With revenue on the up, a new office and expansion beyond its public sector roots, Brittan's definitely showed it's got talent.
Fortunes have changed for Bevan Brittan since we last covered the firm in 2013. Back then, the firm – which drew a significant amount of its revenue from public sector clients – was feeling the effects of the coalition government's programme of cuts. Couple this with unprofitable expansion into more corporate areas like banking, and you can see why BB conducted three redundancy rounds and scrapped its least lucrative practices (like licensing and tax, among others). The Bristol-headquartered firm then reduced its remit and rebranded as the UK's go-to “public services law firm.” In doing so, it sent out the message that it was still backing its traditional clients (like local authorities and NHS trusts), but narrowing its focus on private sector clients to those that also assist the public sphere.
Fast forward a few years, and BB's re-jig appears to have worked a treat. After years of either sliding or static financial results, the firm's figures turned a corner in 2015, when revenue rose by 5.7% to £34.9 million. There was even enough change left in the kitty to set up a new Northern hub in Leeds, with the help of some laterals from national juggernaut DWF. The office – which opened in September 2015 – “is well located to serve our northern client base,” says training principal Steve Eccles. “The Department of Health, who we act for, for example, has a key office in Leeds and a number of our clients are either based there or have offices nearby." BB Leeds took on its first trainee in September 2016.
Now that it's back in gear and cruising comfortably, BB's foot is staying on the pedal. A new tagline –“Lawyers for the public, private and third sectors”– highlights BB's return to dabbling in more purely private sector work. That's just one part of an ambitious plan to bump up revenue to £60–80 million within the next five years. While reports say that current managing partner Duncan Weir isn't looking to pursue a full-scale merger, he is looking to make several lateral team hires and conquer new cities. So what would a gander at BB's TomTom reveal? A trip up the M6 to Manchester would be "a natural progression from our expansion into Leeds," says Eccles. "At the moment nothing is off the agenda, but there's no definite plan or time frame set. It's somewhere between a reality and an aspiration for now.”
For now, Bristol, Birmingham and London are the key takers of new trainees: at the time of our calls London housed the most – seven – while six were based in Bristol and four in Birmingham. Chambers UK recognises BB's public sector prowess across all three offices. Its construction, employment and social housing departments are also highly regarded.
Bristolians get to pick four seats from a selection including clinical risk; commercial and infrastructure; litigation; advisory and regulatory; employment; and property. The firm doesn't enforce any compulsory seats, though most of our sources had visited clinical risk at some point. It's also worth noting that in Birmingham “the options are a little more limited, so it's fairly common to repeat seats.”
The clinical risk department offers seats in both clinical negligence and medical law. The former strand picks up top Chambers UK marks for its defence work; the team often represents the NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA), though “we take on the occasional private medical malpractice insurer,” such as Marketform or CNA. Some big cases have furnished the group's recent work highlights, like its quashing of a £1.4 million spinal injury claim against a leading neurosurgeon on behalf of an NHS Foundation Trust. Our sources encountered “a lot of claims against doctors and caregivers relating to cerebral palsy and birth injuries, as well as strokes, heart attacks, aneurysms and fractures.” It was a popular seat, because “even if you don't have a medical background there are still some really interesting elements to explore.” Controversial 'do not resuscitate' claims “can be incredibly humbling to be involved with, as their outcome could potentially alter the Human Rights Act.”
“It's in the patients' interest to act as quickly as possible.”
What's more, rookies are afforded heaps of responsibility. “You start by reading through a lot of medical records to prepare summaries for fee earners, but by the end of the seat there's a good chance you'll have been to trials or settlement negotiations. I've even had a shot at quantifying loss of earnings claims.” Thankfully, the level of supervision is second to none: “You can barely send out an email without it being checked!” one trainee recounted. “The overarching majority of our work is for the NHSLA, so any slip-up could have significant repercussions for the department.”
