When risk is high, the rewards can be too – this seasoned insurance litigator expects its ambitious trainees to seize responsibility.
Insure and go global
House fires, car crashes, accounting mishaps and vibrating fingers (we'll explain later)... Yes, this national firm deals with all sorts of eventualities, handling contentious insurance work in spades. Both big insurers – like Zurich, Aviva and Allianz – and the insured are on the firm's books, and disputes can revolve around anything from the standard slips and trips to huge negligence cases levelled at high-flying solicitors. The firm's volume claims, personal injury defence and professional discipline teams are considered some of the best in the UK, though BLM also earns Chambers UK rankings in a whole host of insurance-related areas such as clinical negligence, construction and health and safety. So “if you're looking for corporate, commercial or private client work this is not the firm for you,” trainees stressed.
“We're aiming to be a global leader in insurance by 2020.”
BLM's got a fire in its belly when it comes to what it calls its “big hairy ambition.” Trainees clarified for us: “We're aiming to be a global leader in insurance by 2020. It's a big target and we need to make drastic changes to achieve it, like reducing the size of teams which are less lucrative in order to invest capital elsewhere.” Quite: the last couple of years have seen the Leeds office shed 21 lawyers, while the healthcare teams in London and Manchester (plus the latter's fraud team) saw several redundancies. A raft of partner resignations also took place in Southampton. By and large the trainees we spoke to hadn't been affected by the exits, telling us: “We're aware of it but it's mostly occurred at the partner level.”
The growth strategy is known internally as 'Project Graphene' and recently inspired “a roadshow where our senior partner, Mike Brown, and the board members travelled between the offices to let us know what's happening.” Brown also keeps everyone abreast on progress via monthly updates: “I keep getting emails about the managing partner's big hairy ambition – I'm not sure I want to know!” quipped one trainee. Those keen to discover more can check out our firm's website, which helpfully explains the plan – trainees recommended that aspiring BLMers do so, as the firm's international ambitions are likely to crop up during interviews.
Most trainees are based in London or Manchester – around 14 rookies were in each office at the time of our calls. A further eight were in Southampton, while five apiece could be found in Birmingham and Liverpool. At present trainees don't usually move between offices, but it does happen sometimes as and when needed.
All of BLM's seat options are litigation-focused, but there is non-contentious work (like reviewing contracts) tucked within them. Seats fall under 'injury' and 'non-injury' umbrellas; the 'injury' category encompasses the likes of personal injury (PI), medical negligence and occupational disease, while non-injury options include product liability, professional negligence and property damage. The Liverpool and Southampton offices lean more heavily toward injury work, although both have a property option too. Certain seats are only available in one location, like housing in Liverpool and construction in London. Where possible, trainees are encouraged to do a mix of both injury and non-injury seats.
Personal injury – the firm's largest department – is stuffed full of lawyers and most offices house a team of at least 50 PI bods. There's a small volume claimant team in Birmingham but other than that the work is all defendant-side with fee earners acting for major insurers and the insured. Depending on location, trainees can do seats in catastrophic injury, mid-cap (this isn’t a hat size; it’s medium-value insurance policies), volume PI, casualty, and general PI (known in the capital as 'London risk markets'). Cases therefore vary in size and value: recent disputes include a £2.53 million claim brought against the Police Authority following a collision with a police car, as well as acting for Staffordshire-based water park Water World after a woman claimed to have sliced her foot open on a defective ceramic pool tile.
Smaller volume and general PI cases give trainees a chance to run their own files – anywhere between 50 and 70 – which often cover slip and trip claims. “A lot of the files are pre-litigation, so there's a lot of day-to-day admin and process-managing. You respond to solicitors' letters and draft preliminary letters to clients,” one source told us, while another had drafted “initial reports, gathered evidence from the insurer, reviewed medical files and taken witness statements.” If a case looks likely to go to trial “you've got to explain the prospects of success to the client, prepare them for trial and calculate any cost settlements.” Alongside managing their own caseload, trainees assist on larger files by producing client reports and arranging conferences.
“I was basically ghost-running the larger files.”
