Give the City grizzlies the slip at this Bristol big'un, where top-quality work is the catch of the day.
Want big-city work without the sweaty London lifestyle? Join the Salmon run. “I didn't know you could do serious law outside of London until I found Burges Salmon,” one of this firm's 50 trainees said. “We may be based in Bristol, but we do City-quality work – just with a better work/life balance.” Indeed, when they're not gallivanting along the waterfront and enjoying the great outdoors, lawyers at this single-site operator can be found navigating choppy legal waters for big fish like Twitter and Thomson Reuters.
Their efforts have reeled in a prize haul of Chambers UK rankings. The firm is one of the best in the UK for rail franchising work, and it's a national leader outside London in the construction, corporate M&A, IP, litigation and real estate spheres. Back at home it receives top regional rankings for a whole host of other practices, including agriculture, banking, employment, family, environment and private client.
The firm experienced slow but steady growth following the recession, but "business has been booming lately," insiders tell us, pointing to the latest revenue increase; a 5.6% rise to £80.8 million in 2014/15. As trainee recruitment partner Keith Beattie notes: "The market is picking up, and there is a lot more happening across the firm because our clients are doing more." The trainee intake has inched up accordingly: “We've got 24 people in my year, 27 in the year below, and I hear the next batch will have 28,” a second-year revealed. “Things are clearly going well.”
Trainees rotate through six departments over the course of their two years. “Burges Salmon is a good option for people who aren't sure what type of law they want to do. There are so many groups you can sit with, including family, which very few firms as large as us have.” HR allocates seats a few weeks before each rotation, after trainees submit their top three choices. Our interviewees told us: "Most people get one of their preferences,” though a couple felt the process “lacks methodological transparency.” This mostly seems to be a gripe of the older generation, though. “Now they email you in advance if second-years have filled up any of the departments,” a first-year said, “and we also get to chat with HR midway through each seat to ask questions. I think we're as informed as we can be.” Stays in real estate and a contentious group are highly likely, and trainees typically spend their the final seat with the team they want to qualify into. “HR is very good at prioritising your final seat so you get your first choice.”
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. This makes for an "incredibly varied" seat: our sources had worked on everything from huge multimillion-pound finance disputes to small spats over racehorses. “It's never boring!” But there is “more supervision here than in a transactional seat, as inevitably the other side will spot any mistakes you make." The bigger cases often make headlines, like when the team defended the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority against a £120 million damages claim over the procurement of a £7 billion contract for the decommissioning of 12 nuclear power stations. Other recent clients include Eurostar, Nationwide and the Football League. Trainees who'd sat here told of drafting claims forms and skeleton arguments, writing letters to the other side, bundling and attending court. There are also “almost daily research tasks,” but this isn't as dull as it sounds: “I recently did some IP research for one of our clients, Victoria's Secret, which meant spending much of the day browsing lingerie websites. I eventually had to turn around and say to my supervisor that it wasn't what it looked like!”
Like ducks to Waterstones
Real estate is one of the firm's busiest departments, and we hear partners here "are more willing to throw juicy matters your way,” with several sources telling us they encountered “the most responsibility of the whole training contract" during their time with the team. “I was able to run a few matters from start to finish," reported one. "They rely on trainees heavily, but they don't just abandon you; your supervisor will step in if they can see you hyperventilating.” Typical trainee tasks include drafting leases, licences and Land Registry forms, reviewing registered titles, giving advice to clients “on the spot,” and assisting with stamp duty land tax returns. “It's hard to pin down what a typical day looks like because the work is so varied,” one revealed. “Some partners work in finance, while others focus on renewables or agriculture. Trainees are free to pick up a range.” The Crown Estate is a big client: the team is the principal adviser on its St James's portfolio and recently advised on a few local lettings, including that of Jamie Oliver's restaurant Barbecoa in Piccadilly. Other clients range from retailers like Waterstones to investors, energy companies and commercial developers.
The scope of the corporate contingent is similarly varied, covering the energy, education and transport sectors, among others. “There's a specialist team that does corporate funds and takes on its own trainee each rotation, but apart from that everyone tends to pick up a mix. A lot of the time you're acting in a support role for the rest of the firm. There's a lot of crossover with banking, employment, real estate and tax. It's a great seat if you want to get a general overview of the firm as a whole.” There's a fair amount of cross-border work – lawyers recently advised Malaysia-based YTL Hotels on its £12 million acquisition of Thermae Development Company – alongside domestic deals like the Co-operative's £249 million sale of its farms business to the Wellcome Trust. Transactions “are typically pretty large,” with trainees relegated to “project management and drafting board minutes and small documents like shareholder agreements. We also run completion checklists and data rooms, and lead clients through the signing process at completions."
