“Bevan Brittan is one of the best law firms for public sector work,” trainees stated proudly, but this Bristol-born outfit is also looking to expand its dealings in both the private and third sectors.
In the immortal words of the much beloved film Ratatouille: “If you focus on what you left behind, you will never see what lies ahead!” Wise words to live by, and Bevan Brittan has clearly taken them to heart. Gone are the days of 2013, when redundancies and practice group reshuffles saw the firm ditch its least profitable departments (like tax and licensing). Now all systems are go: hot on the heels of the shake-up, BB rebranded itself as “lawyers for the public, private and third sectors.” This rejig had the desired effect:revenues have increased for two consecutive years, with an8% hike to£37.7 million posted in 2016. Training principal Steve Eccles tells us that “15 years ago we were predominantly seen in the market as a health firm and while that's still a significant proportion of the work that we do, the amount of local authority, housing and private sector work we attract has grown considerably over the last 12 months.” This has meant that while the firm has retained historic clients like NHS Resolution (formerly known as the NHS Litigation Authority), it's also added a few new names to the roster, including several major city councils.
As part of its growth strategy, BB opened an office in Leeds in 2015, complementing its offering in Bristol, London and Birmingham. “We're now fully functioning in Leeds,” explains Eccles. “We're well stocked with quality lawyers and it's been a profitable venture in its first year, which is great. We thought there would need to be a lead-in period, but the teams we brought in have immediately generated impressive revenues. We've got a trainee there and we've got plans to take on more.” So where's next? Eccles says that “while we’ve got no plans to launch into new international markets, we continue to consider whether we should open another office in England. After the success of Leeds, Manchester would be a natural next step for us – but there are definitely no concrete plans yet.”
“lawyers for the public, private and third sectors.”
However, some of our interviewees felt that attention needed to be paid to BB's Birmingham office before any new bases were added. Sources here noted that “quite a few people have left and I don't think many of them have been replaced. There were no NQ spots and I'm not too sure why.” Some speculated whether the office had “relied too much on London and Bristol for work, instead of generating more of its own.” We asked Eccles for his view on this point: “We remain very committed to the Midlands legal market and a number of our national and regional clients operate out of Birmingham. As a firm, we have a dedicated group focusing on growing the Birmingham office and we're currently talking to some really impressive senior lawyers who have expressed a real interest in joining our Birmingham team to complement the skills we already have there.”
At the time of our calls London housed the most trainees – eight – while seven were based in Bristol and three called Birmingham home (one split their time between London and the Leeds office). Across the offices Chambers UK bestows top-class nods on BB's healthcare, local government, clinical negligence and professional discipline expertise. The bulk of its regional rankings are attributed to its Bristol base, which picks up high praise for its construction, employment and social housing work.In all locations, the first seat is automatically allocated. Before subsequent rotations a list of available seats is sent around and trainees are asked to rank three preferences. Second-years get priority and our sources didn't mind that. “They do try to accommodate your preferences as much as possible,” one Bristolian revealed. “It's a fairly open process and if you haven't had a seat you really want they'll try their best to get it for you by your last seat.” Birmingham newbies, however, told us that “we're a smaller office so it's kind of inevitable that we'll repeat seats. Sometimes it can feel that allocation's based on the whim of the partners.”
The clinical risk department offers seats in both clinical negligence and medical law. Most of our sources had sat in the former. “I absolutely loved it, because it was so interesting,” gushed an insider. The team's biggest client is NHS Resolution (formerly the NHS Litigation Authority). Sources explained that “it makes up about 90% of the work we do, and the rest is from a handful of private insurers. We mainly defend claims brought against NHS trusts though; cases can range in value from a few thousand to the millions.” Sources had worked on a lot of cerebral palsy/birth defect matters, as well as “spinal surgeries gone wrong,” botched vasectomies and misaligned toes. “I've got a weak stomach, but I can cope,” one resilient trainee declared. When they're not trying to maintain their composure, you can find newbies drafting defences, interviewing witnesses, writing witness statements and even doing a spot of advocacy: “I got to do that during a case management conference about a contested cost.” A recent high-stakes victory saw the team defend the Birmingham Women’s NHS Foundation Trust against a £6 million claim after a birth resulted in brain damage to the child and an emergency hysterectomy performed on the mother. Another case saw the department act for the London Ambulance NHS Trust and St George's Healthcare NHS Trust, after damages were brought under the Human Rights Act: the matter concerned the alleged delay in treating a prisoner who later died of natural causes.
“You encounter a broad array of medical issues.”
