Looking for City-type work away from the chaos of the capital? Swim against the current and find it on the banks of the river Avon at Burges Salmon.
Among firms outside London, Burges Salmon is more sushi, less fish finger; more caviar, less jellied eel. This independent Bristol institution does top-level commercial work for high-profile clients like Starbucks, Eurostar, Shell and John Lewis. As one trainee put it, “just because we're in Bristol doesn't mean we don't do the same work as lawyers in London.” This inevitably brings comparisons with other aspects of lawyer life in London. One interviewee commented: “Some of my good friends are at big corporate firms in the City and, well... let's just say I don't see much of them anymore because of the hours they work. A long day here doesn't even come close, and our salary isn't that different when you consider living costs – so I'm more than a little smug.”
But does the firm's work really stack up against that of firms in London? We'll let the Chambers UK rankings do the talking. In some specialist areas like energy, public procurement and transport the firm certainly operates on a par with City outfits, winning top rankings which place it alongside firms like Ashurst, Hogan Lovells and Linklaters. Of course, the firm can't compete for London-specific rankings, but in the South West it wins top-tier accolades in every category it's ranked in, while also being recognised as a national leader outside London in core areas like real estate, corporate and litigation. And all of that by operating out of just one office (the firm has a pied-à-terre in London but it has no permanent legal staff). Partner Andrew Burnette believes “the single-site strategy is the most important factor in fostering the ethos we have here. It ensures everyone's pulling in the same direction and that everyone has a clear understanding of how we work.”
The firm's finances are looking good too, with a rise in turnover of 8% posted for 2015/16. Burnette tells us the firm is “targeting substantial organic growth,” and of course trainees play a key part in that. Retention rates are consistently high, and in 2016 this trend continued with 23 of 27 qualifiers retained. A recent rebranding exercise is further evidence of investment. While we were sad to see the on-point salmon pink colour scheme swim off into the sunset, one trainee was chuffed with “a brand-new website, new colour scheme and new logo. It's much more 'us'.” Another trainee believed: “We undersold ourselves before; we were too modest in how we represented ourselves. Now, we want to be sure our brand is reflective of our direction and success.” Burnette agrees: “Our previous external branding was too outdated and conservative; we also did not do enough to blow our own trumpet. Now our branding is accurate and shows we are modern and forward-thinking.”
“There's a bit of bundling, but once you've got that under your belt you move on."
Trainees rotate through six departments over the course of their two years. Four months in a department isn't terribly long so we weren't surprised to hear that “it can feel frustrating that after four months, just as you are finding your feet, you get the carpet pulled out from under you." But our interviewees nevertheless preferred their six rotations to a regular four-seat system as "it gives you a better overall view of the firm and you can see how everything links together." It's a delight for those who want training that's as wide-ranging as possible. "I wasn't entirely certain what I wanted to do as a lawyer," one source shared, "so I'd much rather experience more seats in order to find out what I want.” HR allocates seats a few weeks before each rotation, after trainees submit their top three choices, and most trainees were satisfied. “I've always got one of my top three picks," a trainee reported. "You always have a dialogue with HR, and if you're assigned a seat that you did not list as a preference, they will explain why.” Stints in real estate and a contentious group are highly likely, and trainees typically spend their final seat with the team they want to qualify into.
Dispute resolution and real estate are the firm's two biggest departments. The former is divided into “loose sector specialisms” like IP, energy, real estate, sport, agriculture and transport, and trainees are free to take on work from any. “I was told on day one, 'Your supervisor doesn't own you, so if you feel you are doing too much work for them then be proactive.' You're explicitly encouraged to ask people if you can get involved in their work.” Trainees end up with “a real mixture,” encompassing cases of all sorts and values. “I worked on large-scale professional negligence claims as well as much smaller debt recovery matters,” one trainee told us. “The biggest case we worked on was for Bristol Rovers, which was all over the news.” The case in question was worth £30 million and centred on Rovers' failed sale of its stadium to Sainsbury's. The team also represented the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in a £120 million damages claim over a £7 billion contract to decommission 12 nuclear power stations. A trainee told us: “There's a bit of bundling, but once you've got that under your belt you move on. I drafted instructions to counsel and went to court for an appeal hearing.” Trainees also spend time running small debt recovery matters.