The private client department is split into four subgroups; international tax and trusts, UK tax and trusts, corporate tax and family. "You can theoretically get work from all of them, but usually you stick to one.” International tax and trusts services “a lot of non-domiciled high net worth individuals with tax concerns,” while UK tax and trusts mostly works for landed gentry, "usually well-off asset owners and large farmers. There's a lot of inheritance tax, family planning and wills.” Much of the department's work is confidential, but we can reveal that recent clients include the likes of Barclays and UBS. “I had direct contact with clients right away,” one trainee bragged, while others proudly reported drafting deeds of advancement and termination, writing letters of advice and administering estates. “As it's quite a technical seat, there's an awful lot of fine-point research on things like tax reliefs and stamp duty. You end up learning a huge amount!”
The firm runs regular secondments with major corporate clients (including banks), though unfortunately we can't name any. “It's definitely a worthwhile experience,” one source enthused. “In private practice you're closely supervised, but in-house you're left almost completely alone. It's scary at first, but you learn to be more careful and eventually return to the firm with more confidence.”
To get newbies into the swing of things, there's a firm induction and run-through of internal systems in their early days, followed by talks about the different departments and trainee life. A tour of the building gets them acquainted with the office's nooks and crannies: “It was bizarrely thorough – I felt like Bruce Willis in Die Hard navigating all the air-conditioning units!” From there on are practice-specific training sessions to kick off each seat rotation.
The Burges Salmon operation is based in Bristol's ultra-modern One Glass Wharf. “It's got an amazing canteen called Glassworks that serves hot meals three times a day, with 'credit munch' options if you don't feel like splashing the cash,” raved one trainee, while others chimed in to praise the central location, around ten minutes' walk from Cabot Circus shopping centre and Temple Meads Station. “I've lived in London before and don't miss it at all. Bristol is much smaller – you don't have to spend an hour on the Tube with somebody else's armpit in your face to get to work. I just walk along the waterfront and I'm here.” Another noticeable difference between the two? “We have a much better work/life balance than anyone I know in the City. Across the firm, average hours are probably 9am to 6.30pm for trainees, with occasional late nights if things are particularly busy.” Still, trainees hardly burn the midnight oil: 10pm was the latest any of our interviewees had stayed. Before we could even ask whether all this comes at the expense of low remuneration (as is often the case at regional firms), our sources swooped in to chirp about how salaries are “competitive for the area,” starting at £34,750 and increasing to £35,750 for second-years. “They're not quite London rates, but then again the cost of living here is cheaper.” The firm actually does have a base in London, though it's not permanently staffed and exists “more for meeting clients than anything – trainees might spend a day or two each month there."
Trainees thought having everybody in the firm under one roof has "gone a long way in establishing a really friendly, collaborative culture." As one said, “by the end of your training contract, you've had the opportunity to meet most of the 600-odd people who work here. When I had my introductory tour of the real estate department, one of our biggest, I was surprised I knew most people already. Just the other day I was in line to get a coffee and having a chat with the managing partner. I bet at a large London firm like Freshfields you probably wouldn't even meet them.”
The firm's social affairs often revolve around its CSR efforts. “We recently held a Strictly Come Dancing-style charity event called Strictly Legal,” a trainee revealed. “A lot of our most recent in-jokes stem from that – there's one partner in the office who now goes by 'Twinkle Toes'.” The office isn't only home to fleet-footed foxtrotters: "there's a gorilla here.” Come again? “He's a big statue and we call him Bert. We have an awards ceremony called the Outstanding Service and Contribution Awards, and the most coveted prize is a little gold gorilla. We certainly embrace the weird. We also have a giant Gromit statue called Lancelot and we've sponsored a Shaun the Sheep in London called Baa-roque.” At the time of our calls, trainees were looking forward to the annual 'Firm Frenzy' at the end of the financial year, which we're told will include a performance from house band Constructive Feedback as well as a 'Best of British' fancy dress competition. “Some people are thinking about going as fish and chips,” one confided.
Burges Salmon trainees hail from a decent mix of universities and hometowns between them “as the firm doesn't just concentrate on hiring from Oxbridge or the South West. It's funny – we're all very different, but somehow it just works. We get on really well and socialise together a lot, and quite a few of us even live together.” Keith Beattie tells us "there's no magical formula" when it comes to selecting trainees. "We just want people who will work hard and have good commercial awareness. For me, that means people who take an interest in the business of the firm and our clients."
