If you fancy mixing commercial and private client law, and don't want to be stuck in one place for two years, consider Blaser Mills.
It's seldom advisable to mix business with personal, and yet this is exactly what Blaser Mills does. Its six offices meander through the Chilterns like a river, pouring forth legal advice to commercial entities via its corporate, commercial property and disputes practices and to individuals via departments like residential property, personal injury and crime. “For some of our services, like commercial, the office location of the lawyer providing the service is less important,” notes training principal Colin Smith, “while for others we need to be where the clients are.” For example, the firm's commercial department is almost entirely based in High Wycombe, but “serves clients all over the South East, in London, and even in the Midlands.” By contrast, in crime “the practitioners need to be where the police stations and courts are.”
There's no doubt that the firm is making a big push towards all things commercial though. Following on from launching a new website in 2015, in 2016 BM moved its High Wycombe HQ from what Colin Smith calls “a very charming but old-fashioned Edwardian villa” to a “modern, purpose-built office.” He sees the move as symbolic of the fact the firm is increasingly emphasising its commercial offering while retaining its services for individuals, targeting high net worth individuals, pushing for more high-value wills, trusts, probate and white-collar crime work. And this mix is exactly what attracted trainees to the firm, as they noted it occupies “a nice middle ground” between bigger commercial outfits and more genteel private client firms.
Trainees at Blaser Mills don't just rotate between different departments, they also move between the firm's seven locations; all the trainees we spoke to had worked in at least two offices. To give you an idea of how trainees might be spread across the offices at any one time, when we did our research there were four in High Wycombe, three in Rickmansworth, and one in both Staines and Amersham. For seat allocation, “trainees give the training principal an indication of where we want to sit.” Qualification is similarly informal, although insiders recommended “making the first move” and letting the higher-ups in a department know that you're interested in qualifying there. In 2016 the firm kept three out of four qualifiers.
“Between the City and the regions.”
Commercial is Blaser Mills' largest department and covers employment, dispute resolution, commercial property, commercial recoveries and corporate matters. Seats here are focused on one of these areas. Corporate lawyers have helped local business types set up companies and acted for an investor in UK, Romanian and Portuguese mobile companies selling his stake to a US buyer. “Every day is completely different,” a commercial trainee told us. “Quite a lot of what I do involves drafting documentation and reviewing it with clients.” Speaking of clients, these vary in size from “medium-sized companies” to businesses “with turnover in the hundreds of millions,” which our sources saw as concomitant with the firm's location “between the City and the regions.”
Over in private client, there's the standard wills, trusts and probate work, plus some specialist care home, Court of Protection and international asset matters. New trainees in this department spend some time learning how to draft wills, which "can take some time to get your head around.” That's probably just as well, because wills and will-related activities take up a lot of this team's time, with trainees “taking new instructions for wills, drafting wills, amending wills...” Trainees also work on lasting powers of attorney and the gathering together of the deceased's assets as part of the probate process. The department's present in several of the firm's smaller offices and trainees encountered “clients ringing up or walking in off the street to make enquiries,” and some had even “done a few home visits.”
“Talking to a partner doesn't feel like a visit to the headmaster.”
Blaser Mills' dispute resolution lawyers, meanwhile, deal with property spats as well as commercial disputes and insolvency actions. The eclectic client list gathers names from service industries like catering and home care and includes The British Horse Racing Authority, Liverpool-headquartered Kirkby Tyres, and debt recovery specialists First Collect International. “I loved it!” enthused one trainee of their stint in dispute resolution – the seat serves up “a lot of drafting of court documents.” Many of the firm's recent cases are confidential, but we spoke to trainees who'd worked on sale of goods disputes, the disqualification of directors, and even some international cases. There's also contentious probate work, which presents trainees with tasks like “going through a client's photographs to assess the state of their marriage in order to prove our case.”
The crime department exclusively handles defence work, often involving serious assaults, drugs offences, fraud, motoring issues and gang-related offences. “It's quite full on,” one trainee told us, “you have to be comfortable talking about murder and sexual violence.” A thick skin is a must, as taking statements from clients and liaising with the police and prosecution authorities can be challenging. On the personal injury side, the firm represents claimants involved in road traffic accidents, medical negligence and historical child abuse. “While it's less emotionally draining than crime, sometimes you do look at things and think, 'gosh, this is serious!'” commented one trainee. It's a good seat for those hungry for hands-on experience as “almost all the cases are litigated.” Expect to be drafting witness statements, compiling schedules of damages and “finding out exactly what happened on a particular day.”
There's a fair amount of variation between offices in terms of working environment. The new High Wycombe HQ, for example “has a very corporate feel,” with a separate room for the crime department, cubicles for the partners and an open-plan set-up for everyone else. Staines and Harrow are also very modern, and at the time of writing Amersham had just moved from older premises into more modern digs. “It's very nice, with a similar layout to the High Wycombe office,” a source told us. Rickmansworth is “smaller, more compact.”
Insiders described the firm as “friendly and inviting,” and said that “there's no barrier between the partners and the trainees.” As one source put it, “talking to a partner doesn't feel like a visit to the headmaster.” Another source described the firm as feeling like a “mini-family,” before admitting they knew this sounded “a bit cheesy.” But just as the different members of a family have their own quirks, each of Blaser Mills' offices has a slightly different character. Staines, for example, is “notoriously chilled out,” while High Wycombe, as we mentioned, is “more corporate.” What unites all the members of this particular family is a sense that “every member of staff has the client's objectives at the forefront of their minds.”
