Following a series of mergers, Blake Morgan is working to expand its client base beyond the South.
Blaking a merger
The love child of Blake Lapthorn and Morgan Cole, Blake Morgan has six offices across South England and Wales. Following another merger in 2015 with London-based Piper Smith Watton, the firm has continued to grow its wide variety of practices. It’s hailed as a top national leader in employment outside of London in Chambers UK, and bags high marks for practices including real estate, IP, litigation, professional negligence, and banking and finance in the South, corporate/M&A and restructuring in Wales, and planning and social housing in the Thames Valley. The firm advises a mix of large corporates, SMEs, entrepreneurs, public sector bodies, charities, private individuals and families. At the time of our interviews, there were five trainees in London, four in Cardiff and Southampton respectively, three in Oxford and one in Reading.
We heard mixed but mostly good feedback about the seat allocation system. Before starting their training contract, trainees submit their top three preferences. Interviewees in smaller offices like Oxford and Reading pointed out that certain seats' availability is dependent on the team’s workload or budget. You should also know that some offices don’t offer the full range of seats: “It would have been useful to be told what was available where," one trainee grumbled. "Quite a few of us didn’t realise we wouldn’t be able to do a certain seat because of the office we were in.” Trainees can sometimes do seats in other offices, however, depending on demand. Second-years get priority over first-years, and the rest of the seats are allocated on a rolling basis. Some people praised this because “my interests changed after each rotation so my list of preferences was never the same twice.”
One seat that’s always popular is employment, part of the EPBI (employment, pensions, benefits and immigration) department. Clients include the RNLI, the University of Reading and Kerry Foods. The team also provides employment and HR support across the UK to a major aerospace and defence company, advising and providing training on recent legislation and best practice. The work is split between contentious and non-contentious, with lawyers helping companies and a small number of individuals (usually employees). Disputes are referred to the team by an insurer client and usually end up in tribunals. Typical trainee tasks include “preparing pleadings, bundling, instructing counsel, and ad hoc advisory work.” One trainee told us: “I was involved with updating HR policy books for clients, as well as dealing with respondents and claimants in terms of the particulars of the claim. I attended a lot of client meetings in person or via video conference, and made sure whoever I was assisting had all of their calendars up to date.” Litigious claims relate to discrimination, wages, unpaid holiday pay and unfair dismissal: “I assisted counsel and went to London a few times. I kept by the counsel’s side and kept them updated without supervision.” Another told us: “The hardest part of employment is that it’s quite a grey area and it’s constantly changing, unlike property, for example.” Interviewees experienced a high level of responsibility, even "too much for a trainee, especially in the first year!” However, happily “there was always someone to go to if I had any concerns, even though I was very much on the front line.”
“I assisted counsel and went to London a few times.”
If all these constantly-changing disputes are too much of a head-spinner for you, good old-fashioned bricks and mortar might offer more stability. The real estate team's varied work ranges from urban regeneration projects in the Solent region and elsewhere to more mainstream investment, finance and asset management assignments. Reading solicitors have expertise in areas like energy (especially solar power), healthcare and NHS projects, the banking side of things, and charities. Cardiff does similar stuff plus social housing, government and education (representing all South Wales'universities, among other clients). Interesting work highlights firmwide include helping US-backed high street banking newbie Metro Bank with freehold and leasehold aspects of its ambitious national roll-out programme. Another boiling hot client is coffee giant Costa. The Cardiff office, incidentally, made headlines of its own in 2016 when it moved to sparkling new premises at One Central Square in the regenerated heart of the city.
Several sources felt the property seat offers solid building blocks for their legal careers: “It was scary having my own files, but I learnt so much and really got to understand the transaction process. It’s really satisfying to complete a deal by yourself.” Responsibility is especially good "with smaller and private clients – I drafted and amended leases unsupervised." The caseload includes "landlord/tenant work, general disposals and acquisitions, as well as sales and purchases.” Likewise, in commercial real estate: “From day one I was given my own files." Trainees were busy processing and negotiating leases "under supervision," drafting deposit deeds, and "dealing with the Land Registry and stamp duty land tax returns to make sure clients didn’t incur a penalty.” There's more work available than just residential and office developments: “I was mainly involved in agriculture, acting for landowners and developers, doing development, promotional and option agreements, as well as reviewing all the searches and documents in the land registry with the client. I acted on both sides of the transaction so I got to see both sides of the coin.”
Over in commercial litigation, the London team primarily handles high-value, complex legal battles for national and international companies, financial institutions, and rich individuals. It recently won victory at the Court of Appeal for Georgian oligarch Ivane Chkhartishvili, part of global litigation in one of the largest ever estate disputes, following the death of a billionaire. Other clients include The Ritz Hotel Casino, Irish airline ASL, the NHS, the National Trust, and the Sixth Form Colleges Association. There's “a whole host of weird and wonderful commercial claims. We've had breaches of contract, professional negligence, judicial reviews, noise nuisance claims, family members not being included in a will, Equality Act claims... the list goes on!” As you can guess, this seat involves a lot of research. Cases usually settle, but if they don't then trainees can expect a trip or two to court, mediations and conferences with counsel, and plenty of bundling.
