Cast your line westwards if you're fishing for quality catch outside of London.
A Fish Called Burges
If you thought you wouldn't find top-notch legal work outside the Big Smoke, think again. “Bristol's got a lot going for it, while not being as big and scary as London – that's a good summary of the firm too,” our sources agreed. High-profile clients like John Lewis, Virgin and HSBC? Check. Stellar reputation with an array of top rankings in Chambers UK? Check. And all in the heart of the West Country where “the atmosphere doesn't feel stuffy and corporate.” But what about the culture within the firm's swish quay-side office in the heart of Bristol? “It's quite laid back, and everyone is approachable and friendly. Plus everyone gets to work together under the one roof, which makes for a cosier atmosphere.”
Let's take a closer look at those Chambers UK rankings: in the South West, the firm is rated the crème of the crop in every single area it's ranked in; further afield it's considered a national leader outside of London in areas like corporate, litigation, real estate and IP. On a UK-wide basis, Burges Salmon really does give some of the City's heavyweights – including magic circlers A&O and Freshfields – a run for their money when it comes to energy, transport and public procurement work.
“Our independence is very important to us.”
Burges' recent appointment to the top tier of the Crown Commercial Service's (CCS) legal panel – which advises central government bodies on projects, disputes and broader initiatives – is further proof that this firm can hold its own. Training principal Andrew Burnette explains that “getting this appointment is a very positive thing for us, particularly given how much emphasis the government is placing on infrastructure in the next few years.” The firm's revenue may have dipped slightly during the 2016/17 financial year (to £87 million), but retention rates have remained strong – the firm made offers to 100% of its qualifying trainees in 2017, and all 28 decided to stay.
Strategy-wise, the firm announced in 2016 that it would be focusing its efforts on seven sectors: transport, infrastructure, private wealth, real estate, energy, financial services and the public sector. “Following our rebranding we've got a very clear message that's been received positively,” says Burnette, “and we're properly marketing the sector expertise that we have: for example, our energy team was recently commissioned by the Cayman Islands' government to develop a long-term waste management strategy.” While Burges does attract international work, you won't find it launching overseas bases or linking arms with another firm: “There are many mergers going on out there – particularly in the mid-field that we occupy – but our independence is very important to us and we retain that as a crucial part of our long-term strategy. We're not going to become part of a multinational conglomerate,” Burnette informs us.
Trainees rotate through six departments for four months a pop; an ideal system, sources thought, for those who aren't sure where they want to qualify and would like to sample a broader selection of seats. “Given that there are quite a few trainees and departments, seat allocation tends to work out more often than not.” The process involves a chat with HR before each rotation, in which trainees state their top three preferences: “They endeavour to put you in your first choice, if not your second.” On one occasion a source didn't get any of their preferences “but that's fairly unusual.” In hindsight, they felt “it's important to be passionate about your choices in those meetings – to be polite, but also direct.” A seat in dispute resolution is the only compulsory seat, though interviewees agreed that “it's likely you'll do a seat in real estate as it's one of the biggest departments.”
“I got to see the cross-examination and had lunch with the barristers!”
Sources “didn't feel pigeon-holed” in Burges' dispute resolution department – the firm's largest – where wrangles relate to various areas, including pensions, real estate, IP and the sectors listed above.The client roster is therefore eclectic, with names including Victoria's Secret, Nationwide and the National Crime Agency.One matter that recently hit the headlines (dubbed 'wheelchair v buggy') saw the team act for FirstGroup in a disability test case that reached the Supreme Court; other highlights include acting for the National Crime Agency after an Israeli businessman brought a £220 million compensation claim against it, and the Co-op during a £4 million claim against the CMA over the pricing of tobacco products. Sources here had assisted with injunctions and attended “a whole trial: I'd done the trial prep and they wanted me to see it for my development. I got to see the cross-examination of witnesses and had lunch with the barristers!” There is “a bit of bundling” to tackle, but generallytrainees got to cut their teeth on more substantive tasks like drafting letters and settlement agreements, as well as legal research(“it's definitely a research-heavy seat.”)
