The result of a 2014 merger, Blake Morgan now teeters on the edge of the law firm top 50, operating from offices along the M4 corridor and on the South Coast.
Since Blake Lapthorn merged with Cardiff-based Morgan Cole in July 2014, the resultant firm, Blake Morgan, has worked relentlessly to make a name for itself on Britain's legal scene. The firm's kept busy post-merger, with new developments following one another as if they are being ticked off a strategy shopping list. The London and Cardiff outposts have recently moved into new digs, which drew a thumbs-up from our interviewees for being a significant upgrade on the previous set-ups. There's also been another merger: in August 2015 the firm boosted its private client and real estate offerings by gobbling up Westminster's Piper Smith Watton, whose 12 partners have relocated to join their Blake Morgan colleagues in the shiny new London office. A new managing partner makes it a full house, with Walter Cha – head honcho for 16 years at Blake Morgan and previously Blake Lapthorn – making way for Mike Wilson, who'll be hoping to continue the firm's push into the top 50.
The firm advises a mix of large corporates, SMEs, entrepreneurs, public sector organisations, charities, and private individuals and their families. Spread out over six offices in England and Wales, Blake Morgan is “a regional firm that will appeal to trainees looking to get involved in high-quality work,” says graduate recruitment and development officer Siobhan Clarke. Our trainee sources also felt that while the work is high-quality, the firm isn't as high octane and demanding as chunkier commercial outfits.
Blake Morgan recruits trainees in six locations. At the time of our calls there were 12 in London (four of these on secondment from other offices), eight in Southampton, seven in Oxford, five in Cardiff, two in Reading, and one in Portsmouth. The training contract spans six four-month seats. For their first seat, trainees submit their top three preferences, though “where you end up is largely down to business needs.” Preferences are updated ahead of subsequent rotations, with priority given to second-years' requests. “Or so the firm says,” one Oxford trainee said sardonically. “There's a bit of a feeling that we could have done a better job organising seat allocation ourselves...” Down on the South Coast seat allocation also received mixed reviews, with the general verdict being that “it's not always apparent why certain decisions are made.” That said, we heard there are times when the firm pulls allocation off very well, and during the March 2016 rotation 95% of trainees nabbed one of their top three preferences. With one of the firm's smaller trainee intakes, Reading regularly sends juniors on six-month exchanges with its Thames Valley neighbour in Oxford. Portsmouth and Southampton have a similar arrangement.
Blake me up before you go go
Touted by one of Southampton's young guns as “one of the more fashionable seats to take on,” Blake Morgan's banking and finance department earns favourable rankings in Chambers UK. RBS, Barclays, Santander and Lloyds are all clients, and the last of these recently drew on the firm's acquisition and real estate finance expertise when it provided global ATM servicing company Cennox with a multimillion-pound loan to help it expand operations into the US. “A lot of the matters we work on as trainees are bulk transactions for lenders,” reported one South Coast source, “like loan transactions for SMEs, usually below the £3 million mark.” Rookies “effectively run these sorts of deals under supervision,” using templates to draft contract and security packs and other necessary documentation. On larger deals, “you're more likely to be running the conditions precedent checklist,” a source told us. “Honing your document management skills isn't glamorous, but learning how a matter runs from cradle to grave is invaluable.” It's worth noting that in Cardiff, banking is regularly offered as a split seat with corporate.
Blake Morgan takes on over 100 corporate transactions every year, and although these have been known to top the £100 million mark, the firm's recent work for Irish food company Kerry – which it helped snap up hot dog supplier Rollover for £20 million – is a more accurate indication of typical deal value. In fact, our trainee sources had been responsible themselves for running low-value deals for small businesses and entrepreneurs selling or expanding their holdings. “Working with smaller businesses is great because you get a lot of client contact,” beamed a Thames Valley interviewee. “You build a relationship with them, so when you get to completion it's an exciting time. They're usually extremely grateful that you helped them get there.”
“A steady increase in opportunity.”
Blake it till you make it
Lawyers in the commercial department assist public and private sector clients with their contractual links to suppliers, customers and collaborators. Like in commercial litigation, “there's a fair amount of healthcare work kicking about,” with clients ranging from private healthcare companies and device manufacturers to the NHS. Rookies in the Thames Valley said they'd also encountered “a lot of tech clients,” as well as “local government stuff.” We heard a few grumbles about the level of exposure given to trainees in this seat, with a Reading-based source disappointed to have been “consistently given fairly discrete responsibilities. I had plenty of research tasks – reviewing terms and conditions and reporting on the terms of a contract – but very few drafting opportunities.” One Oxford source found the seat “a bit of a patchwork: you'll help out lots of members of the team, but won't always get to see pieces of work from start to finish.” It doesn't help that the Thames Valley seat is split between Oxford and Reading: “Though you're based in one of the offices, you work for lawyers in both locations.”