Over in medical law the focus is on inquests, which occur before a matter becomes a claim. One insider elaborated for us: “Whenever there's a suspicious death or a suggestion that someone didn't receive the correct treatment, we'll help the NHS trust involved to deal with the Care Quality Commission's investigations.” Juniors 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. “Later on you get to draft position statements and inquest submissions,” relayed one trainee, “and I even had an opportunity to do an inquest on my own.”
The med 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. "It felt like the least legal part of my training contract,” one interviewee explained. “But don't take that as a negative: it's fascinating work, and fast-paced because it's in the patients' interest to act as quickly as possible. We have to attend a lot of meetings with clinicians to establish a recommended course of action, before drafting and submitting a very detailed treatment plan to the Court of Protection.” Trainees are usually responsible for managing documents, though “the swift pace means you occasionally have to step up and take on more associate-level tasks.”
The dispute resolution team is, as expected, a pro when it comes to contentious public sector work, with the NHSLA, the Department of Health, and a large number of UK local authorities on its books. But in recent years “it's definitely expanded to take on more private and third sector clients,” so you'll find the likes of G4S, Johnson & Johnson and Action for Children here too. Judicial reviews, as well as statutory and procurement challenges are the most common claims passing through the department's gates. A recent case saw the team act for the Bar Standards Board, as the Criminal Bar Association had brought a judicial review challenge against the BSB's proposed scheme to regulate advocates in the criminal courts. Our sources found that a “roll your sleeves up” attitude goes down a storm: “Early on you'll have to do your fair share of doc review, but the more you put in the more you'll be rewarded.” One added: “Towards the end of the seat I was managing a team of paralegals, and had direct input into the case's strategy. I think you're at an advantage if you already have a first career under your belt: a few people with that have been trusted to run projects with remote supervision.”
“There's a public sector law firm effect.”
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. Matters here mainly cover the health, local government and housing sectors: in recent months the group's worked on the £18 million sale of Dulwich hospital; the acquisition of affordable housing in a residential development near Swindon; and the sale of Weston-super-Mare's 'Winter Gardens' building to a local education provider. Newbies are given handover dockets from previous trainees that typically “encompass up to 50 small, low-value files.” It's then on them to keep those files running, fulfilling responsibilities usually reserved for fee earners, such as fee estimates and billing. “It's about as close as you'll get to an NQ position,” one trainee gushed, “though there's always supervision available if you need it.”
All incoming trainees attend an induction programme, which is held in the Bristol office and lasts for at least two days. “It's also a good way to get to know a few faces early on,” one nudged. From then on there's plenty of training on hand to ensure juniors' work is up to scratch. Departments host regular lunchtime update sessions, and trainees chip in to determine their content. “That's one of the best benefits of our petite intake,” one highlighted. “If there's something you'd like to cover, your voice will be heard as it's a small enough place.” Quarterly appraisals also help to track rookies' development, adding to the “feeling that the firm cares about making sure you're happy and advancing.”
Trainees put this development-driven culture down to “the public sector law firm effect.” One explained: “There's a certain kind of person who'll go for public sector law. We're very considerate of one another. That 'Wolf of Wall Street' mentality may be easier to adopt at more corporate-driven firms, but when a big part of what you do is helping the NHS to stay afloat, the vibe is very different.”
BB's public sector prestige also has a bearing on trainees' social calendar. “There's far less wining and dining of clients here,” said one. “We're mostly catering to the public sector, so I think the firm is cautious to splash the cash. Maybe we're a little paranoid, but it seems like too much corporate hospitality would be inappropriate in these austere times.” Still, juniors find ways to keep themselves entertained. “We're known as the fun office,” those in Birmingham boasted; with trainee-led quizzes, pumpkin carving and even Creme Egg-scoffing competitions, their social programme certainly bags an award for initiative. Bristol, on the other hand, “is a little more swanky,” with monthly socials encompassing wine tastings, brewery tours and even the odd trip to a local bowling alley. 'Give and gain' days also provide an outlet for bonding with a charitable twist. Green-fingered sources in London recently helped a local primary school with a spot of gardening, while Bristol organised a boat race to raise money for a charity that helps victims of sexual abuse.
