Having resisted the charms of a US suitor, one of London's best-known commercial firms is cracking on with its plan to build its offering at home and abroad.
Real estate whiz BLP is currently split between two buildings – Adelaide and St Magnus House – that sit side-by-side next to London Bridge. Behind them looms the 'Walkie Talkie' skyscraper in all its slick, glassy glory – just one of many iconic buildings BLP has had a hand in shaping. And while the firm's offices may appear rather traditional and squat in comparison, we hear that within lies a hotbed of “Scandinavian minimalism.” Yes, BLP has embraced its inner IKEA and thirst for simplicity: it's been modernising, cleaning up, buying new tech and going open-plan. “It makes it a lot more sociable, and it feels easier to foster interdepartmental relations. We work in 'pods' with three other people including a partner, which automatically challenges the hierarchy. It's fresh.”
This fresh-thinking silver circle fox is preparing for the future; it may not include a merger with US firm Greenberg Traurig (the early 2016 flirtation didn't result in a relationship), but graduate recruitment partner Michael Anderson assures us: “We're big enough to brush that off and carry on.” Instead, the firm will be continuing with a “standalone strategy of growing the core business organically," says Anderson. “We have a particular focus on creating the world’s leading real estate and infrastructure practice, building a leading international disputes and corporate risk practice and having strong corporate and finance capabilities.”
From the look of things BLP is in pole position to stay on top: unlike the office décor, its list of Chambers UK rankings is hardly 'less is more'. It's earned over 50 rankings and a slew in the top bracket, which praise its famous big-ticket real estate practice, as well as its planning; construction; mid-market corporate/M&A; and AIM capital markets groups, among others. The firm's financials are looking pretty decent too with revenue up 6% in 2014/15, though down a little by 2% to £254 million in 2015/16. In 2014/15 the firm also reduced its debt to zero after clearing a £32 million bank loan, putting it in a good position to expand overseas. “The way we've invested in our overseas offices shows we're complementing our work in London,” Anderson tells us, pointing to developments that include its opening of a Myanmar office; its acquisition of an asset finance boutique in Hong Kong; and its lateral swoop on Orrick's Berlin lawyers. The firm's international network now encompasses 14 offices spread across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
The firm takes on 40 to 45 trainees a year, all in London. The majority study the firm-sponsored LPC at the University of Law (Moorgate), which includes an LLM. “Our tailored LLM shouldn't just be a precursor to joining BLP,” Anderson says, “it's also a chance for them to gain an additional accolade.” Once at the firm, trainees are expected to complete seats in real estate and litigation, as well as in a corporate-related area (corporate finance, restructuring and insolvency, investment management, or commercial). They get to submit five preferences and chat with graduate recruitment before each rotation. “You're guaranteed a first choice at least once.” There are a few client secondments available at each rotation – destinations include Heathrow Airport, Goldman Sachs, AIG and Tesco – plus overseas seats in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Brussels.
BLP's real estate practice is its largest, and covers everything from financings and joint ventures to regenerations and construction projects. Major clients include property developer Great Portland Estates, private equity hotshot Blackstone and supermarket giant Tesco. Some of the department's highlights have seen the team advise property developer Quintain on its £700 million sale to Texan private equity pro Lone Star, as well as Plough Yard Developments as it kick-started a £750 million development in Shoreditch known as 'The Stage'; when complete, it'll be a mixed-use site which exhibits the remains of Shakespeare's 16th-century Curtain Theatre, where Romeo and Juliet was first performed.
The department is split into five teams, with trainees assigned to one for the duration of their seat. “They more or less do the same things, but have different specialisms." Team one, for example, does a lot of hotel and leisure work, while team five combines broader development matters with social housing projects. Across all teams trainees can expect a mix of small standalone matters (like short-form leases and licences) and big corporate deals involving “household names.” Trainees run the smaller matters alone and can have “up to 40 files at one time, with weekly catch-ups with supervisors who check it all, then check it again.” On bigger matters there's still scope for rookies to take on a lot: “Once a building is in place, there's management work like managing lease renewals and rent reviews. I had a first stab at drafting leases.”