Over in medical law the focus is on inquests, which occur before a matter becomes a claim. Trainees here tend to work alongside a number of different partners, and begin by keeping tabs on all relevant medical records, and rooting through disclosure lists to flag any problematic documents. The team also takes on a lot of Court of Protection work, where it helps NHS trusts to deliver appropriate medical care to patients lacking capacity. A recent example saw the team advise three public authorities during a complex case which involved a decision as to whether a 36-year-old woman should be sterilised against her wishes. Across both strands of the clinical risk department trainees stated that “you don't need a medical background to do this work: you encounter a broad array of medical issues – some of which are very technical – but we have experts in the team who can explain the terminology to you.”
The litigation and advisory regulatory group – or LAR as it's affectionately known – encompasses a broad mix: employment work, financial services spats, IT wrangles, public law challenges, defamation claims, fraud cases, negligence matters and more. Despite the presence of private and third sector clients – like Johnson & Johnson and Leonard Cheshire Disability – on the roster, “you mainly work on cases involving local government and NHS trusts.” Of late the group have been busy defending the London Borough of Merton during a challenge to its awarding of a CCTV maintenance contract; they've also acted for Kent Community Healthcare NHS Trust as it challenged a re-tender decision which saw it lose a contract to provide adult community services. Trainees told us that it's a “very document heavy seat. There's loads of prepping for case management conferences, mediations and inquiries. Trying to decide what's relevant and what isn't for the bundle is very time consuming, but it's really great to see a different slant to traditional litigation.” Beyond this, sources had been “researching public procurement and data protection rules for an ongoing inquiry as well asdrafting mediation statements.” On the more advisory side, there's “a lot of random stuff like looking into whistle-blowing regulations or looking into changes made to tax avoidance legislation.”
Over in the property team, rookies had been busy juggling a broad range of transactions, from regeneration projects and joint ventures to simple leases and disposals. Alongside commercial work there are subgroups in social housing and property litigation. The London branch of the department has been advising the City of London Corporation on the £200 million redevelopment of Smithfield Market, which will house the Museum of London; in Bristol the team acted for the South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, after it was sued by its ex-landlord for alleged breaches of lease covenants; while in Leeds the group represented Yorkshire Housing as it devised a plan to develop 1,500 affordable homes by 2018. Our Birmingham insiders explained that they'd “drafted a few leases for healthcare centres and doctors' surgeries,” while sources elsewhere had been allowed to take ownership of a few smaller matters: “It's not major stuff – more like licences and tenancy agreements, but it's a really good way to get your feet wet.”
“because everyone is really close-knit anyway – you can ask anyone anything.”
All incoming trainees get a trainee buddy and a mentor (a more experienced lawyer). While everyone thought this was nice touch, most had only used their mentors once or twice, “because everyone is really close-knit anyway – you can ask anyone anything.” Everyone attends an induction programme, which is held in the Bristol office and lasts for two days. “You run through things to get you started like time recording and how to use PDF software. There are always drinks afterwards, which is good because you get to meet the training principal in a relaxed way.” After that, departments host regular lunchtime update sessions on drafting and other practical skills. Mid and end-of-seat reviews round everything off: “They're a nice kick up the butt. You fill out online competency forms and then discuss whether you've met or exceeded expectations with your supervisor.”
Is it on the trolley?
So what makes this firm tick? Insiders were clear that it takes a special kind of person to become a Bevan Brittan lawyer. “It sounds ridiculous but I think BB attracts a certain kind of person because the work we do is socially valuable. We're all just really nice!” Aside from being a good egg, a healthy interest or demonstrated experience in the public sector can't hurt either. Most of our interviewees had picked up some experience working for local government, for a charity or within the medical industry.
The public sector angle doesn't just impact on the work and the hiring pool, but the social scene too. “We can't really be seen to be splashing out, because of who our client base is.” But that didn’t stop insiders from having fun. The type and frequency of gatherings depends on the office and the particular team. For example, property litigation “is very social, but it's more like the standard 'let's go for drinks' deal.” The clinical negligence team, meanwhile, likes to think outside of the box: “An associate organised a pinball competition at his house!” In Bristol, sources joked that “we have a cake trolley that comes around once a month, but in London they have a drinks trolley... so it's kinda like 'umm...what are we doing wrong here?!'” Birmingham has quite an active social committee that organises poker nights and theatre trips: “We've seen loads of shows, including Miss Saigon and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” However, Bristolians do get a special mention for their Christmas party, which saw “the partners providing the entertainment by auctioning off their services – one said they'd make the trainees tea every day for a week.” Despite the popularity of theseshindigs, some sources moaned: “There used to be a time when trainees would be quite good at going for a drink on a Thursday, but not so much any more. Some juniors still remember the good ol' days.”