“...a whole host of weird and wonderful commercial claims.”
The clinical negligence team deals with high-value and catastrophic claims, mostly for claimants. “It’s an intense seat, and obviously it has those medical and personal elements, but I really enjoyed it.” Trainees get “involved in things like instructing counsel and experts and drafting witness statements as well as attending client meetings and counsel conferences.” Going to hearings, including at the RCJ, is a possibility: “I assisted in preparing the bundle ahead of the trial and then attended for a few days to take notes. Being taken along to conferences, hearings and meetings really made me feel involved.” Specific cases are unsurprisingly confidential, so we can't give you any work highlights for this seat.
The work of the ever-popular but relatively small charities team isn't publicly broadcast either, although we can name clients like Oxfam, the British Red Cross, the RSPCA and Age UK (whom lawyers in Oxford recently helped launch an accommodation and companionship initiative called HomeShare). Charities work can span a host of different practices: “I worked with a charity who wanted to change their name, so I single-handedly helped them to change it at Companies House, which involved filling out forms and filing them at HMRC and the Charity Commission.” Another had “reviewed files, prepared research notes, and attended loads of client meetings and trustee training sessions.” On the charity probate side, “you’re effectively working on estates, which is similar to private client work. It involves writing to banks and building societies to get cars and houses valued, collecting assets, and keeping the charities updated.” Insiders loved the variety: “I found it overwhelming at first because it covers so many areas: employment, property, corporate and probate law, but it’s actually really good to get such a broad experience.”
Each team has a business support lawyer on hand, and trainees are given monthly know-how sessions in which they’re given any updates on new laws or legislation. There’s also the Blake Morgan Academy programme, which allows trainees to sign up for various training classes: “I’ve just signed up for an event where HR teaches you how to get the most out of appraisals. I’ve also done sessions on how to be more assertive. There’s a big focus on trainee development personally and professionally, as well as legal knowledge.”
The Great British Blake Off
Following a week of PSC training at the start of the contract, trainees go their separate ways to Blake Morgan’s five separate locations – all except Portsmouth (which offers one seat and takes in a trainee from another office). Both London and Cardiff lawyers recently moved into new premises, while in Reading a makeover is in the works. The client areas in Southampton are “high spec,” but insiders said that the rest of the office and the Oxford branch “could do with a spruce-up.” Both the Southampton and Oxford offices are located in business parks on the outskirts of their respective cities: good news for those driving into work on account of the free parking – slightly less good news for the social side of things. Those in London, Reading and Cardiff enjoy the offices’ proximity to bars and restaurants: “The trainees are all going for dinner tonight and we have Friday night drinks every week,” one trainee in London told us. In Southampton, trainees serve drinks every Friday night in the foyer, which offers an opportunity for a spot of networking: “Trainees get their faces seen and the partners come and join in.”
“We’ve been in the papers recently for our charity fund-raising events.”
One hot topic this year was the firm's commitment to corporate responsibility: “We’ve been in the papers recently for our charity fund-raising events. It’s really important for people to get involved; we’ve done things like bake sales, charity abseiling down the Olympic tower, charity skydives, climbing and cycling. We’ve raised £5,500 in just over a year.” The Oxford branch also runs a mentoring scheme with Oxford Brookes which the trainees are encouraged to participate in: “We help students with things like training contract applications and getting work experience.”
Seat allocation was flagged up by a few trainees as an area for improvement in terms of transparency regarding which seats are available in which office. “Seat allocation is largely dependent on location and budget, which can put a halt on your career before it’s even started.” Another told us: “Communication between different levels is one of the firm’s downfalls: meetings are kept quite senior and trainees don’t find out about developments until they’re implemented.” There were also some concerns around pay, especially in Oxford where the cost of living is close to that of London. In 2016 only one qualifier out of six stayed on in Oxford (though this was also related to the available NQ spots). The firm responded that it is looking at benchmarking its salary based on what others in the region pay.
The hours were generally reported as being very reasonable, with most interviewees leaving the office around six: “I’ve only stayed late a handful of times, you’re encouraged to maintain a good work/life balance.” Trainees praised the level of client exposure across the board, and enjoyed the firm’s emphasis on voluntary and community work.
In 2017 the firm kept on all 16 of its qualifiers. Nice one!