“It's exciting to walk past somewhere in the City and say you worked on it.”
The real estate finance team primarily represents lenders, though borrowers and private equity investors occasionally crop up on the client roster. It includes HSBC, RBS, M&G Investments and Aviva – lawyers recently acted for Barclays on a £380 million deal that saw the bank refinance industrial property fund Brockton Dunedin's assets and fund its acquisition of further assets from Hansteen, a property investment company. “The department is the best in the City,” championed a proud source. “As a trainee you manage the financing process: from conditions precedent checklists, to getting all the documents together, to liaising with the other side. It's very fast-paced. You also get a chance to draft finance documents yourself, and mark up agreements.” Another added: “It's exciting to walk past somewhere in the City and say you worked on it.”
An asset finance seat revolves around the financing of planes, trains and ships. The team specialises in leasing arrangements and recently advised Angel Trains as it re-leased its fleets of trains to franchise operators Northern, East Midlands and ScotRail. Many details of the department's matters are confidential, but other clients include Beacon Rail, Bombardier, Deutsche Bank and Investec. Interviewees felt this was “the most international group in the firm.” One's highlight had been “working on the delivery of an aircraft in Seattle from Asia. All time zones were at play so it was pretty demanding!” It's a “partner-heavy group, so you get lots of experience working with them directly: they'll encourage you to take on as much as you can.” Trainees still spent some time monitoring those conditions precedent checklists, but this involved lots of “communication with clients who grow to trust you.”
“I got to meet all the directors on the deal.”
Nearly half of BLP's corporate finance work has an international dimension. The team recently advised major French bank BFCM as it acquired two of GE's businesses in France and Germany, which boast a combined enterprise value of $10 billion. The team's sector specialisms include real estate, financial services, oil and gas, healthcare, and gaming. Trainees who'd sat here had encountered a mix of M&A and equity capital markets matters. “The departments used to be split in two but now they've merged, so as a trainee you experience both and it's better that way.” This deal gives you a good idea of how the two strands can work in tandem: the team acted for investment vehicle Haversham Holdings during its £1.2 billion acquisition of the British Car Auctions group, which also involved the group's accelerated IPO. “It's a big team,” said trainees here, “so you can scope out what you like.” Tasks include drafting due diligence reports and a fair dollop of bibling, but responsibility can be upped significantly: “My highlight was going to a signing meeting and managing the signing process; I got to get out of the office and meet all the directors on the deal.”
BLP's commercial disputes lawyers handle regulatory cases, as well as general commercial, financial crime, insurance and banking disputes. Trainees described the work as “unpredictable” and explained: “In transactional seats there's a level of repetition in the way a deal runs, so it's possible for trainees to get involved at a high level after a short time. In litigation there are vast differences in terms of what is being disputed and how.” So typical trainee assignments involve lots of legal research and reading up on cases and statutes. “It's like going over the stuff we learned at university, but you have to use that information in a much more interesting way. It feels more 'legal' than the transactional seats.” On the insurance side, BLP pulls in big ’uns like Munich Re and AIG: the team advised a subsidiary of the latter – the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania (ICSOP) – as it pursued six million dollars' worth of claims against a UK broker, which lost documents that identified ICSOP's reinsurers – resulting in losses for the company. Full-time insurance trainees reported “researching points of law in the reinsurance market, analysing scenarios, and forming preliminary judgements and first letters of advice that are then tidied up by associates. You're very well supervised: once when I was out of my depth my supervisor stayed late and helped me get through it.”
A seat in competition comes with the likelihood of spending time in the Brussels office. “It's unique because there's a contentious element and a transactional side, and you get to do both on a daily basis. You liaise with general counsel in the US and Europe, and are in constant communication with the Brussels office.” Damages actions and merger control issues are big here: BLP's competition hotshots recently acted for National Grid and ScottishPower as they brought damages claims against a cartel of high-voltage cable suppliers; they also dished out EU merger control advice to investment manager Hermes and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) as they jointly acquired two real estate businesses in Central London.