The existence of the 'casualty EL/PL' team is a mark of the specialised nature of BLM's insurance work – it deals specifically with employers' liability (EL) and public liability (PL) PI cases. In some offices it runs as a standalone seat, while in others it falls under general PI. Trainees tackle “small, easy slips and trips” on their own, or assist on much larger cases like this one: BLM acted for Myerscough College in Lancashire after an arboriculture student fell from a tree during a climbing module and was rendered paraplegic. On the EL side, the team represented the Cultural Trust after an employee was struck on the head by an unsecured pole while preparing for an event. “On my own files I do everything from receiving the claim to updating the client to deciding on the strategy,” one source said. “Where liability's not an issue you can settle these matters in your own name. In addition I was basically ghost-running the larger files – everything would go out through the partner but I was drafting court documents and defences, taking witness statements and securing expert evidence.”
Another specialist department is occupational health/disease. It deals with claims related to asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma; it recently represented AXA and Aviva in a multi-defendant case brought by a man suffering from lung cancer after long-term exposure to asbestos at work. Trainees are also likely to come across claims involving noise-induced hearing loss, stress and more exotic qualms like vibration white finger (an injury caused by continually holding on to vibrating machinery) and BlackBerry thumb (you can probably guess what that's caused by). All of the medical jargon can get a bit technical, so newbies are handed mini-guides on each disease that “set out everything you need to know and do – they're like my Bible at the moment.”
“It was good for getting out and seeing inquests.”
Aspiring sleuths can rejoice as this seat is investigation heavy: “A lot of the tasks involve talking to witnesses or obtaining statements over the phone, but it's also quite document-focused too. I spent a lot of time reviewing and drafting lists of documents,” one trainee recalled. Some of the more historic claims – like the noise-induced hearing loss ones, which are caused by persistent exposure – require a lot of delving into corporate history: “Someone may have worked in a factory for ten years; that factory may have had two insurers in that time, so there's a lot of looking at Companies House and insurance records to check we've definitely got the right defendant.”
Fighting fires and detecting liars
London and Manchester both have 20-lawyer clinical negligence ('healthcare') teams. They defend claims made against doctors and other medical staff on behalf of groups like the Royal College of Nursing, Irish laboratory MedLab Pathology and the NHS Litigation Authority. The latter has been keeping the firm busy: the team recently represented the body during claims concerning an above-knee amputation and a pair of undescended testes. There's also a regulatory side to the work here, as the team advises healthcare and medical groups on disciplinary hearings, inquests and prosecutions.
Trainees devote equal time to each area: “The regulatory work is a lot more fast-paced with more opportunity to see advocacy,” sources told us. On these matters they had “reviewed records and assisted with compiling chronologies and instructing counsel. There wasn't much drafting but it was good for getting out and seeing things like inquests and disciplinary hearings.” On the claims side, interviewees had “helped to draft instructions to counsel and expert witnesses, and taken statements from witnesses.” The cases here are “complex in nature, so correspondence with the experts is key; you have to dilute the technical aspects of the claim to something that both the court and the claimant can understand.”
“I was running about 40 small cases by myself."
On the non-injury side, the professional indemnity practice defends professionals and their insurers against claims of negligence. The team has around 25 qualified lawyers in London and Manchester and a dozen in Birmingham. Manchester-based lawyers recently acted for the insurers of Tees Law solicitors over allegations of negligent trust management, while the London department represented the insurers of a chartered surveyors amid claims the latter had overvalued three adult gaming centres and a nightclub in the capital. The practice also represents bankers, engineers, consultants, insurance brokers and local authorities like Birmingham City Council. One interviewee told us: “I was running about 40 small cases by myself – reviewing the files, obtaining client instructions and instructing experts. A lot of the files in that team are referred to the ombudsman, so you have to compile and submit a case with supportive documents.” If you catch a case going to trial, prepare to be up to your elbows in bundling and pre-trial prep like compiling expert and witness evidence.
The property damage department deals with large claims related to fires, refurbishments, floods, burglaries and the like, as well as smaller-scale property damage. Juniors are given their own caseload, mostly in the form of “recovery work where we act for the insurer in recouping their outlay for property damage. They may have paid out for a house fire, but if it turns out it was caused by an electrician's poor wiring, we seek to recover costs from the electrician.” Sources had gathered evidence, drafted letters of claim and negotiated a settlement. There's also an element of ferreting out “fraudulent claims by policy holders,” as well as the chance to assist on larger cases, where trainees undertake “research tasks on an ad hoc basis and draft a few letters of claim.”
Most trainees clock in around 9 or 9.30am and hit the road by 6pm. “There aren't many times where you're here past six,” several concurred, with one adding: “8pm would be considered a late night and anything after that a very late night.” Some trainees felt that these reasonable hours made up for the firm's lower-end-of-the-market salaries, saying: “I can deal with it as an acceptable trade-off for not being bested.”
