Armed with seven national offices and serious aspirations, Bond Dickinson's on a mission to scale the heights of the legal market.
Eat less Monster Munch, reduce gin intake, do more aerobics, get bigger biceps – all pretty typical new year's resolutions. But Bond Dickinson isn't really one for typical resolutions, and a standard strategy of organic consolidation or conservative growth isn't for this firm. Instead, BD has a vision... a 2020 vision. Ever since 2013, when the firm formed via a merger between Newcastle-based Dickinson Dees and South-Westerner Bond Pearce, it's had its eyes on this prize: reaching the top 20 by 2020.
According to trainees at the coal face, the firm's big-picture ambition translates into a sense of dynamism across the offices. “There's a very ambitious, exciting atmosphere – it feels like the firm is going places and everybody is playing their part to try and make that happen. New people have been coming in and the work is flowing at a rate of knots,” said a Southampton-based source. Over in London, head count grew by 50% between 2014 and 2015, and BD now has its sights set on building its brawn in Bristol. But it seems that BD is keen to preserve its particular culture as it expands. In fact, sources in different cities were drawn to the firm's ability to attract “high-calibre work and clients while retaining its regional identity. The work is as good as anywhere else, but the firm's more friendly and approachable, and you're made to feel so welcome.”
BD's work covers eight main sectors: chemicals and manufacturing; energy and natural resources; financial institutions; insurance; real estate; retail and consumer goods; transport and infrastructure; and private wealth. The client base ranges from regional clients through to well-known national names like British Gas and multinationals like Barclays. Chambers UK considers the firm a national leader outside London in 11 areas, with top marks awarded to its banking & finance, litigation, planning, real estate and restructuring work.
“I thought it would involve conveyancing between old grannies.”
Around 30 training contracts are handed out every year and competition for them is tough: 1,400 candidates applied in 2015. At the time of our calls there were 19 trainees in Newcastle, ten in Bristol, five in Leeds, four in Plymouth and three apiece in Aberdeen and London. All trainees must complete a contentious seat, as well as stints within the broad real estate and corporate/commercial groups. The number of options does vary depending on location: for example, only the Newcastle and Bristol branches offer a private wealth seat, while in Leeds “there are only four seats, so we go round in a circle” (although due to the firm's expansion in the city we hear there will be six seats available from September 2016, including IP). Trainees list three preferences before each rotation, but be aware that “for your first seat you can't really expect your top choices.” In the past we've reported grumbles about HR leaving it pretty late to let trainees know where they'll be going next (“historically the joke is that you find out what your seat is on the Friday before the Monday that you start”) but this year trainees were unruffled: “The firm is very good at offering client secondments to trainees, but the clients can take a while to decide things – that's what causes the delays and it's out of HR's control.” Naturally, these secondments (available at rail, energy, banking, retail and insurance clients) “tend to be very popular with trainees.”
With 236 lawyers, the real estate team is one of the firm's biggest. Trainees sit in a particular sub-team: developers and investors, property litigation, operational property, planning, agriculture, commercial or residential. Of the latter, a source recalled: “I thought it would involve conveyancing between old grannies, but in reality it's not like that at all. The team deals with large portfolio acquisitions of hundreds of properties worth millions.” One of the department's big-ticket clients is Grainger (FYI – it's the UK’s largest specialist residential landlord and property manager) and BD solicitors recently acted for the company as it purchased 614 leasehold units across the country, worth a total of £58 million. On such hefty transactions, typical trainee tasks include “drafting leases and agreements, and liaising with clients.”
Other real estate clients come from the energy, chemical, education, retail and automotive sectors. Of late, the firm has worked for Govia Thameslink railway on a transaction involving depot leases and agreements, as well as station leases. In 2015 BD also added River Island to the books, and the firm now works on all the retailer's real estate matters; it's also been handling the impact of HS2 (the new high-speed railway that will link the capital to various UK cities) on RI's global HQ in London. A Geordie source who'd sat in commercial property told us: “I worked for an education funding agency that was acquiring school sites, as well as for local Quayside businesses. On smaller matters, you're given the chance to run the file by yourself, with supervision obviously.” This might entail “the sale of a commercial property at auction, so you need to handle the property title search and draft contracts.” On larger matters, rookies have “frequent contact” with the Land Registry and deal with leases and transfers. Operational property is all about “the retail aspect of a property,” an interviewee explained. “We act for tenants and landlords who are looking at occupying premises with businesses, usually consumer-facing businesses like shopping centres.” A stint in this seat might also involve work “relating to the energy sector. I've done a lot of doc review and risk analysis regarding wind farms that are coming to the end of their operational lives.”
