“You won't find many other firms that care like this.” BWB's blend of charity and commercial work is a rare occurrence in the City.
Take my Braith-a-waite
“I think the phrase 'City firm with a conscience' is what's been bandied about, but it's really true,” one trainee insisted. BWB recently became the UK's first 'B Corp' law firm, following in the footsteps of companies like Ben & Jerry's and Patagonia, who've also been honoured for their commitment to the greater social and environmental good. (Boasting a 'B Corp' status is, effectively, the equivalent of a Fairtrade label). “There's a lot of excitement around it,” sources buzzed, “as it reflects the principles we already had, but it also definitively displays who we are to the public.”
So who are they? BWB has long been synonymous with charity work: over 65% of its turnover comes from matters tied to the sector; it counts household names like Oxfam, Barnardo's and Amnesty International on its books; and it attracted a mountainous 456 new charity clients in 2015/16 alone. The icing on the cake? BWB's just donated £1 million worth of legal support to charities and social enterprises through its client tool, Get Legal. At the same time, recent years have seen the firm enhance its commercial offering. “We've made a big push to develop that line of work for socially responsible businesses,” explained one insider, pointing to an overarching strategy to “examine how charity and corporate work can go hand-in-hand.” And this cohesive approach appears to be working a treat: “In the past year I’ve seen growth at all levels and in various areas. We’ve just promoted a new corporate M&A partner, increased our paralegal pool in charities and we're recruiting for our culture and creative team.” An increasing head count mirrors increasing financials; BWB's 2015/16 revenue shot up by a very respectable 9% to £22.2 million, with the corporate and commercial practice exhibiting the most growth. However, “we're making sure that expansion doesn't come at the expense of our values,” trainees asserted. “The strategy isn't just 'let's do more and more corporate work.' It's about attracting clients who share our ethos of contributing to the wider society while running a sustainable business.”
Incoming trainees pitch up at BWB's 10 Queen Street offices, which are just a stone's throw away from Southwark Bridge. Before their first day, all trainees will have chosen one of four pre-designated combinations of seats (aka 'flight paths'). Each consists of two six-month seats followed by three four-months seats, and all involve stop-offs in charity and dispute resolution.
A whole lotta love
BWB's top-ranked charities department is the firm's largest. It's broken down into “composite niche groups like 'culture and creative' – which works with lots of arts organisations – as well as teams dedicated to social finance, education, election campaigns, public sector spin-outs and trusts.” Among the team's specialities are helping to establish new charities and advising individuals on their charitable goals. Setting up a charity involves “a lot of drafting for trainees, mostly on supporting documentation like articles of association and board minutes. You have to really know the sector and understand how laws in various areas like IP and data protection will kick in.” There's also plenty of advisory work for charities that need help with compliance, governance, restructuring/merger plans or overseas operations. Lawyers recently advised Save the Children on the establishment of the 'Start Network' – a group of 24 NGOs that will pool funding from different countries to respond to humanitarian emergencies.
BWB's dispute resolution lawyers step in to help charity clients with contract disputes and Charity Commission investigations; the team also works with corporate clients, individuals and public sector bodies on various commercial, fraud, employment, property, IP and media cases. Highlights of late include acting for The Sunday Times and two of its journalists after the Conservative Party's former treasurer brought a libel suit against them; representing almost 100 ex-employees of streaming service Blinkbox, who were dismissed when the Guvera group bought it from Tesco; and advising the Royal British Legion on a range of property-related disputes. “There's plenty of bundling and paginating, but you're also given responsibility early on,” said one source. “I was dealing with the litigant in person, managing the whole disclosure process and attending court to take notes.” Alongside research and drafting the likes of advisory letters, it's also quite common to appear before a Master: “I had to put forward an application as there was a messy fallout on a charity's board. I loved it!”
The corporate and commercial team advises on mid-market M&A deals, private equity transactions, restructurings and commercial contracts. The tech sector is a big driver of growth here, and the group recently advised cyber-security company Portcullis Computer Security on its sale to US-founded Cisco Systems. You'll find many private companies on the books, but “we do see charity clients coming through as well.” A recent highlight saw the team advise the EIRIS Foundation – which promotes responsible investment – on the sale of its subsidiary to a French company called Vigeo, which benchmarks corporate funds on how ethical they are. “If you're capable they'll give you quality work that challenges you,” said one source. "As a trainee, you draft tons of board minutes, resolutions and Companies House filings. But I've also had a shot at commercial agreements, articles and due diligence reports, plus there's a lot of client contact.”
“It's possible to get to know everyone.”
BWB's immigration practice picks up high marks from Chambers UK for both its personal and business expertise. On the latter side the group's known for advising multinationals like Nike on a range of applications and tricky points-based systems, while on the former it has a rep for family work, but also asylum and human rights claims. A trainee here told of “drafting an expert witness report for the court on behalf of a paraplegic individual looking to settle in the UK. I also helped a very talented artist – who was being sponsored by the Arts Council – get an exceptional promise visa. I was filling out Home Office forms and drafting letters to show that she was a leader in her field and would be able teach others her skills.”
