Vehicles crashed, ankles twisted, houses flooded, thumbs BlackBerried, professions in tatters: time for BLM’s litigators to step in.
Insure and go
It was a bit of a mouthful. On 1 May 2014 Berrymans Lace Mawer merged with Scotland's HBM Sayers and rebranded as BLM. (The firm's still officially called 'Berrymans Lace Mawer LLP' but it brands itself as BLM, so don't go calling it 'Berrymans'.) It then added a Northern Ireland presence by merging with Campbell Fitzpatrick on 1 December 2014.
BLM is all about insurance, specifically defendant insurance litigation (that’s principally representing big insurers and the insured in claims disputes). Clients include pretty much all the major insurance companies – AXA, QBE, Aviva, AIG, Allianz, Zurich, Travelers, RSA – and BLM says it manages more than 100,000 claims annually. (That's one every two working days per qualified lawyer.) The firm's recognised by Chambers UK as one of the two best in the country for volume insurance work and wins an armful of UK-wide and regional Chambers rankings in insurance-related areas like personal injury, professional discipline, clinical negligence, health and safety, product liability, construction and travel. Why did defendant insurance work appeal to our trainee interviewees? Basically, a desire to do civil litigation in a commercial environment –“we work with a number of different parties: mainly insurers, but also companies and individuals.”
“That's our big hairy ambition.”
Despite posting revenues of over £100 million in 2014/15, its current market position is not enough for BLM. The firm's business strategy is to 'be recognised as one of the leading global insurance and risk law specialists.' “That's our big hairy ambition,” proffers senior partner Mike Brown. “We do currently 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.” These efforts will be helped by the status of London – the firm’s second biggest office – as the world's number one insurance hub. Brown also identifies technology, construction, environment, professional indemnity, product liability, and health and social care as practices with potential for international growth, and says energy, aviation and marine are new fields the firm could move into. Go to our website for more on the firm's business strategy.
In part to reflect these ambitions the firm recently moved to new London digs on Fenchurch Street in the heart of the City's insurance district. Plantation Place is right next to the Walkie Talkie building and “a huge improvement on our old office,” according to trainees. The new space does have a smaller footprint than BLM's previous space, prompting the introduction of flexible working (ie working from home) among Londoners, though not for trainees.
The firm retained 20 of 30 qualifiers in 2016 after having kept on 21 of 26 in 2015. Most trainees are based in London or Manchester – there were 16 rookies in each office at the time of our calls. A further nine were in Southampton, six in Birmingham, five in Liverpool and a lone trainee was beavering away in Leeds. At present trainees don't usually move between offices, but we're told this is something which will become more common in the future. In 2017 the firm is recruiting trainees in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, London and Southampton
Slips and trips
All of BLM's seat options are litigation-focused, but non-contentious experience is picked up along the way doing things like reviewing insurance contracts. In London, Manchester and Birmingham trainees tend to do a mix of seats with an 'injury' and 'non-injury' theme. In the 'injury' category there are seats like personal injury, medical negligence and occupational disease, while non-injury options are things like product liability, professional negligence and property damage. There's no set policy requiring trainees to do certain seats; many do a mix of the two types mentioned above while others favour one or the other. Liverpool and Southampton lean more heavily towards injury work, although they do both have a property option too. Certain seats are only available in one location, like abuse in Manchester, local authority in Birmingham and construction in London.
Personal injury – the firm's largest department – is a pretty humongous group with teams of 60-plus lawyers in every office with trainees. There's a small volume claimant team in Birmingham but other than that the work is all defendant-side with fee earners acting for 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'). Catastrophic injury covers any claims over £500,000 for example “a case with multiple claimants such as a mother and three children who were seriously injured after being thrown off a bus during a crash.” On such large cases trainees assist partners and other solicitors, “conducting interviews with the witnesses to the accidents, drafting witness statements, compiling chronologies of medical records, instructing medical experts, speaking to police officers, researching case law, and attending trials.”
Smaller volume and general PI cases give trainees a chance to run their own files: “small cases are usually slips and trips leading to broken legs or sprained knees, but I've also worked on post-traumatic stress, work stress and depression cases.” Trainees may run 50 to 70 of their own files and reported experiencing high responsibility levels: “I write a case plan – ascertaining our client's liability position – and send out initial letters to the insurer, the insured and the claimant solicitors. Sometimes there will be a dispute over liability, sometimes only over the quantum [value] of claims. If the claim is progressed I'll take witness statements and draft the defence, which is presented in court. If we win, I'll then raise a payment.” (Disputes over payments may then by dealt with by the firm's costs team.)
