Its office looks like something from Ancient Rome, but there's nothing old-school about Bristows, which offers more tech-related work than you can shake a USB stick at.
To boldly go...
Ground-breaking technological inventions are something of a forte for Bristows. Drafting the patent for the world's first electrical telegraph? Tick. Negotiating the laying of the first transatlantic cable? Tick. Calling the creator of the jet engine as an expert witness? You guessed it: big ol' tick. So if you're a technology nut, Bristows should definitely be on your training contract wish list. “While we're especially known for our TMT and life sciences focus, we've been broadening our tech comfort zone,” training partner Miranda Cass explains, detailing the firm's strategy. “Our message is: we advise clients that have an interest in technology of one kind or another, and we want to offer them a full-service in all commercial areas.”
Bristows came to the fore off the back of its IP know-how, and today it maintains top Chambers UK rankings for both its general IP and patent litigation work. Over the years it's worked on some the most high-profile patent disputes out there, including Samsung's jurisdiction-busting smartphone and tablet war with Apple. But Bristows isn't just a dab hand at IP: Chambers UK awards high rankings to its data protection, life sciences, IT, and media and entertainment expertise. That full-service message is also reinforced by the presence of ten practice areas, including corporate & financing, real estate, employment and tax.
“The digital market has exploded.”
Sticking with tech is proving to be a lucrative strategy: the firm's been firing on all cylinders thanks to the sector's booming activity levels. “The digital market has exploded,” Cass tells us. “The technology being used has thrown up all sorts of legal issues concerning how and by whom that technology can be used. This was reflected in the very high volume of litigation work we saw in the last six months of 2015.” Elsewhere, the IT practice has been bolstered by a spike in data protection breaches and outsourcing deals, while the corporate group has benefited from an increasing appetite for acquisitions: advertising company WPP is a particularly active client – “it's been on an acquisition trail!” Cass tells us.
Seats at Bristows can last for either three or six months. New trainees have no control over where they sit first, but subsequent seats are assigned following a mid-seat? chat with HR. “There's no ranking preferences or anything like that,” one trainee explained, “but it's your opportunity to state a particular interest in a certain area.” The relative informality of this system was “a little nerve-racking” for some, but on the whole sources felt that “they try to be as fair as they can – it just isn't always possible to accommodate everyone.” Trainees do face one certainty though: a seat in IP litigation. The firm's prestige in the area meant there weren't any grumbles about this – in fact, it proved to be one of the most popular seats, alongside its sister group commercial IP/IT.
Given its status as one of the firm's heavy-hitters, an IP litigation seat lasts for six months. The stint is divided into two, three-month chunks, with trainees changing supervisors in the middle to give them “an opportunity to experience different working styles and caseloads.” Being a litigation seat, there's “an inevitable amount of bundling, which is never the most exciting job.” However, aspiring Bristownians shouldn't resign themselves to a life of endless photocopying, as interviewees had also attended client conferences and completed several research assignments: “You might be tasked with finding out how a drug works, for example, and often what you've found out will inform an expert report or a skeleton argument.”
IP litigators handle both the hard and soft sides of IP, but our informants felt that “the firm over-emphasises the soft work – most trainees work on patent cases.” Lawyers here recently defended Google and Samsung against a patent troll whose claims, if successful, might have shut down all Android app services in the UK. They've also helped Siemens and DONG Energy fight a claim that alleged their wind turbine technology infringed patents held by Enercon, as well as Swiss pharma giant Novartis as it looked to enforce its patents in multiple countries. On the softer side of IP, the firm has been assisting US confectionery outfit Mondelez of late: first it helped the company fight Nestlé's attempts to trademark the four-finger Kit Kat shape, then lawyers set about taking on knock-offs of Mondelez-owned Oreo cookies.
If that doesn't sate your appetite for contentious work, the firm also has a commercial disputes team, which “covers any cases that don't fall within the IP litigation group's remit.” Unsurprisingly, “many fall within the technology, media and telecoms sectors,” but “they can involve any kind of business dispute.” Indeed: recent cases have involved quarrels between rival car dealerships, negligence claims against major law firms and Russian manufacturers in loan wrangles. The seat offers a good helping of drafting experience on instructions to counsel and letters to the other side, as well as “the usual trainee tasks like preparing bundles and liaising with the court.” Trainees even had the opportunity to manage their own cases, provided that they were on the smaller side. “Due to the sums involved, it was more cost-effective from the client's point of view for me to run it,” explained one.