Retention has traditionally been high at Burges Salmon, with the firm keeping on more than 85% of its cohort in each of the last six years. In 2015, all 24 qualifiers were retained. Impressive.
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How to get into Burges Salmon
Vacation scheme deadline: 14 January 2016
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2016
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 Lambton, 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 and Nottingham.
Burges Salmon runs four two-week summer 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 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 Lambton 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 partner.
The ideal candidate
You'll need at least a 2:1 degree and 300 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 Lambton, 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.
Interview with former trainee recruitment partner Keith Beattie
Andrew Burnette is now Burges Salmon's trainee recruitment partner.
Student Guide: What kind of work does Burges Salmon take on?
Keith Beattie: The firm's docket is a broad one, covering practices such as corporate, commercial, finance, real estate, private client and private wealth. Over the past few years we've made efforts to move away from practice area-based grouping, choosing instead to tailor our subgroups so that they cater to certain industry sectors. Energy and utilities, financial services, infrastructure, transport, and real estate are just some of the sectors that we aim to attract. We believe that if sector specialists from different practice areas are placed in sector-specific teams, they're much better equipped to understand and provide for all of the issues that clients working in that sector may have.
SG: Despite being concentrated in Bristol, the firm does attract a large amount of work from elsewhere, especially London. Is it therefore wrong to refer to Burges Salmon as a regional firm?
KB: We see ourselves as a leading UK firm. It's true, the vast majority of our work does come from outside of the South West: London is always busy, and regular opportunities crop up from around the UK. International work is also growing, but we're still always looking at opportunities in the South West too. We'd never ignore the clients on our doorstep, it's just that adopting a sector-based focus has meant that we're better equipped to deal with clients who may have offices in any number of different places. So to some extent, we're indifferent to location.
SG: So there's no intention to move central functions to the capital?
KB: I'll never say never, but I doubt it for now. None of our fee-earners are stationed down in London; the office functions more as a useful space in which to meet clients. Yes, there's a good chance you'll spend some time there, as clients often pass through the capital, but our clients are spread all across the country, and some are even further afield. If we ever need to contact them, we either meet them in person, or talk via videocon. We feel that we're able to meet all of our clients' needs from Bristol, and on a permanent basis see advantages in having everyone under one roof. It makes internal communication so much easier, as we all know one another.
SG: Trainees said that the firm's major draw is that it offers city-quality work without the hectic lifestyle. Is that the balance that Burges Salmon always tries to foster?
KB: I wouldn't say that we've been trying to foster that balance. It would be a misconception to think that people come here and will always have it easy. We employ staff who are highly motivated and hard-working, but living and working in Bristol gives them the advantage of lower rents and shorter commutes. This means that they're more able to get out and do things in the evening after their work is completed. There are certainly some late nights, as well as the occasional busy period that is not too dissimilar to life in the City. However, averaged over a year it would be fair to say that the work-life balance in Bristol is more manageable.
SG: So besides being hard-working and motivated, what else are you looking for in a candidate?
KB: We are looking for someone who is interested in becoming a better solicitor, interested in their clients, and prepared to take some degree of responsibility for their own career development. Those who do well here are those who look for opportunities to take on new challenges, contribute to the team, and take an interest in the sectors that we cater to and the clients that we serve.
Work experience is always helpful for individuals trying to get into the legal profession, and we certainly look favourably upon those who've scouted out some relevant opportunities. Practising law is very different to the academic study of law, and it's difficult to get a feel for the day-to-day challenges that arise when your knowledge doesn't extend beyond the pages of a textbook. In fact, even if you've gained experience working at a different sort of firm, I'm of the impression that it's all worthwhile. At least you know what you don't want to do.
SG: When recruiting trainees, does the firm favour certain factors from candidates' backgrounds, like university attended?
KB: If you look at our staff, there's a very diverse range of backgrounds. People come to the firm from all sorts of different universities, and a number of people have had previous careers before joining us. It is fair to say that we would expect strong academics but we are open minded as to what degrees people have done and where they've studied.
The most important thing for us is to see that an applicant has done their research. You should expect to be questioned on what it is Burges Salmon does, where it's heading and what it has been up to recently. Beyond that, we like to see interviewees who can clearly explain why exactly they want to pursue law as a career, and why they feel that Burges Salmon is the firm for them.
A rough guide to Bristol
A bit about the city
Nestled between the borders of Somerset and Gloucester, Bristol is commonly labelled the 'gateway to the South West', thanks largely to one Isambard Kingdom Brunel – the esteemed, cigar-chomping Victorian engineer behind the Great Western Railway, which links Bristol to London Paddington. He was also responsible for one of the city's most iconic landmarks: the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
These achievements have had a lasting impact on Bristol's position and status in the country: after Brunel kick-started the city's connectivity, Bristol went on to become the success story it is today.