All offices share expertise, but the amount of day-to-day interaction between them depends on the seat you're in. In clinical risk, for example, “we're less likely to collaborate on cases as we all serve particular trusts in local regions.” Still, “we do train together via video conferences, and often people will head down to London if they have to appear at the RCJ.”
"There's no expectation that we'll work weekends or antisocial hours, so on the whole it's a fair deal.”
When it came to hours, London trainees felt a little hard done by, though their chunkier pay packets put rest to too many complaints. “There's definitely more of a tradition of heading home at a reasonable hour in the other offices,” said one Londoner. “You start to notice it when you give them a call at 5.45pm and can't get an answer...” Yet most trainees we spoke to claimed to desert their desks between 6.30 and 7pm on average, with late nights being extremely rare. The consensus was this: “Our salary is perhaps a little lower than expected for the work we do, but the nature of our client base and the extent of our current private sector involvement means it's appropriate. There's no expectation that we'll work weekends or antisocial hours, so on the whole it's a fair deal.”
BB trainees come from a range of universities, but many had previously spent some time in a public sector role. Some had completed stints in the civil service or local government, while others had originally trained as doctors or paralegalled at the firm – though there were still one or two who'd entered fresh from uni. “The application process is geared towards gauging applicants' understanding of our public sector client base,” revealed one interviewee. “If you've previously had exposure to some of our clients and can prove you know how to deal with them then that's clearly a huge plus.”
It's also important to consider the practical issues facing lawyers in the public sector. “It's still a difficult market at the moment, so you need to show you've thought about our strategy going forward,” one advised. “The firm is looking for people who can think outside the box, be commercial and appreciate that it's a dig-your-heels-in moment: we need those who will be great at nurturing client relationships, so that when things look up those clients will stick with us.”
“They do want us to stay on,” said relieved trainees. So qualifying is mostly about “whether there are vacancies in the departments that interest you, and you won't know that until the jobs list is published in May.” The firm had nine qualifiers in 2016; we'll publish how many it retained once the firm tells us.
How to get a Bevan Brittan training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 28 February 2017
Training contract deadline: 30 June 2017
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 verbal reasoning test) 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
Student Guide: After years of either sliding or static financial results, the firm's figures turned a corner in 2014/2015, when revenue rose by 5.7% to £34.9 million. And revenue grew again in 2015/16 to £37.7 million. What changes have taken place?
Steve Eccles: For a good while now the geographical range of our client coverage has been growing and we now have clients right across the country, from the North East to the South West. We knew Bevan Brittan was a national firm, but only had offices in the South and the Midlands. In our experience, clients like being able to pop round to get matters sorted, so the Leeds office is well located to serve our Northern client base and consolidate our presence there. The Department of Health, who we act for, for example, has a key office in Leeds and a number of our clients are either based there or have offices in the city or nearby.
SG: What will the new Leeds office cover?
SE: Leeds will never be a service office for us; it's a location that we feel will really allow us to make our presence felt in the North. We were very clear from the outset that if we opened an office there it wasn't to be a postbox, so we didn't rush the move. I think that's one of the reasons it's taken off so well.
SG: Are there any other plans for growth on the radar? Trainees seemed to think Manchester would suit the firm's client base?
SE: Expansion to Manchester would be a natural progression from our move into Leeds. At the moment nothing is off the agenda, but there's no definite plan or time frame set. It's somewhere between a reality and an aspiration for now.SG: Considering the firm's recent financial successes, how optimistic are you about the future?
SE: Our intention is to drive growth in all of our offices, and get Leeds – which already has a 30-strong team – up to a decent critical mass. Our aim isn't for it to be a little brother office; we firmly believe that we can grow Leeds to be as strong an operation as our other offices and that this will consolidate our position as a serious player in the Northern market.
SG: Are there any particular challenges facing the firm in the years ahead given its focus on the public sector?