One thing that sources had no qualms with were the hours. Most deserted their desks between 6.30 and 7pm on average, with late nights deemed extremely rare. This factored into trainees' thoughts on salary. “I think it's pretty good for Birmingham," a source there told us. "I've got friends who are on more, but they work ridiculous amounts. I also wouldn’t ever begrudge our London counterparts because of the price of living.” Our London sources told us that “the salary is again a bit lower because of the public nature of our work, but the atmosphere is just nice to be in.”
In 2017 the firm retained four of its eight qualifiers; three of those took up NQ jobs in London in the spring, and one was retained in Bristol in September.
How to get a Bevan Brittan training contract
Training contract deadline: TBD
The application form
Initial applications for a training contract or vacation scheme are completed online, and around 750 people apply for training contracts each year across the four offices. “The application form is geared towards gauging your understanding of the firm's target market,” we were told by trainees. “One of the questions referenced how the public sector is under the cosh and asked how the firm's strategy should aim to hedge that challenge.”
A level grades matter: the firm wants applicants who have attained 300 UCAS points. A 2:1 is also essential. Alternatively (if you don't meet these criteria), the firm is keen to accept your application if you have at least three years' commercial experience.
The assessment day
Shortlisted training contract applicants are invited to an assessment day at the Bristol office. The agenda includes a variety of assessments (including a written exercise) and a partner interview. Bearing in mind the challenges facing the public sector “you really need to show you can think outside the box,” one former vac schemer told us. “It's about being commercial, appreciating that it's a 'dig your heels in' moment and showing that you could be the sort of lawyer that will nurture client relationships to business coming in.”
The vacation scheme
Bevan Brittan runs two-week vacation schemes in each of its offices. After an initial induction and various exercises in Bristol, when vac schemers meet different partners, they go to their chosen office and spend a week each in two departments. Students are buddied with a trainee and have their own supervisors, with whom they work closely on live matters and set tasks. One former vac schemer remembered: “I was made to feel like one of the team, and there was no sense that lawyers were censoring their behaviour because I was there. I was involved in key strategic discussions, and they even moaned about the quality of the tea in front of me! I liked that honesty.” There are social events, too, and vac schemers always go out for drinks and dinner with the trainees in their office.
Vac schemers are assessed during their time in the two departments and get feedback, which forms part of their final assessment. They also undergo an interview with a partner.
The vac scheme is not fully paid but students receive complementary train tickets to attend the assessment activities in Bristol and a further £100 towards their travel expenses during the placement. You may earn more on another firm’s scheme, but if this firm is on your target list then do make a beeline for this scheme. “Although the firm doesn't recruit exclusively from its vac scheme, it's definitely a considerable boost to your application” revealed one trainee.
On both the vac scheme and during the training contract application process interview questions cover why trainees want to come to Bevan Brittan, and whether they are really sure of their interest in the public services sector. “The firm does tend to take on people with experience in the area,” revealed one trainee. “There are plenty of people here who have worked in the civil service or local government. Occasionally, we get former medical professionals looking to change career. Most of the candidates on the vac scheme are a little older than you'd expect and have gained a lot of hard skills in and around the public sector. Given that public service work is Bevan Brittan's key focal point, that understanding and experience really helps.”
With the firm keen to take on more private sector clients that operate in the public sector, commercial experience can also really boost your cause. Training partner Steve Eccles elaborates: “We're taking on an increasing number of private health providers as clients and would like to continue to boost that area. In addition, more than ever before, NHS bodies are having to operate as commercial entities and run themselves as viable businesses. Those clients therefore look to us to provide legal advice that is commercially savvy as well as being legally accurate, so we'll need people with good commercial understanding to better understand those clients' needs and meet their requirements.”
Diversity is also an important consideration, and the firm takes part in the Pathways to Law work experience scheme in conjunction with the University of Bristol and the University of Law. There are also informal work experience arrangements with local schools in Birmingham and London.
Interview with training partner Steve Eccles
1 Queen Street,
- Partners 53
- Assistant solicitors 146
- Total trainees 19
- Contact Graduate recruiter: Rachel Lloyd, [email protected], 0370 194 1737
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 8
- Applications pa: 500
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or three year’s relevant commercial experience
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: BBB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 20
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: TBD
- Training contract deadline, 2020 deadline: TBD
- Vacation scheme applications: TBD
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: TBD
- Salary and benefits
- First year salary: competitive
- Second year salary: competitive
- Post qualification salary: competitive
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £5,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Bristol, London, Birmingham and Leeds
Main areas of work
University law careers fairs 2017
• University of Bristol
• University of the West of England
• University of Exeter
• University of Birmingham