Real estate is the second largest departmentand deals with everything from development to investment to finance to property portfolio management. On the development side, the team recently advised Swedish construction company Skanska as it partnered up with Bristol City Council to deliver three office sites in the city's new 'Enterprise Zone.' Key client The Crown Estate has also kept lawyers busy: they've advised it on the £67 million acquisition of a leasehold interest in a Central London property, as well as on its sale of Grade 1 listed Carlton House Terrace, which overlooks the Mall near Buckingham Palace. Most trainees felt the seat involved “lots of real work, like running your own small files under supervision.” One was chuffed to be “drafting licences, but also negotiating terms, reviewing what the other side wanted to put in, deciding if that was reasonable, and then completing and exchanging.” Others had drafted reports for landowners who were gearing up to rent their land, but also warned that while the seat “allows for plenty of writing and thinking about the issues,” there are still more administrative tasks like filling out Land Registry forms.
“We're trusted to conduct case analysis on minor disputes.”
Burges' projects group has been gaining in popularity among trainees since its formation in 2016. It advises a mix of public and private sector clients on a host of projects, but particularly those that relate to transport, energy and defence. It's a heavily regulated area, so advisory work takes up a fair bit of time and trainees get stuck into a lots of research tasks. Both domestic and international projects are encountered here: a good example of the latter is the aforementioned Cayman Islands project, while domestic highlights include advising the Ministry of Defence on the procurement of a class of submarines that will replace the country's Trident nuclear deterrent programme; and helping Marks & Spencer to implement a new project that will see its stores equipped with rooftop solar panels. Work can be both transactional and contentious, so sources found themselves “drafting and amending purchase documents for rolling stock” on rail deals, but also “helping to draft appeals to a chemical agency” when disputes arise: “At another firm you might spend an entire seat bundling, but here we're trusted to conduct case analysis on minor disputes.”
Sector strengths in the corporate department include food and drink, healthcare, leisure and energy. Lawyers here “advise on all kinds of corporate work, including M&A, corporate governance and matters for listed companies.” Private equity houseLDC Managers recently called upon the group to help it pull off the management buyout of food retailer Vital Ingredient; the team also advised the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority as it took over the running of the Sellafield nuclear site, and retail asset manager Premier Asset Management during its £63.7 million IPO. On M&A deals sources typically conducted due diligence on companies and kept track of the documents list. “I felt that I had an important project management role, as it was down to me to track the status of everything being negotiated. It gives you an understanding of everything going on in the transaction.” Other tasks included drafting ancillary documents, like shareholders' resolutions and board minutes. Corporate governance work required sources to “do a lot of research into shadow directorships and ways to help a company restructure.”
Pensions may be “notoriously unpopular,” but those who'd taken a tour of the department found that it's unfairly pre-judged: “Once people sit there they realise that it's really good with plenty of interesting work.” The seat involves “a range of advisory work, from guiding clients through regulatory issues to helping them administer pension schemes.” There's much drafting to be done, on deeds of appointment and on other supporting documents for schemes. It's an academic, “law-heavy” seat, but trainees do get up and away from their desks: “They really involve you in client meetings and throw you in at the deep end a bit, but you generally feel comfortable.” The team hit the headlines when its client – the Brunel Holdings Pension Scheme – worked with the Pensions Regulator to secure a settlement with Coats Group; the sewing thread manufacturer agreed to pay over £255 million into its pension scheme after legal proceedings were brought against it in a case echoing the BHS/Sir Philip Green débâcle.
Our sources reiterated that the culture “definitely lives up to how it's sold: everyone smiles and says hello, and it feels very inclusive.” It therefore wasn't surprising to hear that “there's always so much going on – we have a social committee, as well as a big charity committee that organises lots of events.” One highlight was 'Strictly Legal' – think partners in rhinestones, looking to be the next Anton Du Beke. “It was SO fun,” trainees recalled, “each partner presented two dances and had been training for weeks, just like Strictly Come Dancing. It took place in our glass-walled atrium: people were watching from their offices on every floor – it was fantastic!”
When the Lycra comes off, many hit the “regularly visited” wine bar on the ground floor. “Trainees organise things amongst ourselves, like drinks after work on a Friday, but there are also monthly socials and activities like bread making, cake making, and lots of sports.” Departments also tend to organise socials every couple of months. This flurry of activity doesn't come out of nowhere: interviewees believed that the firm actively “looks for people that they feel they will get on with. There are loads of intelligent people interested in law, but on top of intelligence the firm wants to be able to work with personable people – people who will communicate with their clients in an approachable way.”
