Into tech and IP but don't want to clip your wings working somewhere too niche? Try London mid-sizer Bird & Bird.
Everybody's heard Bird & Bird is the word
The early bird, as they say, catches the worm, and Bird & Bird's been up hunting since 1843. During the Industrial Revolution the firm represented clients in the coal and steel industry, as well as the first ever electric lightbulb manufacturer. Today this sector-focused law firm flits between industries as varied as aviation, energy, food and drink, and healthcare. Twobirds (as the firm calls itself) has long been known for its work in the technology and IP spheres, and reels in some impressive Chambers UK rankings on this front. Most of the trainees we chirped with were attracted to the firm's practices, with tech, sports and media frequently cited as favourites. Those with an interest in the latter should take note, as our sources suggested that the firm is looking to beef up its offering in the area.
With 28 offices across Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, Twobirds has a similar global reach to some magic circle and US firms. In addition to the usual legal and financial hubs, there are bases in some more unique locations, such as Slovakia's Bratislava and Denmark's Skanderborg. The firm offers a regular secondment to its Brussels office, but newbies who want to work in any of the other offices will need to show a little initiative. “You have to bring it up with HR,” a trainee explained, “but they are very flexible.” So instead of restricting secondments to certain destinations, the firm leaves it up to trainees to decide where they want to go and make the business case for a sojourn. The ability to speak the local lingo is a must, and a good relationship with a partner in the locale will help to open doors. At the time of our calls, one trainee had bagged themselves three months in the Sydney office.
No pecking order
Birds of a feather may indeed flock together, but Twobirds' trainees come from a broad range of backgrounds. “While everyone gets on, everyone's pretty different,” one source relayed. “The youngest trainees are in their early twenties,” said another, “while the oldest are in their forties.” Some previous work experience will stand you in good stead, but isn't mandatory. “A lot of people have worked as paralegals for a number of years, or spent time in related industries,” said a source, “but I hadn't.” The firm doesn't favour any particular background – “any experience is good experience,” as one put it – but given how technical the firm's work can be, we're weren't surprised to discover former doctors and engineers in the 34-strong intake. Yet a whole flock of degrees, from law to languages, and physics to history, were also represented.
“Commercial and IP are the two biggest departments,” said one source, “and they're what the firm is known for.” So it's no surprise that “a lot of trainees come to Twobirds to do a seat in one or the other.” Before each seat rotation, fledglings meet with HR to have a relatively informal chat and submit a number of preferences for where they'd like to go next. The precise number, we're told, “depends very much on the person.” We heard of trainees who'd submitted as many as six choices and as few as one, although sources said it was advisable to put down “at least a couple, as they can't always satisfy everyone.” In years gone by, the firm guaranteed trainees at least three out of four first choices, but this is no longer the case.
“If you want to draft something, no one will object.”
Commercial consists of subgroups in sports, competition and franchising, technology and communications, data protection, healthcare and energy. Supervisors usually specialise in one sector, and while “it's natural to spend a lot of time doing your supervisor's work,” trainees didn't feel pigeonholed: “They think trainees should take advantage of being in such a diverse department, and assignments are sent out to all trainees.” Given that it's a big department and that “things have to be checked and double checked in contract law,” trainees are often responsible for research and proof-reading. “You get a good amount of responsibility, but you're not left to run with it in the same way you would in a smaller department,” one interviewee said. However, we heard the department's open to trainees getting more responsibility: “If you want to have a go at drafting something, like an advertising agreement, no one will object.”
While most sports are by their nature contentious, the commercial department's sports subgroup offers both contentious and non-contentious work. Some suggested it was even more popular with trainees than the wider commercial team; think of commercial as FC Barcelona, and sport as its Lionel Messi. With disciplinary bodies like the British Horseracing Authority and the International Paralympic Committee as clients, trainees can get involved in thorny regulatory issues like doping. Less controversially, the group advised the Six Nations (yes, all of them) on the tender of the competition's UK and Irish media rights; they also helped the British & Irish Lions negotiate a sponsorship agreement with Standard Life. “Everything happens quickly,” a sporting trainee explained, “and it's a very small group,” so there's a lot of responsibility to be had. On the contentious front, trainees get to dig into witnesses' backgrounds, draft cross-examination questions and cobble bundles together, while transactional work bestows a good helping of drafting: “I've done a few broadcasting agreements – a couple from scratch and some where I've contributed parts. I've also been involved in negotiations on contract matters.”
Like commercial, IP offers trainees a mix of contentious and non-contentious work, as well as both hard and soft IP. Pharma clients include Actavis, Teva and Merck, but the department also services telecoms outfits like BT and names from the food and beverage sector, like Monster Energy. Around 75% of the lawyers in the department boast a science degree, but it's not necessarily an impediment if you don't. “All of the pharma patents people probably have those degrees, but there are plenty of people working for IT and telecoms companies who don't have a techy background,” a source revealed. “Trainees aren't so bound to their supervisors,” in this department; “we're more like a pool.” There is, however, “quite a lot of admin,” but at least “it's interesting admin,” insiders optimistically reported. “I did a lot of trade mark clearance searches for retailers looking to OK names for their latest ranges, but I also drafted letters to clients advising them on the extent of their trade mark protection.” The group's currently acting for toy company Mattel – of Barbie fame – who claim that Zynga's app 'Scramble' infringes its trade mark on 'SCRAMBLE'; they also recently helped Actavis to obtain a declaration that an anti-cancer drug, Alimta, doesn't violate Eli Lilly's patents.
