "developing a new app or software,” procurement, or venture capital, such as the $11 million Silicon Valley investment the firm secured on behalf of Bristol tech company Brightpearl. A trainee's commercial seat involves filing documents, updating old sets of articles, and drafting auxiliary documents. Supervisors are keen for you to learn from their expertise: “I was in conference calls with clients and I could chip in to say if something didn't add up.” Our sources felt a certain gumption was necessary in a trainee: "You have to be happy with high levels of responsibility, which at times can get stressful."
The projects team is split between London and Exeter, and handles a fair amount of public sector procurement and financing of energy projects. This is where trainees get to work on the regional and nationwide renewable energy projects. As is expected, trainees found the tasks to be similar to corporate: a lot of proofreading, research into points of law and drafting advice notes. But it's also "quite different from other seats," we were told, in the sense that the subject matter is more avant garde: "In othere seats you can find precedents, but with this there are hours on the phone with clients working out the specific details of the project – it's so much more commercial." It's easy to see how things can "get very specialised,” with matters like advising pension investor Ethika on establishing a £100 million roll-out of renewable energy developments throughout the UK designed to gasify biomass to generate energy.
“Towards the end of the seat, I went to client meetings on my own.”
Commercial property is the largest department, and the real estate seats are popular “even if sometimes we dread getting so much responsibility.” There is opportunity in these “very busy seats” for “trainees to take initiative and to learn a lot.” The real estate client list includes big names like Lloyds Bank, Majestic Wine and the London Borough of Wandsworth, which the firm advised on finance recovery disputes, property portfolio management and social housing respectively. Training here involves a “hefty amount of complex drafting work,” but it's a "good seat for problem solvers." Residential property produces “plenty of overseas clients” looking for assistance buying in the UK, and trainees were set loose on a few agricultural property cases, like land transfer and farm registration. You can eventually get to the point of “taking a file out on your own name,” one trainee boasted. “Towards the end of the seat, I went to client meetings on my own,” beamed another source. Property litigation favours a more experienced trainee, and one source gave us an insight into why a more confident trainee was needed on the disputes side: "I recently had to do a repossession; I had to draft the full injunction procedure and the witness statement, and then it was just checked over by the supervisor before the case went to court.”
Employment and construction seats are “always really popular.” There is "literally something new every day" in employment. Trainees enjoyed the "high responsibility" in their work on employment tribunal cases: “I produced statements of costs, drafted witness statements, assisted with claims forms, and did research into the technicalities of immigration law.” Client contact and liaising with barristers is plentiful: “I was always allowed and encouraged to sit in on witness meetings. I was never left to just to do admin.” Meanwhile, in construction dealings "can be of such a large scale that you find yourself more doing support work than actually being a solicitor.” We heard of trainees helping out with international arbitrations, where they researched points of law and reviewed documents. Recent cases include acting for a US pharmaceutical company on the £60 million construction of its UK facility in Leicester, and advising a London borough on the points of a housing regeneration scheme to create affordable homes, which, crucially, allowed the borough to retain control over the affordable housing.
Honey to the bee
Our sources found that the "partners are very approachable" and "people at Ashfords are always willing to help and give you guidance. This is a really lovely quality." When quizzed on what the typical Ashfords trainee is like, all chorused: “outgoing.” Although "everyone is different – from a broad spectrum" – sources agreed, "they are personable and willing to have a laugh." The firm values people with "passions outside of work," and fittingly, a typical working day is quite reasonable, beginning at around 8.30am and wrapping up at about 6pm, with only the occasional stay beyond 8pm. “We all want to work hard and do our best – but we also value our own social lives and that is something the firm does well.” But the firm also expects "people to get involved in everything in the firm as a whole.” There was a lot of buzz about beekeeping among this trainee group, and we were told about the trainee charity challenge, where trainees have three months to raise as much money as possible. “We had a hog roast – which was a paralegal's idea," recalled a trainee. "All the money we collected from it went to the Alzheimer's Society.”
Several of our interviewees had links to the South West and “wanted to stay in the area,” and generally the firm will be looking for some commitment to the region (unless you're heading for the handful of places in London). Exeter's facilities make it a bit of an Emerald City to trainees at other offices, thanks to its “amazing gym, nature projects and cafe." Although, as with Taunton too, "being based in a business park out of town does make socialising more difficult." The London and Bristol offices are located in their city centres. Thursday gatherings are popular in Bristol where we found an “any excuse for office drinks” mentality.
To address some issues raised over the inconsistency of mid-seat feedback, the firm is changing the appraisal system. However, “you do know when you have done work well,” sources assured us. And channels with supervisors are “open about what you want to achieve and progress to.” Qualification is fairly formulaic: a posting of openings goes out and trainees get a week to send their CV and cover letter before the interview, which ranges from a formal one with a partner to “more of a chat.” Charles Pallot told us: "We're proud of excellent retention rates," which for the past couple of years have been high and in 2017 ten of 13 trainees were kept on. In its recruitment and retention is woven "a commitment to diversity," says Charles Pallot, citing the firm's new apprenticeship scheme designed to broaden access into the profession.
“Having passions outside of work is something that is quite important to show here,” tips a trainee.
How to get an Ashfords training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2018): 30 April 2018 (opens 1 November 2017)
Training contract deadline (2020): 30 April 2018 (opens 1 November 2017)
Ashfords has ten training contracts on offer for a 2020 start: two in Bristol, six in the South West and two in London (where trainees are only recruited internally). 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 2017 the firm received around 500 training contract and vac scheme applications. 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 one-on-one roleplay and an interview with a partner and a member of HR. 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 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 73
- UK fee earners 107
- Total trainees 24
- UK offices Exeter, Bristol, London, Plymouth, Taunton, Tiverton
- Graduate recruiter: Graduate recruitment team, [email protected], 01392 333 634
- Training partner: Andrew Worley [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 10
- Applications pa: 500
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Vacation scheme places pa: 24
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 November 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 30 April 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 30 April 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £25,000 (South West), £26,000 (Bristol)
- Second-year salary: £26,000 (South West), £27,000 (Bristol)
- Post-qualification salary: £40,000 (South West), £46,000 (Bristol)
- Holiday entitlement: 23 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: South West (Exeter, Taunton, Tiverton, Plymouth) and Bristol
Main areas of work
University law careers fairs 2017