On the property litigation side of things, well-known clients include Network Rail, Southern Railway and the National Trust. Solicitors recently acted for the latter during a dispute over a renewal lease concerning a patch of land subject to coastal erosion. Other clients include developer Bellway and Newcastle-based affordable housing provider Isos, which BD lawyers recently helped with a range of injunctions to tackle anti-social behaviour. A trainee clarified: “The injunctions against people based on disorder come under the Housing Act, which confused me at first!” Incomers also deal with agricultural land disputes involving farms and claims for arrears –“bread and butter” fare for the team. A lot of the work “stems from a deal being done elsewhere in the firm. On large transactions, notices being served will be discovered and the case then gets sent to litigation.” A trainee recalled: “I went to the Royal Courts of Justice on my own for a couple of trials. Those were my favourite moments. Counsel do the advocacy obviously, but as a trainee you know the case inside out. You instruct counsel, draft their brief and prepare the bundle, then take notes at court.”
“There's a brilliant variety of work.”
Whatever their location, sources reported that the corporate seat involves “a mixture of local and national work.” In the North East, the client list ranges from software company Sage Group through to digital finance start-up Atom Bank and multinational chemical manufacturer Huntsman Corporation. Solicitors recently helped Vertu Motors acquire both Audi and VW dealerships for £15 million. Trainees keep busy with standard fare like drafting board minutes and resolutions along with post-completion tasks such as bibling. However, “you also get to draft correspondence to clients and work on the smaller sections of the SPA – the good thing about BD is that they're keen to get trainees involved in the weightier documents.”
Mediation, Masons and millions
The 45-lawyer strong charities team has a presence across the country. Clients include the British Association of Oral Surgeons, Mental Health Matters, Addaction and the Masonic Samaritan Fund. Solicitors are acting for the latter regarding a proposed consolidation with three other masonic charities that have a combined turnover of more than £70 million. Interviewees described the work here as “like corporate but without the 'corporate' part. I drafted articles of association, asset transfer agreements and made applications to Companies House. The teams regularly sets up new charities, but we also get larger established charities coming to us for bespoke advice on niche points. Every query like that generally requires research, because charities law is very complicated.”
Trainees told us that their workflow “varies between seats. Some supervisors are keen to have a trainee's work directed through them, but in my current seat I'm working for every member of the team.” Despite these variations, interviewees were uniformly happy to declare that “in terms of support and training, the firm is pretty much spot-on. You're encouraged to do as much as you can on your own but there's always somebody there to help you. People will go into the background of a project if you ask them to. I've never been too intimidated to ask a question of anybody.” A source in Newcastle added: “My supervisor was out of the office today so I rang a colleague in Leeds instead and he helped me out with a question I had.” In addition to the seat-specific supervisor, trainees are assigned a mentor for the whole two years. This is usually a “junior solicitor who can help you with random queries that aren't necessarily related to the seat – when a partner hadn't responded to one of my emails, I asked my mentor for advice on how to chase it up.”
“There's a thriving young community.”
“The firm wants you to have a life,” trainees said on the subject of hours. “I wanted to work here because it was clear that people weren't corporate monsters – they don't want you to come in really early and work all night.” On the whole, most reported that a very average day involves getting in between 8.30 and 9am and leaving at about 6.30pm. Of course, some longer hours are inevitable. “During a mediation the days were ridiculously long, and I've been here until 10pm or 11pm on a corporate completion.” Even as the offices grow in a bid to fulfil that 2020 vision, trainees maintained that “people aren't pressured to work themselves into the ground.” Indeed, “excellent client experience is the firm's tag-line, so it's not just going to crush the fee earners with workload. Profit isn't the be-all and end-all.” Interviewees also felt kept in the loop about the firm's strategy: “We have a lot of briefings on how we're going to focus the next couple of months. Everyone is looking forward.”