Real estate is one of the firm's busiest departments and partners are more than happy to let trainees run small files. “After we were instructed to assist on the selling of land at auction, my supervisor sat me down and told me to run and manage it," a trainee told us. "I sorted out the auction pack, negotiated the deal and took questions from the audience before the land was sold for about £60,000. I had to ring the client to get all the documents signed – apparently she then rang up the firm telling them I should be kept on!” Typical trainee tasks include reviewing and drafting leases and licences, helping on completions and answering queries from clients. “It's a huge department with partners who focus on things like agricultural property, renewables and real estate finance – if you're interested in something you can go out and get it.” The Crown Estate is a big client: the team is the principal adviser on its St James's portfolio and also recently advised on the £83.5 million sale of Morfa Shopping Park in Swansea to Ashby Capital. The team also recently won John Lewis as a new client to add to a roster which already includes the National Trust, Waterstones and Transport for London.
Fish and ships
The corporate department covers the energy, healthcare and transport sectors, among others. “Corporate plays quite a central role within the firm," trainees informed us, "co-ordinating transactions and liaising with departments like real estate and banking. Corporate brings all the pieces together, and for trainees that means a lot of day-to-day document management and speaking to other teams.” There's a fair amount of cross-border work – lawyers recently advised the German digger manufacturer Kinshofer on its multimillion-pound acquisition of Auger Torque (which makes earth drills). In one domestic deal the firm advised renewable energy provider Infinis on the £20 million sale of its Welsh hydroelectric plants to Welsh Water and H2O Power. Trainees muck in drafting board minutes and share purchase agreements, churning through due diligence and helping with completions. “When clients come in on completion day, there's a lot waiting around for them to do!”
The newly formed projects department includes the Chambers-ranked environment practice which deals with nuclear, renewable energy and transport matters. “We help a lot of train operating companies bid for franchises," a trainee informed us. "We also deal with companies trading in big boys' toys – trains, fighter jets and submarines.” A whole host of government bodies are also clients, including the Ministry of Defence, the Departments for Transport and Education and the Home Office. Lawyers recently advised Ascent, a joint venture between military hardware and support companies Lockheed Martin and Babcock, on a contract to provide the MoD with a flight training system worth £1 billion. “The work is all contract-based, so you need a detailed understanding of service agreements," a trainee explained. “There's a lot of proof-reading and preparing for completions. As you get more senior you're also trusted to draft agreements and go to client meetings and negotiations.”
The private client department is split into a number of subgroups, covering international tax and trusts, UK tax and trusts, family and more. “I was part of the international team, but I wasn't necessarily always getting work just from them,” one source told us. In international, “the work is often for banks administering offshore trusts. The bank will instruct us on behalf of a client to provide advice.” On the UK side “there's a big wedge of traditional clients – landed estates which we have a very long-standing relationship with.” This provides trainees with plenty of work on inheritance tax, estate planning and wills. “In most cases you'll do the first draft of a trust deed, will or partnership agreement," an interviewee told us. "That involves researching some very thorny issues.”
In recent years trainees have been on secondment to major corporate clients like EDF and John Lewis and we also hear the firm has introduced international secondments, sending one trainee to a partner firm in Paris and one to the Law Society’s Brussels office.
“Working here – in one word – it's fun.” Even the most enthusiastic of trainees usually stops short of such excitable hyperbole, so we treated this with some scepticism and asked for an example. “We all share a love of sweet treats and cakes! There are cookie jars in all the meeting rooms and whenever anybody comes back from holiday they bring something back and there'll be a huge scramble to get some of it.” Such sugary vice is not all that defines the firm: newbies are encouraged to get involved in community volunteering – visiting pensioners, helping in schools – and raise dosh for the firm's charity of the year, which in 2016 was Bath-based social enterprise charity Julian House. Trainees were particularly gleeful about one event: “We organised what we called 'I'm a partner get me out of here!' in the atrium of the office. People had to vote which of the participating partners had to get gunged! The managing partner said he'd donate £100 if we gunged the head of disputes.”
In Burges Salmon's digs at One Glass Wharf – next to the River Avon and near Temple Meads station – trainees share a small office with their supervisor. Most were a fan of this: “It allows you to build a good relationship and you feel more comfortable asking mundane questions.” The single location means even newbies quickly “know people on every floor” which they also put down to the “friendly, supportive environment.” After hours, the firm's "community" feel continues and “you'll always find someone from Burges Salmon in the pub next door on a Friday.”
"The managing partner said he'd donate £100 if we gunged the head of disputes.”
It's a lot to fit in, but trainees reported still seeing some people “toddling off at 5pm on some days, although an average day usually lasts from 9am to 6.30pm.” Sources reported some late nights at critical points in transactions or trials, but “leaving after 8pm is out of the ordinary.” One recalled: “The pressure and workload does occasionally increase for deals but no one ever says, 'Here's 100 pages to work through, see you in the morning.' Once, the partners told me to go home despite the fact they were staying late themselves to see if a deal would complete.”