“Me and a partner sitting around a table trying to work out how to draft a clause to fit what the client wanted.”
With its neoclassical office and tech-y focus, Bristows isn't everyone's image of a 'corporate firm' – but management has been eager to grow its corporate offering for a while. There's a lot of “bespoke drafting,” confided one corporate trainee, which involved “me and a partner sitting around a table trying to work out how to draft a clause to fit what the client wanted.” This, of course, is in addition to the more usual things like company searches. The team mainly handles mid-market transactions, and sources placed the majority of deals within the £5-50 million range. While this may be pocket change in the world of high finance, deals can involve well-known names like WPP and Time Out. The team recently advised the former on several digital media acquisitions, and helped the latter as it purchased a £7 million stake in mobile payments tech company Flypay.
It may not be what most people go to Bristows to do, but the small real estate department offers its trainees the chance to run their own files. “In terms of what the client sees, you're the face of the firm,” enthused one insider. More senior lawyers take the lead on larger deals, which see trainees “doing a lot of drafting and research – often we're working out why specific wording is used, or the effect of a certain clause.” Those TMT clients have been acquiring and reshuffling property interests in and around London of late, sending plenty of work Bristows' way. Audio specialists Dolby and advertising arbiter Clearcast are on the books, as is Kodak Alaris – the team has been helping it to redevelop its Harrow-based photographic paper manufacturing site for the past decade. It may come as a surprise to hear that the group also boasts a specialist retail focus in the garden centre sector: they acted for LaSalle Investment Management as it disposed of its garden centre portfolio for £112 million.
Secondments are a big deal at Bristows. Although it has no foreign offices, the firm regularly dispatches trainees to clients, including WPP, Capgemini and Google – an opportunity that went down very well with our sources. “You get to experience a different environment, and often sit in a smaller team,” one informed us, “plus, of course, you get client contact every day.” With great client contact comes great responsibility: secondees were involved in “negotiations over the phone,” and managed “contact between the client and other companies.” Admittedly, the experience can be quite daunting, “especially when you're asked very specific legal questions!” Luckily, trainees felt they were well-supervised throughout, and mentioned that the firm was always on hand to answer any questions.
Patenting the town red
“Compared to other firms, the hours aren't merciless,” one informant told us. On average, 'typical days' tend to last from 9am to 6-7pm. Most folks' idea of a 'late night' fell somewhere between 10.30pm and 11pm, although we did hear of “a few shockers when there's an impending deadline,” with some trainees heading home at 1am on occasion. Outside the office, “every pub in the area has been visited at least once,” but the social scene doesn't just involve alcoholic libations. Trainees regularly bond over lunch and dinner, with nearby Chi Noodle Bar singled out as a favourite haunt. There's also a bunch of firm-wide events, which range from pub quizzes to “spring dinner dances.”
Bristows is based in London's Unilever House, a physically striking building with, we admit, a somewhat intimidating façade. New trainees need not fear, though, for behind its mighty Romanesque exterior Bristows receives top marks for its jovial culture. “I really love it,” said one trainee, “you feel included right from the start, and people actually care what you think.” It's the sort of place where “everyone pitches in when there's bundling to be done,” and “you're not afraid to ask questions when you're stuck.” Bristows is not a huge place (as law firms go) and our spies here felt the size definitely influences the culture. “I have always preferred a smaller environment where people know each other and say hello,” one relayed, while others flagged how a smaller trainee intake – around 20 in total – impacts the role newbies play: “It means that trainees can really get stuck into everything that's going on from the get-go.”
“If you search for life sciences-related law firms, Bristows will appear very quickly,” one trainee stated, before adding that the scientific slant to the work draws in many an applicant. It's no surprise, then, that the powers that be “definitely ensure there are a good number of science graduates.” However, we also heard that students of law, the arts and other humanities are all just as welcome here. “I don't have a science degree,” one admitted, “but I really enjoy learning about the science side of the work.”
"Trainees can really get stuck into everything."
While not having a science degree isn't a barrier to nabbing a Bristows training contract, applicants do need to bring their A-game: after all, there are around 1,400 people applying for those ten annual places. “It goes without saying that the academics need to be there,” says training partner Miranda Cass, but the firm also looks for people “with the stamina to do different things – we tend not to recruit people who have only done academic stuff.” A solid CV might help you get into the interview room, but once you're there, your interrogators will be less interested in what you have done and more concerned with how you're likely to fare in the future. “We put them in a completely new situation and ask them to talk through how they'd go about sorting it out,” Cass explains.