Participants found it tricky to pin down an average or typical day at BLP. “Real estate finance is known for being busy, but in my case asset finance was worse because of the particular deals that were going on.” Most sources conceded the hours were often long but manageable overall. Barring “large litigation deadlines that force you to stay until 2am for two weeks,” there was no talk of all-nighters or weekend work. But don't necessarily expect to sunbathe all secondment long. In Abu Dhabi, trainee schedules can become extremely hectic: “There's a work hard, play hard philosophy there, but they're really reasonable about letting you take a few days to catch up after an intense stint.”
“If we'd met at uni we would have been best mates.”
This led interviewees to hit upon what they saw as BLP's supportive culture. They told us that formal training comes thick and fast, for one. “It happens throughout the seats so you can still hit the ground running with work. Real estate hosts weekly lectures from a King's College professor. Everyone can go to everything and it's all put up online anyway.” The people aren't half bad either: “Even the head of real estate – probably the busiest person at BLP – is as approachable as your mentor or supervisor.” Another source told us: “People who have come from other firms comment on the differences, on the lack of competition between trainees at BLP. We don't see each other as the opposition.” Indeed, trainees “sit together at a big table during lunch” and one sweetly mused that “if we'd met at uni we would have been best mates.”
This in turn translates into an active social calendar. “The firm puts on a big Christmas party and a summer shindig, as well as at least two department events a year. Different teams have different traditions, and allocated budgets. Corporate do weekly drinks trolleys, for example.” If you're not into getting trollied, you can still get involved in things like the “'Beat The Board' quiz, where everyone competes against the firm's board members. There's also a football team that play in the Surveyors' League.” Equally, as one pointed out, “some people just want to go home after work, and that's fine. Your personal life is definitely valued.” If this all sounds too idyllic, fear not: "At the end of the day, it's a City firm doing big-ticket work – it's going to be rewarding, but don't expect it to be easy.”
The qualification process is a “rigorous” one, insiders revealed. The process does differ a bit by department and depending on whether there is competition for a role, but if multiple trainees apply for one NQ position then hopefuls undergo an interview, and complete a case study or other written exercise. In 2016, 28out of BLP's 40qualifiers were retained.
By the end of 2016 BLP aims to have moved all lawyers over to Grade II listed Adelaide House, an Art Deco pile which was the tallest building in London when it opened in 1925.
How to get a BLP training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 October 2016 (winter); 31 January 2017 (spring and summer)
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
BLP gets around 2,500 applications each year for its 40 to 45 training contract places. These flood in via online forms that detail applicants' knowledge of the firm, reasons for considering a career in law, and work experience. The application process is the same for those aiming for a vacation scheme spot and straight-to-training-contract hopefuls.
All applicants sit an online verbal aptitude test, and from here the graduate recruitment team select between 550 and 600 candidates to attend an assessment day. This begins with a drafting exercise in which applicants write a report on the basis of various documents they're provided with. A one-on-one role-play and group negotiation follow. The day concludes after a group lunch and trainee-led tour around the office.
The next step to getting a training contract for both vac schemers and direct entrants is an interview with two partners. This usually includes questions on applicants' technical knowledge, core knowledge of law, and motivation for wanting to work at BLP. “We hope to make our interviews quite informal, yet structured in a way to get the best out of our candidates, so there's often a lot of discussion around topical events or news stories that will affect our clients,” graduate recruitment and development manager Alan Demirkaya tells us. Think Brexit, external investment into the UK, property purchases etc.
Between 70 and 80% of BLP's trainee intake comes in through its vacation schemes. BLP takes around 100 vac schemers a year, spread across five placements. There are week-long winter and spring schemes, plus three two-week schemes in the summer.