Perhaps the most coveted seat at Blake Morgan is the one in the charities team. Much of the department's work is confidential, though we can reveal that household names such as the RNLI, the RSPCA and Oxfam all benefit from the firm's expertise. Trainees were keen to point out the importance of confidentiality and diligent practice here: “You have to be very conscious of brand when it comes to charities,” one counselled. “The entire sector is very open to public scrutiny, so you need to be aware of the financial constraints on clients and work efficiently.” “It's a seat that brings together a lot,” added another. “There's a bit of corporate M&A work, as well as commercial, contractual and governance activity.” As most law schools do not cover charity law, “there's a massive amount to learn and you need to be quick, as you're given a lot of responsibility.”
When it comes to supervision, trainees receive formal feedback during quarterly reviews, which are held one on one with supervisors. “We both fill in a form listing what I've been up to, what skills I've developed, and what targets I'd like to hit going forward,” one interviewee recounted. “Then we sit down and compare notes. It's fairly relaxed.” Rookies are also assigned an associate mentor, “who'll check up on you once or twice a seat, and introduce you to people they feel can help you along the way.”
Trainees from across the firm get the chance to trade tips and get to know each other at an initial week of PSC training and “extensive socialising” in the Southampton office, as well as training meet-ups in different offices across the network every few months. “Cross-office meet-ups are a regular fixture in our calendar,” said one interviewee, “though you're most likely to meet up with people who are closer geographically or part of the same practice.” It's these sorts of efforts that seem to be facilitating a post-merger transition into one cohesive Blake Morgan network. “After undergoing two mergers in 18 months, there was always going to be a bit of an 'Are you Morgan Cole or Blake Lapthorn?' period,” one junior reasoned. Fortunately “that's long gone now.”
“We regularly go for a swift half after work.”
As we mentioned above, the London office has recently moved locations, from classy but quiet Clerkenwell to New Fetter Lane in the City. The new office is a stone's throw from legal big beasts like Taylor Wessing, DAC Beachcroft and Bird & Bird – the new hub “is all essentially all on one floor, so you get talking to a lot more people. Back in Clerkenwell we were spread out over five storeys, and there was a lot less interaction between teams. Now we regularly go for a swift half after work!”
Still, as the firm looks to expand and grow, the Thames Valley region could offer the most opportunity in the years ahead. “Southampton is already very well-staffed, and Portsmouth, while providing a legal offering for our private clients and housing our commercial recoveries team, serves as more of a base for our business support teams,” Siobhan Clarke tells us. “London and Cardiff have been continually growing, so we've moved into new premises to facilitate that. Our next step is to promote similar growth in the Thames Valley region.” There are a number of practices which will be key to building up Blake Morgan as a full-service national firm. “Recently there has been a real push to develop our Built Environment division,” Clarke tells us, “areas such as real estate, agriculture, development, construction and private client are also throwing up a lot of vacancies as we endeavour to expand our offering.”
Take note of these projected vacancies, because there was a bit of confusion in the 2016 qualification round about where there were vacancies and retention suffered as a result. “Three out of five trainees in the Thames Valley who were due to qualify didn't even apply for jobs,” one interviewee noted. “It had been mentioned that certain departments were not offering jobs, though this hadn't been made entirely clear over the course of the training contract.” Quick to respond, Clarke points out that “there were enough positions available for everyone. Perhaps these weren't in the particular teams that trainees wanted, but we do allow qualifiers to move between regions if there's an opportunity they're interested in.” In the end, 12 of 18 qualifiers stayed on with the firm in 2016.
Across departments trainees didn't have any complaints about their working hours. But don't think that this firm's non-London roots mean working here is a walk in the park. Ten-hour days are normal, though trainees were keen to point out that “there's certainly no need to be here if you've got nothing on.” Rookies said: “Our workload is ours to manage, and the firm has faith in our ability to organise ourselves,” which “makes it a lot easier to balance work with your life outside work.” As one insider grinned, “I've never had any problem slinking off home to let in the Sky man!”
The coming years will be exciting ones for Blake Morgan as it attempts to consolidate its years of growth, expand further and push its brand out there more.
How to get a Blake Morgan training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 1 April 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 May 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.” 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 100 candidates are invited to an assessment centre in the Southampton office, where “you're expected to complete psychometric tests, a one-to-one interview with an associate 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 hints. “We don't 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.”
40 lucky applicants then 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 training partner and another partner from the office. 2016 saw 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
- Partners 123
- Assistant Solicitors 489
- Total Trainees 38
- Contact Siobhan Clarke, graduate recruitment and development officer
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure
- Stage one – initial review of applications
- Stage two – assessment centre involving psychometric tests, one-on-one interview and a group exercise
- Stage three – second interview
- Stage four – offers
- Closing date 2017
- Training contract and vacation scheme: 1 April 2017
- Training contract only: 31 May 2017
- No of training contracts 18
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Applications pa 500+
- Holiday entitlement 26 days
- Regional offices Oxford, London, Southampton, Portsmouth, Cardiff
Main areas of work