“All the fee earners are sympathetic to claimants' needs.”
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 liabilty (PL) PI cases. Essentially if you trip over a broken paving slab on the pavement outside Sainsbury's in say Hereford and make a claim against Herefordshire County Council (a BLM client) it's public liability; if you trip up and break your ankle in Sainsbury's car park while working your summer job and blame the supermarket chain (also a BLM client), it's employers' liability. Trainees' responsibilities are similar to those in other PI seats including “attending telephone hearings and going to hearings in person.”
Another specialist department is occupational health/disease. It deals with claims related to asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma (“which are very big”), hearing loss, stress and more exotic qualms like vibration white finger (an injury cause by continually holding onto vibrating machinery) and BlackBerry thumb (you can probably guess what that's caused by). In serious disease cases the subject matter can be confrontational. “I thought I would find it challenging to be acting on the defendant side against claimants,” one trainee reflected, “but all the fee earners are sympathetic to claimants' needs. We're not trying to prevent someone for getting what is due to them. Usually the parties are arguing about who the liability comes to or the value of a claim.”
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, the Medical Protection Society and Dental Protection Limited. “In some cases the facts can be quite sensitive,” a trainee pointed out. For example, lawyers recently acted for the Royal College of Nursing in a £110,000 claim against a nurse in relation to the staffing of plastic surgery procedures, and were involved in a £4 million claim related to the birth of a child with Down syndrome. One great appeal of working in this team is that “you really do feel the work you're doing is addressing important issues which impact on people's lives.” Trainees don't get their own caseload, but assist more senior lawyers for example by “instructing counsel and attending meetings with counsel and health workers to obtain evidence.”
And the walls came tumbling down
On the non-injury side, the professional discipline practice defends professionals and their insurers against claims of negligence. The team has around 25 qualified lawyers in both London and Manchester and around a dozen in Birmingham. In Manchester, “one side of the practice deals with solicitors' negligence while the other deals with professions like architecture, surveying and accountancy.” One recent solicitors' matter saw BLM acting for QBE, insurers of law firm Gateley, in a professional negligence claim brought by property developer Empirical over advice given by the law firm on the development of a building in Manchester. The practice also represents bankers, engineers, consultants, insurance brokers and local authorities.
The property damage department deals with large claims related to fires, refurbishments, floods, burglaries and the like, as well as smaller-scale property damage. “The main thing that stands out for me about the seat is that I had my own caseload,” a trainee told us. “I was dealing with a lot of fixed-fee claims, often with litigants in person bringing small claims against the insurers we're acting for. In a standard claim I'd be given a file, draft the initial advice to the clients, then liaise with the insured, deal with the negotiations and, usually, settle.”
Whether working on their own cases or assisting others, trainees “are encouraged to make their own decisions” and “take responsibility for their own learning and development.” One told us: “It's not like school – there's no didactic approach of how things are done.” Another added: “There's more of a 'learn on the job' approach.” We did hear that “there are variations from seat to seat” in supervision style with some supervisors taking a more hands-on approach, and others encouraging trainees to “learn as we go and use our own brain to understand things.” In addition, there are lunchtime training sessions (sometimes shared via videolink with other offices), for example on topics like credit hire. “You can always go to your supervisor or others to ask questions,” one trainee commented, while another added: “At the moment I get a lot of feedback from the department.”
I'm a BLM trainee, get me out of here
So if you speak up, you'll be heard as a BLM trainee. This is also true when it comes to workload. “It's your duty as a trainee to speak up if the work is getting too much,” one interviewee said, while another added: “If you feel overburdened you can go to your supervisor.” This usually ends up with the load being lightened – BLM trainees are certainly not expected to burn the midnight oil. A normal working day lasts from 9 or 9.30am to around 6pm. Sometimes trainees do stay later, but “even when it's busy I won't stay past 7.30pm,” one typical source revealed, though others had been in later. We also spoke to trainees who had a habit of starting early – 8am or 8.30am – and some who were clearly rushed off their feet during their time in the office, but generally this is a firm where trainees have plenty of free time away from the office.
“Even when it's busy I won't stay past 7.30pm.”
Trainees also have time to socialise with their colleagues. Each office now has a trainee social budget, which recently allowed the Manchester group to do the 'Escape Room' challenge (in which you have to solve puzzles with a team to 'escape the room'). We also heard of trainee dinners and drinks, departmental curry nights, and the occasional jaunt to the pub funded by partners. In Birmingham and Manchester, the firm pays for trainees to be a member of the local trainee solicitors groups and for them to attend the winter ball. There aren't any firm-wide socials at the moment but there are office events: we heard about a black-tie Christmas do in London, summer barbecue in Liverpool, and an Alice in Wonderland-themed party at the Botanical Gardens in Birmingham.