Not every corporate department lets trainees run their own files, but then again, not every one is as snug as Twobirds'. “Setting up a UK company for a client trading overseas – that's something a trainee might do,” said one source, as if incorporating a business was no big deal. Even when working on a supervisor's matter, trainees get the full spread of corporate tasks, like “drafting board minutes and resolutions, liaising with Companies House and doing the occasional post-completion matter.” All told, “it's possible to experience the full life-cycle of a business, from inception to exit.” In keeping with the rest of the firm, there's a TMT focus, but the group's also known for its work in the healthcare and energy spaces too. Recent highlights include acting for Sony Pictures as it bought five pay-TV channels from telecoms company Liberty Global; representing Bluefield Partners as it acquired the UK's largest solar farm for £56.5 million; and helping diamond producers De Beers acquire a stake in Synova, which produces diamond-cutting technology.
With departments like IP and commercial offering the chance to do contentious work, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Twobirds wouldn't need a dedicated disputes team. But you'd be mistaken. Disputes follows the traditional Birdian pattern of being broken into sector-specific specialities, although this arrangement is less formal than in other departments. “People have their own areas of speciality, like retail disputes, financial services litigation, or arbitration,” explained a trainee, “but these categories aren't formal subgroups.” The firm recently represented Polar Air Cargo in the mammoth British Airways price fixing case (worth several billion). “On larger cases you're on case management and bundling duty,” but we also heard from trainees who'd been able to “draft an emergency application for a freezing injunction and run the evidence for it – it ended up not happening but it was a good experience!”
The qualification process was “fairly typical of City firms,” in that solicitors-to-be have a chat with HR in which they express their preferences. Once they've collated everyone's views, the powers that be inform the various heads of department. There's stiff competition for some groups – like the aforementioned IP and commercial departments – but sources commended HR for managing expectations and keeping trainees in the loop through an “ongoing dialogue.” Retention's generally pretty good, and 2016 was no exception, as 16 of 18 qualifiers stayed on. When people do leave, we're told it's usually because they couldn't get a place in their chosen department.
For most of our sources, a typical day ran somewhere between 9am and 6.30pm, although “that's not to say that everyone walks out at 6.30pm sharp.” Late nights are par for the course at any law firm, but “if you're working anything past 8pm, you'll notice that the office is much emptier.” One source admitted that there are “plenty of times where I've been here until midnight or on the weekends,” but interviewees agreed that all-nighters are rare and that “the firm absolutely encourages you to have a life.” Regular social events help to keep things cohesive, and the annual inter-office football tournament was one of our sources' favourite fixtures. The tournament takes place in a different European city every year – the latest was held in Prague – and features both male and female teams.
While the “work/life balance isn't quite what it was four or five years ago,” sources confirmed that the Twobirds' reputation for “being a very nice place to work” remains “well founded.” We're told that this friendly culture “shines through at the assessment day,” where applicants “don't feel interrogated,” and continues throughout their career at the firm. While Twobirds' techy-ness and amusing name were definitely big draws for many of our interviewees, it was the firm's culture that sealed the deal. “I did a few vac schemes,” said one well-prepared source, “and the Bird & Bird people were by far the most sociable.” Without exception we hear the firm's birds are “incredibly down to earth,” and “don't have an ounce of pretentiousness to them.”
“There are posters around the office counting down the days!”
It's a fairly cosmopolitan place, with trainees coming from around the world, “which is good, as I like being in an international environment.” On the subject of diversity, our sources thought that while Twobirds isn't diverse “compared to the general UK population,” it performs better than other law firms. And while the firm still places a premium on “the top 20 or 30 universities,” it recruits more widely than similarly sized outfits. To improve diversity within the firm – and the wider legal profession – Twobirds invites students from inner-city schools for seminars and a week of work experience. Pro bono and charity work are also encouraged: folk from the firm volunteer every Tuesday at the South West Legal Advice Centre, plus “there are always emails asking trainees to assist in various charitable activities.” All employees can take one 'charity day' a year, which they can dedicate to altruistic endeavours without sacrificing either pay or a day of annual leave.
Twobirds' lawyers are still perched in three different buildings, but by the time you read this, they will have flown to brand new digs just up the road in 12 New Fetter Lane – bringing everybody under one roof for the first time. The trainees we spoke to couldn't wait to fly their current nest. “We're all very much looking forward to it,” said one; “there are posters around the office counting down the days!” Even the 'Bird Table' – the firm's canteen – will get an upgrade: “Instead of being in the basement like before, it'll be on the 13th floor and have a wrap-around balcony with views all the way to Piccadilly.” But incoming trainees won't just be getting to know their London-based colleagues: “In most departments there's an international aspect to the work we're doing, so you'll collaborate a lot with lawyers in the other offices, whether you're helping clients to protect their IP across the EU, or providing jurisdictional advice on employment law.”
