As its trainees roam freely across East Anglia, this regional firm is smartening up the offices that house them.
Ipswich it up
This might be the first time you've ever cared to wonder which counties make up East Anglia. Norfolk and Suffolk are a given, and although the Anglo-Saxons got their knickers in a twist about Cambridgeshire joining, we can let that one slide. The real issue is with Essex: since TOWIE, neither East Anglia nor the Home Counties are that thrilled about having them in their gang. But Birketts, one of East Anglia's leading law firms, takes a more inclusive view, with bases in all four counties and roots in the region going back more than 150 years.
The firm's Chambers UK rankings speak for themselves – Birketts is top tier in the region for litigation, mid-market corporate M&A, construction, planning, private client and a host of other disciplines. There's been no resting on these laurels, though – after a 2016 move to roomier digs in Cambridge, Birketts commissioned the construction of new Ipswich premises to be completed in 2018. “It shows they're investing and want to grow the firm. There's a very upbeat atmosphere,” trainees said, pointing to repeated growth of the trainee intake in recent years. Historically, many recruits have come from the University of East Anglia, but the firm has moved away from this recently to bring in a more diverse cohort.
At the time of our calls eight trainees sat in Ipswich, four in Norwich and three apiece in Cambridge and Chelmsford. Newbies are however “encouraged to move between offices over the course of their training contract,” and most do at least one seat away from their home base “to get a broader experience.” The firm provides additional travel compensation for movers, though some felt “we could do with more” and a few were disappointed to be allocated a seat somewhere they didn't want to go. Others reasoned “it's what we signed up for, and sitting in multiple offices is a great way to get to know people across the whole firm.”
After their pre-allocated first seat, trainees settle where they'd like to go next in mid-seat meetings with HR. Almost all trainees spend time in the corporate department as well as in commercial property. Seats are often available in multiple offices “so you can always go somewhere else if there's no space where you're based,” an option several of our interviewees had gladly taken up.Those who are certain where they want to qualify will often repeat a seat in that department “to ramp up experience before qualification,” though “it's certainly not rare to do a distinct fourth seat” either. The NQ process is pretty informal – interviews are only necessary if multiple trainees apply for one position. In 2017, all ten qualifiers were retained.
The Village Green Preservation Society
Birketts' corporate department acts chiefly for regional clients, plus a few more national businesses, including East Anglia care home group Black Swan, Norfolk's Autumn Foods and Staffordshire-based Palletforce. The firm also works on a smattering of low-level cross-border matters, like advising Cambridge-based laboratory equipment supplier Expedeon on its €35 million reverse takeover of Frankfurt-listed Synis AG and acting on the £27 million sale of medical supply store Medisafe to US healthcare company Steris. The department has also developed a flair for helping tech companies in the early stages of growth. “Clients are more demanding in corporate than elsewhere,” one trainee revealed. “We've dealt with share acquisitions, listings on the London Stock Exchange and quite complex banking transactions.” Trainees are “kept really busy” and will typically “handle due diligence, draft ancillary documents for larger deals, and attend a lot of client meetings.”
"...that was scary, though I didn't appreciate at the time how good an opportunity it is.”
Commercial property works for a mix of public and private sector clients including Lloyds Bank and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, as well as handling residential and commercial developments and acquisitions. Most trainees got to see both residential and commercial work, but “took on more of a leading role on smaller residential transactions. The expectation is you'll get stuck in and you'll be fine.” Though the bulk of the 18-partner team is in Ipswich, Birketts' whole network plays a role: the Norwich crew advised on Norwich Rugby Club's multimillion-pound relocation to a facility owned by the University of East Anglia. Interviewees said that Land Registry work in particular landed them good levels of responsibility. “It's quite form-based and methodical," one said, "and that allows you to get comfortable with that side of practice.”
Keeping it real (estate), a property litigation seat can cover land law, agricultural tenancies and telecoms property litigation. Disputes over common land and village greens often crop up. It's a surprisingly nuanced area: lately, the firm represented the defendant in an application to de-register Mistley Quay on the Stour Estuary in Essex as a village green, which would completely transform its legal status. Sources were “really happy with the responsibility levels in the seat,” getting torun their own matters and in some cases even “go to court and do advocacy of my own – that was scary, though I didn't appreciate at the time how good an opportunity it is.”
Over in commercial litigation, trainees “are left to draft as much as they can, and go to lots of client meetings.” Tech firms like Elektron and medical supplier Clement Clarke can be found on the client list. Cases are usually worth a couple of million at most: for instance, the firm recently represented Alterra Farms in a £2 million dispute over a contract to promote itself as a wedding venue, which it came to see as oppressive and threatening to the business.
“A great mix of contentious and transactional work” lands in the laps of trainees sat in employment. The department acts for clients in the health, energy and facilities management sectors and deals with everything from contracts and TUPE matters to immigration and modern slavery. Household names like Betfair, Bernard Matthews and Just Eat turn to Birketts for employment advice; the firm helped the last of these to enhance the proficiency of its HR department. “Little things like bundling, research and reviewing staff handbooks” dot a trainee's diary. One interviewee told us: “I was involved in High Court cases and Employment Tribunals, as well as running my own matters with minimal supervision. It's sometimes nice to spend time doing photocopying to give your brain a break!”
Birketts friends forever
Birketts' trainees are a chummy bunch: they recently organised a trip to Amsterdam together, and wallowed in the mud at Glastonbury. The firm itself puts on an all-office Christmas do and summer quiz (“everyone's invited, there's a free bar and it gets quite competitive!”) and offices host their own events including barbecues and sports tournaments.