BWB may be surrounded by some of the City's behemoths, but thankfully trainees don't have to work City-standard hours – home-time tends to come around by 6.30pm. Even when there's an occasional longer slog, it's only because something is pressing. “In corporate I left at 3am once, as a deal involving an American company was closing. I really didn't mind doing it, because it isn't the norm.” Sources added that people don't mind sticking around due to the nature of BWB's practice: “We attract interesting people who are very passionate and informed about the work we do. It creates a great atmosphere, as everyone is enthusiastic about the actual the job instead of just money-making.” Indeed, it's worth noting that the trainee and qualification salaries are on “the lower end of the spectrum” for London, but not significantly lower than BWB's similarly sized counterparts.
The firm's embrace of an open-plan layout has strengthened an already genial vibe, our sources thought: “We placed more emphasis on cross-departmental work in our strategy, and the open-plan set-up has enabled that to function more effectively. It's possible to get to know everyone, so you feel well supported. From a learning perspective it's great, as you're always visible to people who can help you and give you interesting work.” An active social committee also keeps the mood bright. Events are hosted once every few months, and in the past have included chocolate tastings and an anarchic “tour of the British Library's punk exhibition.” There's also a firm-wide away day in the summer, “where we have a BBQ, drink and play giant Connect Four. It's just a nice way to socialise and chat without any sort of 'forced fun' element.” Local watering hole The Banker often draws a thirsty crowd of BWB lawyers come Friday night too.
In previous years sources have pointed to a few kinks in the qualification system, but they appear to have been ironed out. “We had a really open dialogue with the training partner and HR about where we wanted to qualify, and they came back to us with the availability.” There were no interviews because “they were very clear from the outset that they wanted to keep us all.” And that's exactly what they did: all four second-years stayed on board.
In summer 2016, BWB launched its financial regulatory consultancy service, BWB Compliance – a move made possible by the firm's conversion to an alternative business structure (ABS) in 2014.
How to get a Bates Wells Braithwaite training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 10 February 2017
Training contract deadline: June 2017 (exact date TBC.
The vacation scheme
Bates Wells Braithwaite hosts three vacation schemes over Easter and the summer. Each lasts for two weeks, and there are three to four spaces per placement.
Around 1,000 candidates apply using the same application process as the one adopted for direct training contract applications (details below).
Vac schemers spend each week in a different department. Before they join, they submit their top three preferences for where they'd like to sit, and the firm endeavours to accommodate the first two. Senior graduate recruitment and HR advisor Hayley Ferraro tells us that during their placement candidates “usually have the opportunity to attend client meetings, draft documents, take minutes and even go to a trial or an employment tribunal, depending what is happening in the relevant department.” Attendees must also complete a half-day assessment, which culminates in a presentation. On the social side there are lunches and evening drinks with the current trainees, and vac schemers are also invited to any firm-wide events occurring during their visit.
Applications and assessments
BWB receives around 750 direct training contract applications each year. Candidates must first complete online screening questions followed by an online application form. If successful, applicants complete a verbal reasoning test and then a video interview.
The firm selects just 18 to attend a half-day assessment (vac schemers do this during their time with the firm). This usually takes place at the beginning of July. The day begins with Hayley Ferraro and training principal Paul Seath delivering a brief introduction. Then there's a research project that culminates in a presentation. Following this, candidates undergo an interview with a panel of two partners and one associate. “It's focused on your CV, grades and experiences,” a current trainee revealed, adding: “They also throw in a couple of general questions to test your knowledge and ability to think logically. It's quite relaxed, though – it's more like a conversation than a grilling.”
The day also involves a trainee-led tour and concludes with an informal drinks session.
The final interview
The firm invites around five candidates from the half-day assessment back for a final interview. When factoring in BWB's internal pool of paralegals and star vac schemers, the total number of candidates who reach this stage is usually around 20.
“At this stage the interviewers are looking to fully understand the candidate's interest in BWB and why they are applying to this firm over other City law firms,” Hayley Ferraro explains. “Candidates who have researched the firm and understand its ethos as well as current issues impacting the legal industry will stand out.”
Our trainee sources agreed that this interview is tougher than the first. “It's more formal and more focused on the law, although there is the acknowledgement that you might not have attended law school yet,” said one. “The legal questions are pitched in broad terms – for example, they might ask you what law you'd like to see changed, or ask you to talk about a recent legal development you feel is important.”
According to a current trainee, “a number of people who've come through in recent years have been in their late twenties/early thirties and have had other career experiences.” Between them, their work experience spans the charity, broadcasting, politics and publishing spheres.
That said, we're assured this is not the result of some fixed design on BWB's part. As Hayley Ferraro says: “we're open to all applicants, whether they're coming straight from university or changing career.”
Trainees do typically have an interest in and experience of charity work, however. As one pointed out: “Everyone here has done some kind of voluntary work at some point, or at least has a strong interest in the third sector. That's what BWB is mostly about, and they like people to demonstrate that.”
Social impact finance
Bates Wells Braithwaite
10 Queen Street Place,
- Partners 34
- Assistant solicitors 58
- Trainees 9
- Graduate recruitment contact Hayley Ferraro (020) 7551 7777
- Email [email protected]
- Method of application Online via website
- Selection procedure Assessment day
- Closing date for 2019 June 2017 - see website
- Training contracts per annum 6
- Applications p.a. 750+
- % interviewed p.a. 5%
- Required degree 2:1
- Training salary
- First year: £34,000
- Second year: £36,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- Post-qualification salary £57,000
- 100% of trainees offered job on qualification in 2016
Main areas of work