Despite the disparate office locations, trainees thought that BD “feels like one big team.” A Bristolian explained: “I've worked with lawyers in Newcastle and Leeds, and it feels like they're just down the hallway.” Most agreed that “there's a lot of laughter and banter.” Social committees organise events in each location, such as bowling nights and cinema trips. One source had observed a shift in social gears: “When I was a paralegal at the firm several years ago, it felt like a place that City lawyers came to in order to enhance their family life, become partner and work from home. Now, there's a thriving young community. Friday drinks happen every week and there are lots of sports teams.” CSR committees are also active in every office, and a recent fundraising event saw trainees go clay shooting to support The Prince's Trust.
So what makes a BD trainee? “There's an interesting mix of people here,” mused rookies. “We're all amicable and confident, but nobody needs taking down a peg or two.” It's worth noting that several sources worked as paralegals at the firm before securing their training contract. When it comes to qualification, a jobs list is released in April and hopefuls can apply for up to two positions. Second-years indicated that they felt pretty confident about being kept on. In the end, 18 out of 24 qualifiers stayed in 2016.
“Everyone knows that the firm's going to have to go through another merger or acquisition in order to reach the top 20,” proclaimed a trainee. Watch this space.
How to get a Bond Dickinson training contract
Training contract deadline: 28 February 2017
Vacation scheme deadline: 28 February 2017
A good first step towards landing a Bond Dickinson training contract is getting a place on the firm's vacation scheme. As one current trainee pointed out, “almost all of us did it.” In 2016 the firm received 1,149 vac scheme applications, out of a total 1,440 applications for vac schemes and training contracts together.
Everyone begins their applications with the same online form which asks about candidates' academic achievements, outside interests and work experience – legal or otherwise. “On top of that, we ask some fairly searching competency-based questions,” head of recruitment Samantha Lee tells us. In 2016 the firm invited 540 candidates from the 1,440 who applied initially to send in a pre-recorded video interview, before inviting the successful 290 to assessment days.
The half-day session involves a group exercise that tests presentation and negotiation skills, a written exercise, and a short interview with a member of the HR team.
The best direct applicants progress to a final interview. This takes place with a partner and a member of HR, and involves a presentation prepared in advance on a commercial topic (vac schemers do this at the end of their placement).
Our sources agreed that demonstrating commercial awareness is key to getting a training contract here. “Preparation is everything – find out as much as you can about our clients,” trainees advised.
Bond Dickinson runs vac schemes in its Newcastle, Leeds, Bristol, and Southampton offices, accepting around 80 candidates in total. Both one and two-week programmes are available in each office.
Those on the one-week option sit in a single department, while those on the two-week scheme visit two. All vac schemers are allocated a supervisor, as well as a trainee buddy, and most get a chance to work on live matters. “We try to give them an experience as close as we can to the trainee one. It's about making sure they fit into our culture – we want to give a flavour of who we are so they can walk away saying yes it's for me, or no it isn't,” says Samantha Lee.
Lee continues: “We rely quite heavily on feedback from supervisors when deciding who should get a training contract. They complete a form on the quality of applicants' work and how commercially-minded they are.” Her advice for impressing? “Come prepared, and treat the scheme as though it's a two-week interview. The number one thing to do is to look like you want to be here, which means getting stuck in, being enthusiastic and inquisitive about our different practice areas, and producing the best-quality work you can.”
The Newcastle legal scene
4 More London Riverside,
- Partners 138
- Total staff 1,200+
- Total trainees 55
- Contact Graduate recruitment team
- Method of application Apply online at www.bonddickinson.com
- Selection procedure Online application, aptitude and ability tests, assessment day, presentation, interview
- Closing date for 2019 28 February 2017 for training contracts and summer placements
- Training contracts are based in Aberdeen, Bristol, Leeds, London, Newcastle, Plymouth and Southampton
- Training salary Competitive
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 40-50%
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2015) 75%