The hours may not be too testing but the trainees certainly stretch themselves: “You need to be able to handle taking on a lot of responsibility at an early stage,” one trainee reckoned, while another told us: “You have to be ambitious enough to work hard and be at the top of your game but not be super-competitive.” Another thing BLMers have in common: a large number of the current crop of trainees have worked as paralegals, both at the firm and elsewhere, though we did come across a few who'd arrived fresh off the back of their studies. The firm reckoned the split is about 50/50.
"Two of the partners went as Morticia and Gomez Addams last year.”
Each office is given a trainee social budget, and the firm also pays for trainees to be part of their local trainee solicitors group in Manchester and Birmingham. Most offices throw in a Christmas or a summer bash, and some departments organise their own shindigs too: the occupational disease team in London hosts a “famous Halloween party which all the trainees and clients attend. Two of the partners went as Morticia and Gomez Addams last year.” But are trainees quaking in their lawyerly shoes when the partners are out of costume, too? It doesn't sound like it: we hear that most of the firm's offices are open plan, which “reduces the feel of a hierarchy – you don't have to go and knock on a door, so everyone is within reach and very approachable.”
Departments publish an NQ jobs list in May, and interviews are held when there is competition for places. In 2017, 17 of 21 qualifiers were retained.
How to get a BLM training contract
Training contract deadline (2019 & 2020): 24 June 2018
Application form and online testing
The online application form asks for standard academic and work experience info, as well as posing a few more pointed questions. Expect a question on why you want to join BLM, and something to test your commercial awareness. The firm received around over 2,000 initial applications in 2017.
After an initial sift of these applications, 50 to 60 candidates per application round participate in the second stage, which consists of an online Watson Glaser critical thinking test. The test is designed to assess your ability to logically analyse, deduce and interpret information – all skills that will be used during your training contract and future career.
The firm's assessment centre comprises a strengths-based interview with a partner and recruiters; a written scenario question; and an individual presentation. Around 25 candidates make it through to this stage per application round.
For the presentation, candidates are sent the title a week in advance – expect it to be something related to the firm itself.
The recruitment process for the vacation scheme and the training contract is the same. Those who choose to take the vacation scheme route will not have to complete any further assessments after the placement, and instead will be made an offer for a training contract based on the feedback from their two weeks at the firm.
BLM ran a vac scheme for the first time in 2016. In 2017 the scheme was expanded and now lasts two weeks and is available in several of the firm's offices. The firm aims for around half of trainees to be recruited via the vac scheme.
Vac schemers spend their time sitting with current trainees and can express an interest as to which team they'd like to spend time with. As well as work experience there will be networking events, social events and on the last day an informal final interview, which is not competency based, but rather a chat to address outstanding questions.
Who fits the bill?
The current trainee group hails from a diverse range of universities, from the Russell Group to plate-glass and post-1992 institutions. In fact, each of the trainees we interviewed for our research had been to a different university. There's a good 60/40 female/male split in the trainee group (which you would expect given two-thirds of LPC grads are women).
All our interviewees had a notable maturity to them – none expected or wanted hand-holding from the firm. BLM trainees also need to be stress-resistant as a lot can be thrown at them in the course of a week – for example, you might need to drop everything to attend a trial and have to do the work you were planning for that day another time. Trainees are supporting dozens of cases at any one time, so being good at planning is vital. Oh, and some knowledge of the insurance industry won't hurt either.
As mentioned in the True Picture, BLM has something of a history of recruiting trainees from its own paralegal pool and hiring individuals who've paralegalled elsewhere. Given the sensitive and complex nature of the work and the requirement that trainees handle their own caseload, this makes sense. However, our recruitment sources say that in future the firm will be looking to recruit more trainees externally. So if you don't have paralegal experience, but are still keen on BLM, it's worth applying now more than ever.
One thing to note for those who do have paralegal experience: BLM doesn't encourage its trainees to qualify early with time to count. “It's not a blanket no, but we don't promote it,” says emerging talent manager, Matt Akin. “We see our training contract as a valuable learning experience, and we don't want to devalue the two-year contract by making it a tick-box exercise.” In circumstances where trainees have been given time to count it has been based on business need.
BLM's “big hairy ambition”
In 2014/15, BLM pulled off two major mergers and a rebrand (rechristening itself 'BLM' rather than Berrymans Lace Mawer). For 2015/16 and beyond the firm has set itself a series of strategic goals. As one trainee put it: “Since our rebranding and since Mike Brown took over as senior partner [in 2012], our future strategy has never been so clear.” And this source is right: it's all there in the 2014/15 and 2016/17 annual reviews.