The firm's current Ipswich office is right in the town centre in a charming listed building, though we're told that inside it's “not the nicest place to look at right now, as we're all squashed in waiting for the new office.” Cambridge's brand-new digs near the station are more popular, and in Chelmsford the office looks like a small stately home and sits in “lovely gardens” with an on-site cafeteria offering “distractingly good snacks.” The Norwich base, meanwhile, “is in a great location on the river, and from the top-floor boardroom you can see the whole city.”
“You're rarely in until stupid o'clock.”
How long trainees spend in the office varies by department –corporate comes with later than average finishes, while contentious departments and property are “a lot more consistent, and everyone tends to finish about sixish.” A corporate source reported: “On some evenings I've been in until 10pm, and once or twice I've had to work through the night.” The latter is unusual though, and “you're rarely in until stupid o'clock.” That leaves plenty of time for “really useful” departmental training webinars, which follow on from a broad crash course at each seat's start. “When you're a first-year you get a buddy,” sources also told us. “That's someone who's not a supervising partner but has lots of experience, so you can ask silly questions.” Also helpful were mid-seat reviews and end-of-seat evaluations where trainees or supervisors can flag up concerns.
In case you were wondering: it's pronounced BURR-kits not bur-KETTS.
How to get into Birketts
Training contract deadline (2020): 31 July 2018
Applications and trainee profile
The vast majority of Birketts' trainees come through the summer vacation scheme, and the firm strongly advises applicants to go through that route. “It's important that candidates make it clear on the application form why they want to join Birketts specifically,” recruitment officer Suzannah Rogers tells us, “it's crucial that they understand our culture and ethos by doing research. Networking with members of our community makes all the difference.” 120 UCAS points at A Level and a 2:1 degree are the standard requirements, and the firm favours applicants with some form of work experience be it law-related or otherwise – “we want them to be able to demonstrate a work ethic,” says Rogers.
Birketts receives between 150 and 200 applications for both its vacation scheme and training contract each year. Commitment to the East Anglia region is essential, particularly as many of the firm's clients are local. Rogers explains that “we don't want people to apply here thinking they'll 'give a regional firm a go'; we like to see commitment to the location.” Wannabe vac schemers apply to a particular office (all four run a programme), and the graduate recruitment partner in each will look for different traits – again, networking in advance will be a big help to get the lay of the land.
Vacation scheme candidates go through a 45-minute interview conducted by two partners at the office they've applied to. At this stage, the firm will already have vetted applicants' academic credentials, so the focus is on skill set and fit. Candidates are asked to prepare a ten-minute presentation on a topic of their choice in advance of the interview. “The biggest mistake they make is not bringing the presentation back to themselves and their skill set,” Creativity is welcome, but make sure you reinforce why you'd be a good candidate for a spot on the vacation scheme.
Between 22 and 24 places are available each summer. Vac schemers rotate through a four-seat 'mini training contract', and the majority will spend time in corporate and commercial; property; private client; and a contentious department. More niche areas may be available, but it depends on the office a vac schemer is based in. The work is designed to replicate trainee tasks as closely as possible, and includes shadowing meetings, preparing contracts and going to court if the opportunity crops up. There's also a social side to the programme, which includes an all-trainee lunch, a firm-wide quiz evening (during which hosting colleagues usually put on a dress-up skit), dinners and drinks. A mock trial and a Q&A session with partners also helps vac schemers to get to know the firm and its work.
At the end of summer, all those who want to be considered for a training contract are asked to write a short piece on what they've learned during the two weeks and why they'd make a good trainee. Some departments will invite candidates for an informal coffee, but there are no official interviews after the vacation scheme, which acts “as a two-week interview,” Rogers tells us.
Living and working in Cambridge
1 Gilders Way,
24-26 Museum Street,
22 Station Road,
New London Road,
- Partners 59
- Associates 222
- Total trainees 20
- UK offices Cambridge, Norwich, Ipswich and Chelmsford
- Graduate recruiter: Suzannah Rogers, [email protected], 01473 406232
- Training partner: Matthew Newnham, [email protected]
- Training contracts pa: 12
- Applications pa: 250
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: BBB/120 points
- Vacation scheme places pa: 24
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 February 2018
- Training contract deadline 2020 start: 31 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 January 2018
- Salary and Benefits
- Current first-year salary: £24,500
- Current second-year salary: £24,500
- Post-qualification salary: £37,000-£38,500
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days + bank holidays
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
We are large enough to provide specialist expertise at a standard that is frequently compared with major city firms, but not at the expense of maintaining a personal and tailored service. We are flexible about everything except our reputation for maintaining the highest professional and ethical standards.
Main areas of work
You are likely to spend time in corporate, commercial property and private client teams as well as the firm’s specialist practice areas such as employment, litigation, shipping and agriculture. From the beginning of your training programme, you will have direct contact with our clients. You’ll feel valued and involved, and will see first-hand the importance of going the extra mile.
Our trainees have regular meetings and a more formal mid and end of seat review ensuring that they receive regular, constructive feedback on their progress.
We welcome anyone to the scheme who fits our academic criteria and is available to start a training contract in two years’ time, ie penultimate and final year law students, final year non-law students and graduates.
All applications for training contracts should be made using our online application system.
What will the interview be like? We interview between 35 to 40 potential summer placement students . You will be interviewed at the office to which you have applied by two partners and the interview will last 45 minutes. You will be asked to present for 10 minutes on a topic of your choice.
• Life Assurance
• Contributory pension scheme
• Private Medical Insurance
• Permanent Health Insurance
• Interest free season ticket loan
• Discounted legal services
• Subsidised gym membership
• Cycle to work scheme
• Childcare vouchers
• Social events
University law careers fairs 2017