Twobirds is not just moving for a better view: it's planning to boost its London head count by 25% over the next few years, both through lateral hires and internal promotions – hence the need for a bit more space.
How to get a Bird & Bird training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 5 January 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 30 June 2017
Training contract applications and assessments
Bird & Bird receives around 1,500 applications each year for its training contract. The first step in the process is a critical reasoning test, after which recruiters invite 60 candidates who made the grade to complete an online video interview in which they're sent a link and given a week to record their answers to a set of questions. From here, around 16 candidates are asked to attend an insight and selection day.
This sees candidates asked to demonstrate various competencies through three activities: a presentation and interview, a group task and a written task. Those who impress go on to a formal panel interview, which further tests these competencies. Insiders suggest coming armed with a thorough knowledge of your CV and just how your skill set equips you to work at the firm, and being prepared to defend your interest in Bird & Bird over its peer firms. As one trainee pointed out: “The firm is into deep sector knowledge, so make sure you're ready to talk about the industries we work in.”
From here, training contract offers are made.
The majority of trainees at Bird & Bird enter the firm through its summer placement scheme. “They see it as an extended interview and good way for you to suss out how much you actually like the firm,” one trainee explained. The firm runs a one-week spring placement as well as a pair of two-week summer schemes. In total there around 34 places available each year.
Bagging a place starts with an online application form. The firm usually receives around 1,200 of these each year, and after a critical reasoning test it invites 250 applicants to undergo an online video interview. Around 90 of those who impress go on to complete the insight and selection day outlined above (minus the panel interview), and from here the firm decides who gets a place.
Attendees are assigned a trainee buddy and a supervisor each, and they sit in a single department during their visit, though they work on an ongoing task over the course of the three weeks that sees them engage with lawyers across the firm. This task is updated every year, though it's usually a research task that culminates in a panel presentation.
Vac schemers are automatically assessed for a training contract, and attend a short interview with a member of graduate recruitment and the training principal at the end of their placement.
Bird & Bird doesn't have a cookie-cutter trainee type. In 2016 our sample of interviewees had a wide range of degrees between them – from languages to psychology to technology, to name just a few – as well a decent spread of universities, with Nottingham, Newcastle and Oxford all cropping up.
That said, the usual credentials – 2:1-plus results, excellent A levels, commercial awareness and interpersonal skills – are firmly required. Insiders told us Bird & Bird is particularly interested in “people who are willing to engage with the firm more broadly than simply doing their work and going home.” At the same time, they agreed it's important for applicants to have other interests outside of law. “You'll find trainees here all sorts of strings to their bow,” said one. As such, be sure to mention in your application if you're a keen volleyballer, watercolour wizard or crochet champ.
Trends in the technology sector
Bird & Bird
12 New Fetter Lane,
- Partners Over 280*
- Fee earners Over 1,100*
- Total trainees 36 in London
- *denotes worldwide figures
- Contact Trainee development team firstname.lastname@example.org
- Method of application Online application form via the firm website
- Selection procedure Insight and selection days in February 2017 for the vacation schemes and September 2017 for training contracts
- Closing date for 2019 30 July 2017 for law and non-law students
- Training contracts pa 18
- Applications p.a. 3,000
- % interviewed at first stage p.a. 30%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary
- First year (2015): £38,000
- Second year (2015): £40,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa Varies
- Post-qualification salary (2016) £62,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2016) 88%
- Overseas offices Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Bratislava, Brussels, Budapest, Copenhagen, Dubai, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, The Hague, Hamburg, Helsinki, Hong Kong, Luxembourg, Lyon, Madrid, Milan, Munich, Paris, Prague, Rome, Shanghai, Singapore, Skanderborg, Stockholm, Sydney Warsaw
With offices in Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Bratislava, Brussels, Budapest, Copenhagen, Dubai, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, The Hague, Hamburg, Helsinki, Hong Kong, London, Luxembourg, Lyon, Madrid, Milan, Munich, Paris, Prague, Rome, Shanghai, Singapore, Skanderborg, Stockholm, Sydney, Warsaw and close ties with firms in other key centres in Europe, Asia and the United States, the firm is well placed to offer its clients local expertise within a global context.
The firm is proud of its friendly, stimulating environment where individuals are able to develop first class legal, business and interpersonal skills. It has an open and collegiate culture reflected in its strong retention rate and assistant involvement. The firm is structured with a very strong international perspective to its culture – integrated teams working for cross-border clients as well as a range of international sport and social activities enables this.
At Bird & Bird, there is a genuine commitment to acting as a responsible employer and also as a proactive member of its local and wider international communities. The firm has a full programme of corporate social responsibility initiatives and policies in place, which fall under three broad areas: people, community and environment.
Main areas of work