The main office can be found on the banks of the River Avon overlooking Bristol. It's a stone's throw away from Bristol Temple Meads station, and within walking distance of Bristol's many bars and pubs. The building is “really modern, and when the weather's nice we get lots of sunlight pouring in.” Each office typically houses two lawyers, which trainees appreciated as it meant “having someone to bounce ideas and questions off of.” Burges does have a small London office, but it doesn't have any permanent staff and trainees are unlikely to spend much time there.
Hours were described as pretty reasonable, with the average day finishing at about 6.30pm: “Generally if you're out after that it's considered a late evening, but it depends on the department: the disputes seat can come with slightly longer hours, while pensions is more predictable.” Sources admitted that “if it's busier you're expected to stay later, but if you have nothing to do, they don't mind if you leave at 5.30pm on the dot.” Late finishes at Burges rarely stray beyond 8pm. More of an emphasis on agile working was something a few trainees wanted to see in the future: “I think people would like a bit more flexibility in terms of working from home. Different departments have different approval processes, but I'm sure it's going to come in more.”
When it came to qualifying, sources' outlooks were positive: “We have a good track record for retention, which is partly why I joined.” The firm doesn't publish a jobs list so “you don't really know who is hiring or how many jobs there are, so you just hope for the best.” Hopeful NQs submit their CV with their top choice of department. If that preference can't be accommodated, trainees can submit a second choice, but fortunately “almost everyone gets their top pick.”
For one of the firm's charity auctions, a first-year trainee won the chance to have dinner with Stephen Fry.
How to get a Burges Salmon training contract
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2018 (we consider training contract applications on a rolling basis – applications open on 1 October 2017)
Application and assessment
This should go without saying, but remember to pay close attention to spelling and grammar when submitting your online application. "We reject a lot of forms instantly because they haven't been checked properly,” says trainee recruitment adviser Frances Bennett, who adds: “The forms that stand out come from people who have done research into the firm beyond what can be found on the recruitment page, and who demonstrate a good understanding of our culture."
Both vac scheme and direct training contract applicants who nail this stage are invited to an assessment centre, complete with psychometric tests, group exercises and interviews.
At this point, vac scheme applicants who score highly enough go on to complete their vac scheme (see below). Meanwhile, between 35 and 40 training contract applicants are called back for an hour-long interview with a partner and member of HR. “They were really thorough and probed all aspects of my application,” recalled a current trainee. “They also presented me with certain situations to gauge how I would react to them and seemed genuinely interested in my responses." Another remembered: "I was asked quite a lot of business questions – like how the current legal market might affect a firm like Burges Salmon – and what decisions I would make if I was in charge. You really need to be up to date with your firm knowledge to do well."
Candidates are also likely to be asked why they want to live and work in Bristol, but you don't need to have a local connection to be successful – only about half of newcomers do. BS recruiters visited 16 law fairs in 2016, including Bristol, UWE, Exeter, Durham, York, Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Birmingham, Warwick and Nottingham.
Burges Salmon runs four vacation schemes. The firm takes on just ten candidates per placement in an effort to closely mentor and give enough work to each attendee.
Vac schemers normally visit two departments during their placement and have a trainee buddy on hand to assist throughout. In addition to skills sessions, the firm holds breakfast talks that give participants the chance to learn more about specific practice areas. Current trainees gave the programme a big thumbs up: "It's a well-planned scheme, and the work is meaningful.” Indeed, one told of drafting an article for a weekly publication, while another mentioned “writing something that ended up going to the partners,” and a third reported attending court with an associate and helping out on a pro bono project.
Vac schemers are automatically offered a training contract interview. Frances Bennett tells us successful interviewees are the ones who "think about how the work they've been doing fits into the bigger picture of the matters at hand." She adds that applicants need to be "enthusiastic, keen to get involved, and also have sensible questions to ask." The interview lasts for about 20 minutes and is usually conducted by a lawyer.
The ideal candidate
You'll need at least a 2:1 degree and 340 UCAS points to get a training contract here. In the past the firm has made exceptions, but the vast majority of applicants who don't have the above requirements face the chop.
According to Frances Bennett, work experience in a commercial environment is something recruiters look out for. “That could come from a law firm or any business really – for example, a part-time job in a shop, an internship in a bank or a stint in sales. Anything that involves providing a service and seeing how that makes money will stand applicants in good stead." Past trainees we've spoken with have beefed up their applications with administrative jobs, paralegal work and time spent with a local Citizens Advice Bureau.