Back out of the rabbit hole and beavering away in the office, trainees said BLM'ers do take a “heads down, disciplined approach to work,” but at the same time they used positive buzzwords to describe their colleagues. One source told us: “You can't really distinguish between people in the hierarchy – I was working with some partners in my first seat and had no clue at first that they were partners!” Another source said they sit with an NQ, several partners and an associate who “treat me as one of them.”
Pretty much all the sources we spoke to had been paralegals before joining the firm, many of them with BLM. While there are definitely advantages to having this kind of experience when applying for a traineeship, we were told that the firm is looking to attract more candidates externally. The new vac scheme should help with this. Go to our website for more on recruitment.
Take note of BLM's international ambitions and expect to be asked about them when you apply.
How to get a BLM training contract
Vac scheme deadlines (2017): 27 February 2017
Training contract deadline (2018 & 2019): 26 June 2017
BLM recently launched a new recruitment campaign, centred around the slogan #BeLikeMe (yes, it does have a hashtag at the start). The firm attended around ten law fairs in autumn 2015, having not really previously been to many. There's also a new grad recruitment Twitter account. Much of this is the brainchild of new talent engagement manager Matt Akin and talent engagement advisor Keely Nelson.
As part of the new campaign, the application process has been zhuzhed up and changed around a bit. The process described below will be put through its paces for the first time in 2016.
Both direct training contract applicants and applicants for the new vac scheme (see below) follow the same process.
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, one on what skills you have that will be useful at the firm, and one on the firm's strategy. The firm received around 500 initial applications in 2015.
After an initial sift of these applications, 50 to 60 candidates per application round participate in a second stage of online testing. At the present time the nature of this stage is as yet unconfirmed.
The firm's assessment centre has been shaken up a bit compared to when the current crop of trainees applied. In place of writing and maths tasks, there's now a critical thinking test, interview with partner and recruiters, group exercise, scenario question and presentation. Around 25 candidates make it through to this stage per application round.
In the group exercise candidates are given a topic and then asked to address a set of questions. The scenario question, which applicants face individually, involves a task similar to what a trainee might be expected to do. For the presentation, candidates are sent the title a week in advance – expect it to be something related to the firm itself.
Candidates who are successful at the assessment day are invited back for one final informal interview, and are offered a training contract off the back of that. Successful vac scheme route applicants progress directly from the assessment day to the vac scheme.
BLM ran a vac scheme for the first time in 2016. In 2017 the scheme has been 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 a current trainee 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, presentations from partners 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 dealing with 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 happenstance makes some 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 allow its trainees to qualify early with time to count. “It's not a blanket no, but we don't promote it,” says talent engagement 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.” No doubt it'd also be quite a hassle for the firm to organise early qualification and find NQ jobs for the many trainees who'd be able to qualify early.
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 stategic 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 annual review.
Still, we thought you'd appreciate a quick Student Guide-style overview of the firm's strategy. So we chatted to senior partner Mike Brown and asked the trainees for their thoughts, and here's what they 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 is the firm's strategy for the 2016 calendar year and according to the most recent annual review revolves around 'people skills, expertise sharing [and] operational excellent (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 if 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 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.”
As mentioned in the True Picture, Brown says that 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 2014/15 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 centre of the City's commercial and insurance hub.” This 'postcode strategy' is already paying off according to one trainee: “I was in the lift with a partner the other day and someone from one of the insurance companies based in our building asked what BLM is – we're already getting noticed.” 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 that 88% of its key clients which wants international coverage. “We do currently already work for businesses operating outside the UK and Ireland,” Brown points out “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 210
- Assistant solicitors c. 400
- Total trainees 53
- Contact Keely Nelson, (0161) 838 6386
- Method of application Please apply via the website www.blmlaw.com/graduates
- Selection procedure Online application, critical thinking test, assessment days
- Closing date for August 2019 26 June 2017
- No of training contracts pa 25
- Applications pa 500
- Required degree grade 2:1 in any degree classification
- Training salary
- First year (London): £31,000
- First year (regional): £22,000
- Second year (London): £32,000
- Second year (regional): £23,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- Post-qualification salary
- London: £44,000
- Regional: £30,000
- % trainees offered job on qualification 81% in 2015
- Overseas offices None
Main areas of work