Each placement features presentations from partners from the firm's core areas, a strategy talk by a member of the management board, and a few socials like a corporate social responsibility activity or ping pong tournaments. Still, it's not all fun and games: Demirkaya warns that “throughout their time here vac schemers are assessed for a training contract. We give them real tasks so we can get a real indication of how they'd perform trainee-level tasks, and ultimately how they'd fit in with our culture.”
Alongside these tasks attendees complete a group task – for example, a client pitch involving an international topic – in which they produce a draft of written work and deliver a presentation in groups of four.
Demirkaya elaborates on what BLP is looking for: “One of the core qualities we look at is someone's motivation levels and how driven they are to succeed in a career in law. A lot of applicants will still have two years' study ahead, so we need to know they're fully committed to us.”
The firm targets over 25 universities across the country in search of future trainees. A good whack of trainees have traditionally come broadly from different Russell Group institutions, though our sources noticed a growing number of Oxbridge recruits joining the ranks recently. Mature applicants also get a look in. “We have people coming from previous careers in industries like finance and construction – areas that resonate well with our clients,” Demirkaya tells us: “It's essential to have a mix of backgrounds as our five core practice areas are so different.”
Interview with graduate recruitment partner Michael Anderson
Student Guide: Are there any highlights from the last year you think are important for our readers to know about?
Michael Anderson: The firm continues to improve its market standing across the board in multiple disciplines like corporate, real estate, finance and litigation. Also, the way we've invested in overseas offices shows we're complementing our work in London. We've brought in specialist lawyers in Germany, Asia and the Middle East, not to mention the growth of our Manchester office.
SG: How optimistic are you about the future of the firm and its strategy going forward? Are there any office openings on the horizon or plans for expansion?
MA: We're always looking for opportunities – we're not desperate for them. It will be a question of growing the depth of areas where we're strong and bringing good people in. We are adept at building relationships with preferred firms in overseas locations where we don't have an office. Obviously it was unfortunate that the merger in the US didn't come about, but we're big enough to brush that off and carry on. [The firm undertook merger talks with major US firm Greenberg Traurig in early 2016 but these eventually came to nothing – SG.] If further opportunities come up management will look at them.
SG: A lot of people we spoke to had come to the firm via the vacation scheme. Is this your preferred method of recruitment?
MA: We're in competition with a significant number of other firms for top candidates. And certainly, vac schemes are great because they are all about people contact. If you don't get the people thing right, the rest is just bricks and mortar and pieces of paper.
SG: How can someone impress during a vac scheme?
MA: It's about getting involved and realising you have been given the opportunity to sell yourself and explain what you're about. It's about interacting with people, and not hiding behind emails. You should get out onto the floor, ask for feedback, background on the transactions you're working on.
SG: During the firm's LPC future trainees undertake an LLM too, involving a dissertation. Why is this important to you?
MA: I think principally because we expect to be getting exceptional trainees, so it's not too much of an ask to get them to do that too. Equally, it's important for us that they have the opportunity to get that qualification. It's not just a precursor to joining BLP but also an additional accolade.
SG: The firm's qualification process is quite formalised. Why is this important and what can a trainee do to stand out at this stage?
MA: I'm not sure it's any more formal here than anywhere else. I think the important thing is to worry less about the process and more about impressing each team as they go through the two years.
Big-ticket London property work
Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP
- Partners 152 (202 globally)
- Assistant solicitors 424
- Associate directors 41
- Total trainees 83
- Contact Alan Demirkaya, Graduate Recruitment & Trainee Manager
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Online test, assessment centre, partner interview
- Closing date for 2018/2019 30 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 40-45
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Required UCAs points 340
- Training salary
- First year: £40,000
- Second year: £45,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 50%
- No. of seats available abroad pa 7
- Post-qualification salary (2014) £66,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (March 2016) 70% accepted
- Offices Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Berlin, Brussels, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London, Manchester, Moscow, Paris, Singapore, Tel Aviv and Yangon
Main areas of work