A prime mover in big-ticket real estate, BLP is eyeing expansion.
Build Me Up Buttercup
Those novelties of the London skyline, the Cheesegrater and the Walkie-Talkie, have another significant connection. They both bear the fingerprints of real estate expert BLP. This top City firm helped with both the development of the Walkie-Talkie and the recent sale of the Cheesegrater, confirming why it's been top ranked by Chambers UK for big-ticket London real estate work for yonks. But the firm has more strings to its bow: BLP is Chambers-ranked in around 40 practice areas, from employment and litigation to capital markets and asset finance.
The firm is pushing ever onwards, motivated by its primary aim of creating a world-beating international real estate and infrastructure practice. The 2017 launch of such a practice in Hong Kong shows the firm is making some progress abroad; it now has 14 overseas offices. BLP's international ambitions were demonstrated in 2016 when it entered merger talks with US firm Greenberg Traurig. Although these ultimately failed, the firm remains focused on overseas expansion and its wider goals of growing the litigation, corporate and finance practices.
But wait, there's more. First, the firm recently dropped its intellectual property practice (a team of nine left for Bristows), citing the fact it fell outside its steely practice focus. Second, the firm recruited trainees to start in the Manchester office for the first time in 2017. The office in the North West is part of a trend for 'northshoring' (moving services to the cheaper North) which some firms are pursuing. Training partner Michael Anderson tells us the Manchester office exists to "provide a range of innovative, high-quality, cost-effective solutions tailored to our clients' needs.”
Berwin Leighton Passenger
The first Manchester trainees didn't start till autumn 2017, so at the time of our calls everyone was based in London. Trainees are “told to expect to do a real estate and corporate seat, but it's reasonably common for people to not do both.” They submit five preferences and chat with graduate recruitment before each rotation, plus there are a few client secondments available at each rotation. Overseas seat options include 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 Land Securities (the largest commercial property developer and investor in the UK), the Crown Estate, asset manager Hermes and Tesco. The firm recently advised Time Inc on the £415 million sale of the Blue Fin Building in Southwark (a vast glassy neighbour of the Tate Modern) to a joint venture established by Oxford Properties and Temasek. The firm also acted for Credit Suisse as it let 11 floors of 5 Canada Square, a building in Canary Wharf, to Thomson Reuters.
“We manage matters like licences to alter or underlet from A to Z."
The real estate department is split into five teams, with trainees assigned to one for the duration of their seat. Each has its own specialism, be that housing associations or hospitality – one team is mostly devoted to work for Tesco. However, we heard that “there's a huge amount of crossover between groups, and partners and associates work across them, so that means the trainee experience in each is broadly similar.” Across all teams trainees can expect “a balance between big portfolio sales and purchases plus investment and development work on the one hand, and small-scale licences and leases and run-of-the-mill property management on the other.” Trainees can run a large number of smaller matters alone. “We manage matters like licences to alter or underlet from A to Z," one trainee said, "drafting documents, handling completions and dealing with the money.” Trainees often have a lot of files to their name at any one point, but "some may not be progressing. So you might have 40 files, but only ten are moving along.” On bigger transactions, trainee work is “heavy on data-site management, which means checking assets for the buyer or the seller, managing Land Registry documents, putting in searches and making sure documents go online.”
The real estate finance team primarily represents lenders, though there are borrowers and private equity investors on the client roster too. As a trainee informed us: “That means large banks like RBS, Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank.” We'd add Barclays, HSBC and Santander to that list. The team's lawyers also recently advised Qatari Diar (part of Qatar's sovereign wealth fund) on a £664 million loan for the £3 billion redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks, which will provide around 450 homes. Trainees help run bigger transactions. One reported: “Say a high net worth individual is buying a London property and they are organising the financing through Jersey and Luxembourg. I would draft the ancillary documents, put together the completion mechanics, and might speak to the client or foreign counsel to check and negotiate points.”
The corporate team covers sectors including energy, healthcare, retail and betting/gaming. Much of the work is international, “whether that's for tax reasons or because the client is based abroad. I'm currently working on a deal with Irish and Jersey-based companies.” One recent cross-border matter saw the team advise Playtech, a FTSE 250 gambling software developer, on its acquisition of Danish company Consolidated Financial Holdings, valued at $120 million. The team is also known for working on real estate transactions, and it recently advised China Life and Brookfield on the acquisition of the corporate structure which owns Aldgate Tower from an Irish developer. Trainees encounter both M&A and equity capital markets matters and interviewees had “reviewed disclosure letters, drafted share purchase agreements, and produced due diligence reports. There's quite a lot of project management as well – for instance, co-ordinating with other teams like real estate and commercial.”
End of the pier
BLP's commercial disputes lawyers handle regulatory, financial crime, insurance and banking disputes, as well as more general commercial litigation. Some of the work has a bit of a historic ring to it. “For example, we handle cases related to the financial crisis, credit default swaps and insolvent Icelandic banks, plus international fraud cases between businessmen and investment authorities.” Clients include Scottish Power, National Grid, Thames Water and Tesco. The department also acted for Johan Eliasch, Swedish billionaire and chairman of Head (the sports company), in a huge High Court case worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Trainees described the experience in disputes as “very black-letter law heavy. Work includes research and administrative tasks.” Yes, that means some bundling. “I'll be sweating when a document I've paginated is being looked at, worrying it might be wrong, but when it all comes together you understand why the basic elements need to be right.” Due to the sensitive nature of the matters, client contact is often hard to come by. “Communications are passed up, and partners like to send them out themselves even if they've been drafted by someone junior.”
"I'll be sweating when a document I've paginated is being looked at."