At the time of our calls, none of our interviewees had any hands-on experience of the qualification process, as it was still a month away. Nevertheless, second-years expected an “informal process,” involving a short meeting with two recruitment partners about their options, before submitting two choices via email. Decisions are based on the usual factors like business need, a trainee's performance reviews and “how well you got on in the department you're applying to.” Our sources were fairly confident they'd be kept on. “Retention is usually high,” one told us, pointing to previous years' figures. In 2015, the firm kept on eight out of ten qualifiers; 2016 didn't break the trend either, as eight of nine took up NQ positions.
Instead of a newsletter or a series of alerts, the firm keeps its clients up-to-date via a snappily-named microsite called the 'Cookie Jar'.
How to get a Bristows training contract
Workshop deadline (2016/17): 23 November 2016 (winter); 31 January (spring and summer)
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 January 2017 (first round); 31 July 2017 (second round)
Bristows runs two open days every year. These take place in the spring/summer period, and offer details on the firm's training contract as well as becoming a solicitor in general.
The first is aimed specifically at science and engineering students. The event includes talks on the practice areas in which scientific expertise is a particular advantage, and how to convert a science background into a legal career.
The second open day is aimed at all undergraduate students. Attendees are given a broad introduction to different types of law firms, as well as talks on what a training contract involves. There's also an opportunity to meet Bristows' current trainees and have a brief chat with some of the partners.
There are up to 30 spots available on each open day. Applicants are required to complete a short online application form.
In 2013 the firm replaced its vac scheme with a series of two-day workshops that take place across the winter, spring and summer. Corporate partner Mark Hawes explains the change: “In the past we found that offering people a week or more on a vacation scheme meant that we placed too many eggs in one basket. By introducing these workshops, we aim to see far more people and recruit more of them for training contracts.”
Applications begin with a comprehensive online form. We're told that those who pass this stage are the ones who demonstrate excellent academic performance and a clear interest in a career at the firm. “We want to see evidence of research and that candidates have looked at a range of sources,” says graduate resourcing and alumni manager May Worvill, touching on the importance of providing answers that are well structured and tailored to the firm.
Shortlisted candidates go on to participate in a short video interview which is reviewed by HR. Questions revolve around key competencies (like business acumen, interpersonal and communication skills) as well as a candidate's motivation to pursue a legal career at Bristows.
“We ensure that those on the workshop receive intensive exposure to the firm,” says Hawes. Indeed, across the two days there are presentations on the different kinds of work each department handles, interactive case studies and a series of meet-and-greets, including a ‘speed-networking’ event between candidates and representatives across the firm. There's also lunch and drinks with the current trainee crop as well as a meal with the trainee committee. “We want participants to have had quality time with partners, associates, trainees and support staff by the time they leave us,” Hawes tells us.
Note that those who attend a workshop are still required to submit a separate application for a training contract.
Training contract applications
Unusually, the firm has two recruitment rounds throughout the year: the spring recruitment (application deadline: 31 January) round is aimed at final year undergraduates and graduates, while the summer round is open to all applicants (application deadline: 31 July).
Like workshop applicants, those applying directly for a training contract begin with an online form, albeit a slightly more comprehensive one which includes a personal statement in addition to the usual 'Why Bristows?' and 'Why law?' questions.
Candidates who clear this first hurdle participate in a video interview like the one outlined above, followed by a face-to-face interview with a partner and an associate. The third (and thankfully final!) round of interviews takes place with two partners on the training committee, at which point applicants are also required to complete a written exercise.
According to Hawes, “it's personality that's most important during the actual interview. Lots of our work is client-facing, and in the sectors we operate in – life sciences and media – this means you're often dealing with whiz-kid inventors. We're looking for charming people who will be able to talk to these kinds of clients and maintain their interest.”
Trends in the technology sector
100 Victoria Embankment,
- Partners 38
- Assistant solicitors 92
- Total trainees 19
- Contact Graduate resourcing manager
- Method of application Online
- Selection procedure A video interview, two individual interviews and a written exercise
- Closing date for 2019
- 31 January 2017 for February interviews
- 31 July 2017 for August interviews
- Training contracts pa Around 10
- Applications pa 1,500
- % interviewed pa 5%
- Required degree grade 2:1 (preferred)
- Training salary
- First year (2016): £38,000
- Second year (2016): £41,000
- Holiday entitlement 23 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 75%
- Post-qualification salary (2016) £60,000
- % trainees offered a job on qualification (2016) 89%
Main areas of work