SE: We have traditionally been very strong in the public sector legal market, and our focus in the past few years has been on embedding our position as the leading public services law firm. When I say public services, I mean the public sector and that element of the private sector that interfaces with the public sector – private waste disposal companies being a classic example – as we have unrivalled experience in that space. However, austerity has put pressure on rates and profitability in public sector work. So, while we are committed to remaining a market leader in that space we also want to increase our private sector activity – where price plays a less dominant role for clients in influencing buying decisions – and this is already happening.
SG: Why not just ditch the public sector work and look elsewhere?
SE: We took a deliberate decision several years ago not to be a 'jack of all trades' law firm. Where public services are concerned we've deliberately positioned ourselves to be a 'magic circle' firm in that market. That's a real USP for us and something we're very proud of. We don't want to dilute that market position by vying for work from large corporates indiscriminately – we will need to be more astute than that about the way we pitch ourselves to the private sector, and we have set up a specific market focus group to ensure that we give ourselves the best chance to grow our private sector base, but to do it our way and in a way that plays to our strengths..
SG: How's hiring looking over the next few years?
SE: Recruitment will definitely continue to be a priority. The one piece of advice I would give to applicants is that we're really on the look out for strong commercial brains. We're taking on an increasing number of private health servers as clients and would like to continue to boost that area. When you compare those kinds of organisations to the NHS, their concerns are naturally more commercially-based, so we'll need people with good commercial understanding to better understand those clients' needs.
SG: So are public sector clients of less interest to the firm now?
SE: Absolutely not – those commercial skills I mentioned are just as important for public sector clients, if not more important. Private sector clients typically bring that acumen themselves. For public sector clients there is an increased pressure to be commercial, but understandably not all of the staff have those skills. If we can provide lawyers to those clients who have that skill set, we're an attractive proposition.
- Partners 53
- Assistant Solicitors 147
- Total Trainees 18
- Contact 0370 194 1737
- Method of Application Online
- Selection Procedure Application Form, Verbal Reasoning Assessment, Telephone Interview, Assessment Centre
- Closing Date for August 2017 TBC
- Application No applicants per annum 510 Minimum degree – 2:1 or three year’s relevant commercial experience
- Training Competitive Salary
- Office Locations Bristol, London, Birmingham, Leeds
Bevan Brittan provides practical, high quality and commercially relevant legal advice to public, private and third sector organisations. Our experience includes working with clients across central and local government, NHS commissioning and provider organisations, 40 housing associations and over 100 private sector companies.
Main areas of work
Our services include advice covering outsourcing, major infrastructure projects and PFI, employment matters, regulation and governance, property, clinical negligence, construction, litigation and dispute resolution, and general commercial issues.
We recognise that the most important prerequisite of quality service is a team of lawyers dedicated to service excellence. Our success is maintained by attracting and keeping talented legal minds. We are looking for bright people with sound common sense and plenty of energy, who can think logically and clearly. You need drive, commitment, willingness to take responsibility and the ability to work and relate well with others.
The training contract is made up of four, six-month seats. During each seat, the core of your training will be practical work experience in conjunction with an educational programme. The training is aimed at developing attitudes, skills, legal and commercial knowledge which is essential for your career success. You are encouraged to take on as much work and responsibility as you are able to handle, which will be reviewed on a regular basis with your supervisor. The firm is friendly and supportive with an open-door policy along with a range of social, sporting and cultural activities.
Work placement scheme
Our award winning summer vacation scheme takes place in the first two weeks of July each year with places available in the London, Bristol and Birmingham offices. During the placement you will spend a week in two different departments enabling you to gain first-hand experience of two different practice areas, getting a real taste of what life at Bevan Brittan is like. You’ll be given real work to do and formal feedback on how you’ve done by each member of staff you work for. In addition to this there will be the opportunity to meet current trainees and network with people across the firm to find out more about the work and culture at Bevan Brittan.
Bursary and funding for GDL and LPC available.