Still, we thought you'd appreciate a quick Student Guide-style overview of the firm's general strategy. So we chatted to senior partner Mike Brown and asked the trainees for their thoughts, and here's what we found out.
Mike Brown told us that in his eyes the firm's strategy consists of three parts with goals to achieve at different points in the future: “an ambition, a big ambition and a big hairy ambition.” Those are the phrases Brown used, so we'll use them too – if you're wondering what 'hairy' means, check out this phrase from business management.
First, there's the 'ambition': this revolves around 'people skills, expertise sharing [and] operational excellence (including compliance).' Compliance is a particular challenge for law firms operating in the insurance litigation field at the moment in the context of ongoing reforms to civil litigation in the light of the Jackson Review. On the 'people' side of things, the new vac scheme and recruitment process are part of the firm's efforts to hire and promote the best people.
The firm's 'big ambition', which it aims to achieve in two to three years time, is to undertake more non-injury related work. The firm is currently active in non-injury insurance litigation fields like professional indemnity, property damage, construction and local government. We asked Brown if the firm intends to move into new insurance-related fields too? “We are currently investigating how we will work across more lines of business for our customers – that is code for saying yes.”
Technology, construction, environment, professional indemnity, product liability, and health and social care are practices the firm currently operates in which have particular potential for expansion – both domestically and internationally. Energy, aviation and marine are all new insurance-related fields the firm could move into.
The firm's main strategic goal is 'to be recognised as one of the leading global insurance and risk law specialists by 2020' according to its 2016/17 annual review. This is what Brown calls the “big hairy ambition” – and it's quite a goal for a firm which doesn't really have any international profile at the moment.
How will the goal of 'going international' be achieved? Firstly, by undertaking more international work in the UK for new and existing customers. The London office is key to this. “One of the primary reasons we moved our London office to its new location on Fenchurch Street is that it is now in the centre of the City's commercial and insurance hub.” In addition, trainees told us the firm recently sent an email to all its staff and lawyers asking who speaks foreign languages – no doubt another prong in the firm's efforts to offer international expertise.
The firm has also set up an international desk in the London office to serve global customers. This will help the firm offer more services to key clients that want international coverage.Brown points out that “we already work for businesses operating outside the UK and Ireland and are instructed on cases around the world, but we want to do more of that.” For example, a major healthcare client of the firm is the Medical Protection Society – it was founded in the UK but has members around the world in locations including the Caribbean, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Africa.
Perhaps most ambitiously, BLM aims to establish an international partnership network. “There are international law firm networks and there are law firms with offices here there and everywhere – but we don't think there is a large, strong, branded insurance law firm network out there.” Mergers are not the way for BLM, Brown believes. “We're not looking to take over other firms. We're taking a low-risk, low-cost approach.” The firm is currently on the look-out for partner firms. The initial focus, says Brown, will be on partnering with firms in English-speaking countries like the US, Australia and Canada, as well as continental Europe.
42 King Street West,
- Partners 121
- Assistant solicitors 68
- Total trainees 47
- UK offices Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, London and Southampton
- Graduate recruiter: Keely Nelson, [email protected]
- Training partner: Michelle Penn
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 23
- Applications pa: 2,000
- Minimum required degree grade: We do not screen on academics
- Vacation scheme places pa: 15
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 9 October 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 24 June 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 9 October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 21 January 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £31,000 (London), £22,000 (Regional)
- Second-year salary: £32,000 (London), £23,000 (Regional)
- Post-qualification salary: £44,000 (London), £30,000 (Regional)
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Southampton
- Client secondments: Various options
Our team of over 200 partners and more than 800 legal specialists are completely dedicated to the insurance and risk market and are recognised for having the capability, creativity and energy to support our customers and help them find solutions to their problems. We regard their problems as our problems and we are here to help solve them.
Main areas of work
You may also have the opportunity to spend time on secondment with one of our customers or with the Association of British Insurers. Throughout your programme you will work with our partners and associates on a variety of cases from low to complex, high-value claims, from initial investigation through to trial. You will have all of the support that you need from your assigned supervisor and our in-house talent development team.
The vacation scheme isn’t just about you impressing us… it’s also about you deciding if we’re the right firm for you.
University law careers fairs 2017
A full list to be confirmed, please see our website.