How to get a Blake Morgan training contract
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 May 2018 (opens 1 November 2017)
Hopefuls looking to apply for a training contract at Blake Morgan must first complete an application form on the firm's website. According to graduate recruitment and development officer Siobhan Clarke the firm is “looking for attention to detail and evidence that applicants have sought out some legal work experience or have transferable skills from other commercial work experience.” Questions ask applicants to list evidence of key competencies – academics, communication skills, problem analysis skills and initiative – and also ask why they're looking to pursue a career in the law, why they've chosen Blake Morgan, and what hobbies they pursue in their spare time (Don't say: reading the law reports. Do talk about your love of taekwondo or whatever). “You're also asked to give your first and second choice regions for where you'd like to do your training contract,” a trainee added.
Assessment centre and interviews
After an initial sift, some 150 candidates are asked to complete a Watson-Glaser pre-screen test which tests critical thinking skills. Those who reach the set benchmark are invited to an assessment centre in one of their preferred regions, where “you're expected to complete a one-to-one interview with an associate, an individual task and a group exercise.” As it's just one-on-one “the interview isn't too daunting,” and focuses predominantly on how candidates meet the firm's set competencies. “A few minutes are left at the end to discuss more informal matters – extracurricular pursuits, that kind of stuff.”
In the group interview “we want to see how people work with others,” Siobhan Clarke reveals. “We don't just want the candidates who can shout the loudest, and it's important to make sure what you say is well considered. If your input is useful then you don't necessarily need to be the leader. Be polite, conscientious and open-minded, and do your best to adapt your style to suit other people.”
There are 55 lucky applicants that progress to a second round of interviews, which are held in the regional offices. A panel interview puts rookies in front of the head of graduate recruitment, the regional trainee partner and another partner from the office. In 2016 there was a new addition to the second round, with applicants given a legal scenario 15 minutes prior to their interview. “They are then asked to explain how they would approach the situation within the interview,” Clarke points out. After all is said and done, between 18 and 20 training contracts are awarded.
What advice would Clarke give to aspiring Blake Morganers? “Try to get as much legal work experience as possible,” she responds. Still, as the second round of interviews demonstrates, “we also want to see a passion for something other than the law, beyond the sphere of candidates' careers or academics. Charity work is big here and we expect trainees to get involved in CSR, so that's a good thing to have on your CV.”
The Welsh legal scene
New Kings Court,
- Partners 118
- Associates 230
- Total trainees 31
- UK offices: Cardiff, London, Southampton, Portsmouth, Oxford and Reading
- Graduate recruiter: Siobhan Clarke, graduate recruitment and development officer
- Training partner: Tony Coyne
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 18-20
- Applications pa: 500+
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum A levels: ABB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 45-50
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 November 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 May 2018
- Vacation scheme applications: 1 November 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 1 April 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: Competitive
- Second-year salary: Competitive
- Post-qualification salary: Competitive
- Holiday entitlement: 26 days plus your birthday
- LPC fees: Partial
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: Yes
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Cardiff, London, Thames Valley and South Coast
- Overseas seats: None
- Client secondments: Yes
With exceptional talent and leading lawyers working across southern England and Wales, Blake Morgan has a highly skilled workforce with 118 partners and over 1000 members of staff, giving our clients access to a wide range and depth of skills and experience. We act for large corporates, entrepreneurs and owner-managed businesses, public sector, charity organisations and private individuals.
Main areas of work
You will have a series of 6-month placements across a range of departments. We also offer client secondment opportunities. Working closely alongside partners and associates, the aim is to give you experience of a wide range of clients and work in both the private client and commercial practice areas.
Your seat supervisor will involve you directly in work so you learn from personal experience as well as observation and instruction. The more competence you demonstrate, the more responsibility we will give you.
We offer a comprehensive development programme (from courses to coaching and mentoring support) alongside the compulsory Professional Skills Course. You will have a review meeting every three months with your supervisor and the trainee regional partner to monitor your progress.
The final day is an assessment day where candidates will have a first-round interview with an associate and take part in group and individual exercises. The feedback we receive from your supervisor as well as the results from your assessment day help us to decide whether you will go through to the next stage of the recruitment process.
Open days and first-year opportunities
Brand Ambassadors: We’re looking for creative, passionate and personable individuals who are highly active on campus to represent the Blake Morgan brand at their university. As a Brand Ambassador you will work closely with the Graduate Recruitment team to:
• Advertise and generate interest in the firm’s vacancies and events
• Increase brand awareness within the relevant faculties, colleges, student societies and careers services
• Monitor brand perception on campus and report back regularly to the Graduate Recruitment team with recommendations for the next academic year
• Organise and manage Blake Morgan competitions on campus
• Support the firm’s social media recruitment campaigns
This list is not exhaustive and you may need to perform additional tasks as requested within this role. As a Brand Ambassador you will form a strong relationship with the firm and have access to the graduate recruitment team.
You will also increase your experience in marketing and networking which are key skills for a successful lawyer.
University law careers fairs 2017