"Bristol is a fun, busy city – and I get to enjoy it as I don't normally work in the evenings.”
How to get a Burges Salmon training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 4 November 2016 (winter scheme) 12 January 2017 (spring & summer schemes)
Training contract deadline: 31 July 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 advisor 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 2015, 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
Student Guide: Are there any highlights from the last year which you think that our readers should know about?
Andrew Burnette: We have had a recent focus on identifying what we are particularly good at, which has culminated in a rebranding. The firm has refocused on its key sectors to make it clearer to the outside world where we think our strengths lie and where we are genuinely market-leading.
We have recently been appointed as one of the three panel advisers to John Lewis. They felt the firm's core values were aligned with theirs, which is surely one of the nicest things a client could say about you: that you have the same values as such a highly regarded business. It's an enormous thing for us to land a client of that calibre.
SG: The firm grew 5.6% in 2014/15 – is that something you are looking to keep up?
AB: The firm's financials for 2015/16 are coming in over the next few weeks. I don't know what the final outcome is yet, but provisionally it has been another very good year for the firm across the board. I'd say that is one of the strengths of the business: it's strong in a number of sectors, and they have all performed well. [The firm announced in July 2016 that it had seen a sixth consecutive year of growth by increasing turnover by 8%.]
We are continuing to target organic growth. For some time we have been recruiting ahead of need, actively recruiting more trainees and junior lawyers in anticipation of the firm growing.
The good performance has been very even among departments – that's been a welcome thing. There have been quite a few large projects involving lawyers from across the firm and something of a bounce back in real estate which has been strong over the past year. And although everyone thought litigation might die off a bit, so far it hasn't.
SG: How is the firm reacting to Brexit so far?
AB: It is very early days, but we see it as more of an opportunity than a threat. Undoubtedly, there's a level of reassurance which everyone is seeking, but as the shape and timing of Brexit is unknown it is a case of watch and wait. No-one can predict what it might ultimately look like. Our job is to keep clients informed, let them know about the precautions they might consider and for the most part tell them not to panic.
SG: Does the fact you don't have European offices make you more resilient?
AB: It certainly should do, as we don't have those overheads and don't suffer internally from currency fluctuations. But the thing which makes us most resilient is being well spread across a number key sectors and not being reliant on any one area. Our resilience comes from our breadth.
SG: What is the thought behind the re-branding? Why now?AB: Our previous external branding was too conservative and became outdated. It is also fair to say that we did not do enough to blow our own trumpet. We have to be active about presenting a profile which represents what people will actually find here. Now our branding reflects that we are a modern and forward-thinking firm, as well as being strong in a number of areas.
We have tried to put a better focus on the core sectors where we believe that we lead the market, rather than suggesting that we are brilliant at everything. That is not realistic for a firm our size. Now we are saying to clients 'if you come to us and want to talk about any of our seven key sectors, we speak your language and know it inside out'.
SG: In 2015 you retained all 24 of your qualifiers. What's the secret behind your good retention rates?
AB: It's the effort that goes into the recruitment part of the process. We're very careful in the way we select trainees in the first place. We avoid looking at just academics; we have to be interested in the people we are recruiting too. But it's a two-way street. We want trainees who want to work here, so potential recruits should always think about what specifically attracts them to the firm.
Nobody is pretending we are going to have 100% retention every year. [The firm retained 23 out of its 27 qualifiers in 2016.] At times that's not possible because of where trainees wish to qualify.
SG: How is the training contract affected by the firm operating out of a single office?
AB: We do have a London office [with no permanent lawyers based in it], but the single-site strategy (in Bristol) is one of the most important factors in fostering the ethos we have here. It ensures everyone's pulling in the same direction and that everyone has a clear understanding of how we work. Trainees genuinely have a realistic prospect of getting to know everybody in the office, which is a great way to start your career.
Burges Salmon LLP
1 Glass Wharf,
- Partners 85
- Assistant solicitors 250
- Trainees 57
- Contact Frances Bennett, recruitment advisor (trainee solicitors)
- Method of application Application form available via website
- Selection procedure Assessment centres include a psychometric test, a group exercise and a written exercise. Successful candidates will be invited back for an interview conducted by a partner and member of the HR team.
- Closing dates for 2019
- Winter vacation scheme: 4 November 2016
- Spring and summer schemes: 12 January 2017
- Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 30
- Applications pa 1,500 approx.
- % interviewed pa 10%
- Required degree grade 2:1 in any discipline
- Training salary
- First year (2015): £35,000
- Second year (2015): £36,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- Post-qualification salary (2016) £47,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2016) 85%
Main areas of work
Sponsorship and awards