The banking department – home to a few trainees at a time – acts for well-known names like Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Lloyds, RBS and HSBC. The team recently advised Deutsche Bank on the restructuring of two loans to an Israeli borrower worth $110 million. Lawyers act for borrowers too: they recently advised the Eclectic Bar Group on an £18 million financing to acquire Brighton Pier. Trainees told us they often have a hand in “lower-value deals which happen more often – those involve template forms on which you fill in the blanks.” Though it starts out with “following A to B to C, that changes as you go along” and "on bigger deals it's not so generic." Trainees also run conditions precedent checklists and draft board minutes and corporate authorisations. “I draft them, pass them on to lenders' counsel, reach agreement, then set them aside ready for the closing. It's not a thrilling process, but it's a necessity.”
Trainees who'd done a seat abroad agreed “it's a great experience" that allows you to "get to know the international offices." One said: "Sometimes in London I do forget we're so international and all the things going on outside London.” Trainees don't necessarily get tons of responsibility abroad, with many involved more in business development. “About half the overseas offices provide good work and qualification opportunities,” one trainee believed. Getting yourself an overseas seat is a competitive business, and some interviewees felt “the issue with going on secondment is that it removes an option when it comes to qualification.” The firm's somewhat shaky retention figures of late had put some trainees off packing their bags.
Speaking of retention, one source told us: “If there's one fly in the ointment of the training contract it's the qualification process.” Recent figures had not inspired confidence in our interviewees (the firm retained 28 of 40 qualifiers in 2016 and 31 of 47 in 2015). “Most departments are hiring, but there's not many spots," said one source. "We're not guaranteed a job.” In particular, trainees complained that despite the firm demanding plenty of trainees sit in real estate, that department was offering significantly fewer jobs than expected. Many trainees spoke of “a slowdown in summer 2016” related to the Brexit referendum, and told us “departments are adjusting to expected workflows.” We did however hear the firm's “getting more transparent about how the qualification process works.” Some departments interview, and “some have a formal written exercise too,” but that depends on competition for jobs. In 2017, 27 of 44 qualifiers were eventually retained.
Hours are a perennial worry for anyone pursuing a legal career. One BLP trainee summed up their situation: “I think the hours are alright. They're not amazing, but maybe in the City you get a warped view. In corporate and finance seats you might leave at 10pm for weeks, but then leave at 6pm for weeks. Other seats like real estate or litigation are better: you'll regularly finish at 7pm, but you do work religiously throughout the day.” Occasionally even those seats provide am finishes too, but trainees seemed to be managing overall. Some even described “enjoying the adrenaline that comes with closing a deal. People are friendly and make the longer hours enjoyable. And if it's a big client, they will take you out to celebrate with lunch or a dinner. I've also worked on teams where you're given a week or so to be more relaxed before you're flung onto another deal.”
When the workload ratchets up, patience prevails. “I'm sure I've made mistakes, but what I'm always told is: 'don't panic'. If you're overworked, it's better to let someone know.” One trainee told us of the firm's culture: “Lawyers will say good morning and take an interest in your life outside work. There are ad hoc drinks in some teams and people go down for lunch together, which are both good ways to meet people across seniorities.” Another added: “You can rarely tell how senior someone is by speaking with them.” Among trainees too, “nobody dumps you in the shit.” Trainees also have supervisors, trainee buddies and partner mentors to grab a second with. One told us: “I meet up with my partner mentor once or twice every six months, but it's up to you how often you want to.”
Training is mostly departmental. The sessions, led by knowledge development lawyers, are “front-loaded so you know what you're doing when you come to it. It's still easier to learn while you're doing, so you do zone out a bit during training, but at least you know what to look out for.”
When it comes to the social side, “corporate and finance have weekly drinks trolleys,” and corporate also has curry nights. There are football and netball teams and a trainee social committee that organises events, “but it's very much up to you to find a group to hang out with – you're not expected to go to everything.” Other events packing the calendar include a stand-up comedy night and a 'beat the board' quiz, pitting staff against board members.
London lawyers reside in Adelaide House, a Grade II-listed office block from 1925, which has a mix of open-plan and individual offices.
How to get a BLP training contract
Training contract deadline (2020): 31 July 2018
BLP gets around 2,500 applications each year for its 40 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 60 vac schemers a year, spread across three placements. There's a week-long winter scheme, plus two 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.”
The silver circle explained
Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP
- Partners 148 (200 globally)
- Associates 433
- Total trainees 114
- UKoffices London, Manchester, Overseas offices 14
- Contact Graduate recruitment: [email protected], 020 3400 1000
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 40
- Minimum required degree: 2:1
- Minimum required UCAS points: 340
- Vacation scheme places pa: 80-100
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: September 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: June 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: September 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: January 2018
- Open day deadline: October 2017
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £40,000
- Second-year salary: £45,000
- Post-qualification salary: £70,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £7,200
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Manchester, Hong Kong
- Overseas seats: Abu Dhabi, Brussles, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore
- Client secondments: AIG, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, Heathrow, Tesco
Main areas of work
Client secondments are a popular choice, and there is also the opportunity to undertake an international seat in either our Brussels, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai or Abu Dhabi offices.
You will get to choose the departments you sit in and will be assigned a trainee ‘buddy’ who you will shadow. You will very much be considered ‘part of the team’ and will be involved in every aspect of the department from client meetings to court runs and work with senior lawyers.
Apart from actually doing real client work, you will also attend a series of partner-led talks and workshops, to help build up your knowledge about BLP and also improve your skill set. Alongside the work, we also host numerous social events throughout the vacation scheme which provide the opportunity to network with firm representatives.
The duration of the programme varies from 1 to 2 weeks, and students are paid £325 per week.
Open days and first-year opportunities