A rough guide to Bristol
Interview with trainee recruitment partner Andrew Burnette
Chambers Student: Are there any highlights from the last year that you'd like to mention?
Andrew Burnette: Probably the most important highlight recently is that we've been appointed onto Tier One of the Crown Commercial Service General Legal Services Panel – the legal panel that makes up all the law firms that can do work for the government. They shrunk the panel from 48 to 12 firms. Getting this appointment is a very positive thing for us, given how much emphasis the government is placing on infrastructure over the next few years.
CS: What can you tell us about Burges Salmon's current strategy?
AB: Following our rebranding, we've got a very clear message that's been received very positively. We're properly marketing the sector expertise that we have: for example, our energy team was recently commissioned by the Cayman Island's government to develop a long-term waste management strategy.
I think that Burges Salmon will to continue to be a stand-out independent firm. There are many mergers going on out there – particularly in the mid-field that we occupy – but our independence is very important to us and we'll retain that as a crucial part of our long-term strategy. We're not going to become part of a multinational conglomerate.
CS: What challenges and opportunities do you feel Brexit will present?
AB: Undoubtedly it has had an impact on our business, in that ahead of the vote and in the immediate aftermath there was a noticeable softening in transactional work. Fortunately, since late autumn 2016, things have picked up and activity levels are beyond what they were beforehand, which is great. There is an obvious uncertainty around it. Clients are mostly seeking help on worst-case-scenario planning, but we see it as an opportunity because of our independence. We don't have offices overseas, so we're not going to be impacted by currency fluctuation or protectionism by European countries. We're keeping in very close contact with our preferred firms throughout Europe to make the most of an opportunities which arise.
CS: Will you be growing staff and trainee numbers?
AB: I think we're probably holding reasonably steady. I'd say this has been a year of consolidation. I'm expecting financial performance to be reasonably flat. We're not looking to expand staff or trainee numbers – particularly with the current uncertainty over the impact of Brexit. The firm has always maintained very steady organic growth; we're looking to keep a steady hand on the tiller.
CS: How can a candidate really impress at interview?
AB: They can impress at interview by having made every attempt to try and figure out if this is the type of place they want to work at, and have made the effort to understand our unique culture. The firm is full of friendly, ambitious, collaborative people, who are all pulling in the same direction and get the ethos of the firm and why it works for clients. Ultimately, people have got to be resilient and capable of bringing empathy and warmth to their profession. We deliberately recruit personalities – we recruit people who we feel will buy into the ethos of the firm and its values, and will want to stay with the firm for a long time.
CS: What advice do you have for readers who are about to enter the legal profession?
AB: Gain as much exposure as you can to what's actually involved in doing the job you aspire to, in the type of firm you want to work in. Solicitors come in all shapes and size, and so do firms. For example, high street practices are not going to be reflective of a big law firm. It's difficult to get good work experience, but it is critical that people getting into this profession understand the commitment that is required, as well as the tremendous upside it can give. It is a fascinating job to do, but people don't always understand how hard it is. People have different expectations of what they want out of the profession, and clients are only getting more demanding, not less. Prospective solicitors have to know what they are letting themselves in for, and the most important thing is that people find the right firm for them. There's too much focus on taking any job they can find and trying to impress the firm, but the firm has to impress them as well. They've got to be able to see themselves working there long-term.
Burges Salmon LLP
1 Glass Wharf,
- Partners 88
- Associates 266
- Trainees 56
- UK offices Bristol
- Overseas offices None
- Graduate recruitment: Grace Gough [email protected]
- Training partner: Mark Shepherd [email protected] com
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 30
- Applications pa: 1,500 approx.
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A Levels: AAB/340 UCAS points
- Vacation scheme places pa: 40
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 3 November 2017 (winter) 11 January 2018 (spring/summer)
- Open day deadline: 28 February 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £35,000
- Second-year salary: £36,000
- Post-qualification salary: £47,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa:£7,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Bristol
Main areas of work
Open days and first-year opportunities
First year law and non-law and graduate insight days occurs in March and give attendees a chance to hear more about life as a trainee and take part in a mock assessment centre.
University law careers fairs 2017