Our interviewees had a lot of praise for the working hours required of them. “We typically work nine to five,” one said, “and any additional hours are completely down to you.” We heard of some trainees who turned up early to get a head start on work, others who stayed a bit later, but generally working hours were something that Dolly Parton would recognise. Sometimes trainees do need to stay late, and by 'late' we mean between 7pm and 9pm.
While local connections don't hurt, you don't have to be from the Chilterns to work at this firm.
How to get a Blaser Mills training contract
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 August 2017
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): TBC
The vacation scheme
Blaser Mills runs a summer placement scheme in June/July each year. Second-year law and third-year non-law students are prioritised, but those who have graduated within the past two years may be considered as well.
The scheme is designed to give potential candidates a taste of life at the firm, and isn't a prerequisite for making a training contract application.
The application form
The firm recruits its trainees two years in advance. To secure a training contract, candidates must first submit an online application via Apply4Law. The firm tends to receive around 300 applications each year.
On the application form candidates are asked to supply all the standard info such as university modules, grades and work history. Everything is assessed and assigned a numerical value, but training principal Colin Smith makes it clear that BM doesn't “simply screen out candidates on the basis of A-level scores and degree results. We do measure them, but they form only a part of the whole raft of things we're looking for.”
The form also currently contains four questions, and candidates should devote plenty of time to considering how to answer them. “We tend to change them every year,” says Smith, “but they are designed to give applicants a chance to give us a flavour of who they are, their passions and interests, and what drives and motivates them.” A longlist of around 50 candidates is drawn up, and is further whittled down to the lucky 15 to 20 who make it through to the assessment day.
The assessment day
The assessment day is held at Missenden Abbey Conference Centre in Buckinghamshire. Currently, the format involves a jam-packed day, featuring two written exercises, two group exercises, an individual presentation and a final interview. Everything is marked and assigned a score. The interviewing partners do not know how well each candidate has been rated throughout the exercises.
“We choose to run two group exercises,” Smith tell us, “as we like to see different combinations of people and evaluate how well they interact with each other.” A previous assignment required groups to invent their own law firms and explain which practice areas they'd focus on and why. Of the two written tasks, one is given to the candidates prior to the day itself, with the other being a 40-minute exercise during the assessment day.
However, the assessment day exercises are reviewed annually “as we like to keep candidates on their toes!” remarks Smith.
The final interview
This usually takes place with two partners. “It's the candidates' last chance to let us see the real them,” says Smith. Partners use the answers candidates supplied on their application forms as a springboard for discussion. Smith's tip: “If you can intrigue us on your form then the battle's half won.”
Making a good impression at this stage can redeem candidates who faltered on some of the earlier exercises. “Everything comes together during the partner interview. In the past we've hired a number of people who in some exercises weren't very good at all, but in others were outstanding. Some people are more inconsistent but they are able to show us the things that they're very good at,” explains Smith.
Interview with training principal Colin Smith
Student Guide: Are there any highlights from the last year that you think are important for our readers to know about?
Colin Smith: We have moved two of our main premises, in High Wycombe and Amersham, each to larger open-plan spaces. The moves have been strategic as part of a firm-wide modernisation and expansion project.
SG: Can you tell us how the firm is structured in terms of practices, industry sectors etc?
CS: The firm falls in to two distinct parts – business services and personal services – with each part consisting of specialist teams of lawyers.
Our business services arm consists of corporate and commercial, employment, commercial property, dispute resolution and commercial litigation, and commercial recoveries teams. Our personal services arm consists of residential property, wills trusts and probate, family and divorce, criminal defence, childcare, and personal and serious injury teams.
Jonathan Lilley is the firm’s managing partner and is supported by a management executive who looks after the day-to-day functioning of the firm.
SG: What role do the various UK offices play in the firm's network?
CS: For some of our services, location is less important. For example, most of our business services teams are almost entirely based in High Wycombe. Our commercial clients range from multinational plcs to SMEs and owner-managed businesses. They are largely based all over the South East, including London, and right up into the heart of the Midlands.
Obviously with other practice areas such as wills, trusts and probate, it is much more important to be where the clients are. A large part of what we offer for our personal services is local knowledge – being accessible and convenient to private individuals.
SG: As a member of the partnership, how would you describe the firm's strategy for the future?
CS: Our objective is significant growth, projecting from what's happening at the moment. We expect most of that to be led by our business services teams, wills trusts and probate, and family and divorce, which we are aggressively getting behind. Our business development and marketing team has helped us refine our strategy, but have also really pulled things together in terms of marketing activity, client acquisition and client retention.SG: Our readers won't be starting until 2019/2020. Can you tell us how the firm might be different at that time?
CS: Number one, we'd expect to be bigger – the growth we've started will have continued. However, we won't want to have changed the culture of the firm, which we think is a real positive.
40 Oxford Road,
- Partners 20
- Assistant solicitors 30
- Total trainees 9
- Contact Colin Smith, training partner
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Assessment day including interviews
- Closing date for September 2019 31 August 2017
- No of training contracts pa 4
- Training salary
- First year: £22,000
- Second year: £23,000
- Offices High Wycombe, Amersham, Staines, Rickmansworth
Types of work
• Commercial and residential property
• Criminal defence
• Dispute resolution
• Personal injury
• Wills, trusts and probate