'Bristle' used to be a bustling seaport that thrived on maritime commerce (and, in the early, the slave trade). These days, the Port of Bristol no longer plays a vital role in keeping the city afloat. Instead, its prosperity is far more dependent on the aerospace, technology, and research industries, which alongside neighbouring tech hubs Gloucester and Swindon, have helped to put the West Country's Silicon Gorge on the map. Major companies that operate in and around Bristol include multinational conglomerate Toshiba and American IT giant Hewlett-Packard, both of which have national research laboratories based in town.
The forecast for Bristol over the next few years is very promising. According to the economic growth researcher Centre for Cities, Bristol's total number of businesses grew 22.8% between 2004 and 2013. Only four English cities charted higher. With strong tech credentials, and healthy media, financial services and tourism industries, Bristol has proved a key force in the UK's economic recovery. The 'City Deal' – a deal agreed in 2012 between the mayor of Bristol and the government which empowers the city to draw in a sizeable amount of private investment – will no doubt help to boost Bristol's strength in the years to come. According to early estimates, this investment should hit £1.5 billion and forge around 40,000 jobs over the next 30 years.
All in all, the Bristol's future looks pretty rosy.
The city's legal marketBristol has long been recognised as an important hub for legal services. There used to be a time when Bristol was solely the turf of strong native firms like Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke. Slowly over the past few years, however, bigger national and international firms have begun to see the allure of Bristol. CMS was the first to cotton on to the city's potential, launching an office all the way back in 1990, but since 2010 Irwin Mitchell, RPC and Simmons & Simmons have all set up shop too.
That London firms are drawn to Bristol underscores the legal community's confidence in the city as a viable hub for business. The knowledge-based economy in Bristol tallies with many of the aforementioned firms' existing and target clients, and a Bristol base means firms can drive down costs – a key factor in Simmons & Simmons' decision to open in the city.
The emergence of non-native players hasn't dislodged the performance of the city's home-grown firms, though. Burges Salmon posted an 6% rise in revenue in 2014/15, cashing out at a tasty £80.8 million. Fellow Bristolian Osborne Clarke put in a similarly strong performance: its turnover rose 9% to £96.5 million in 2014/15. TLT too has grown substantially over the past few years, with firm turnover breaking the £60 million mark for the first time in 2014/15. Where the firms go, the legal education providers go too, and Bristol is no exception. The University of Law stormed into the city in 2010 to join long-standing providers BPP and the Bristol Law School at UWE, and it didn't take long before ULaw brought up the rear, securing deals to educate Osborne Clarke's and DAC Beachcroft's incoming trainees.
Life at a Bristol firm
Bristol firms have a long history of poaching City lawyers tired of excruciatingly cramped, rush-hour tube journeys followed by 14-hour days in the office. Burges Salmon has embraced this stereotype quite strategically over the years, producing adverts that depict 'sardines' (hapless tube-passengers with their faces squashed against the doors) placed above the bold word 'salmon' (a nod to the idea of free-swimming solicitors merrily leaping upstream to work at BS). Another advert simply depicted ecstatic lawyers in wetsuits, implying that you can have enjoy a desirable beach lifestyle if you decide to practise at the firm.
There's no doubt a refreshing walk down a tree-lined hill is a million times more enticing than a sweaty crush on the Central line, but we should point out that life in Bristol isn't always a nine-to-five paradise. At Osborne Clarke, for example, our research shows trainees – especially those in transactional departments – occasionally encounter the kind of late-night shifts seen at City firms, though the average day is still a reasonable 9am to 7pm. As our trainee sources confirm, the atmosphere at such firms has become increasingly 'corporate' over the years, and many are keen to dispel the myth that life at a Bristol law firm is a piece of cake.
Indeed, the pressure's cranking up as the stakes get higher, and the city's legal market has become more competitive as a result. In 2011 Temple Quarter, near Temple Meads station, was declared Bristol's upcoming enterprise zone, and many firms – including Simmons & Simmons, Osborne Clarke and Burges Salmon – have since relocated to the area. As such, many trainees in Bristol today have quite a different experience than what they would have ten or so years ago – one with more of a 'City' flavour. As one Burges Salmon trainee told us: “Temple Quarter is a much more corporate area than where we were before, which does change the overall atmosphere at the firm.” With this change has come a bigger range of local, national and international work for the aforementioned firms, plus more opportunities for client contact for their young lawyers, so we get the impression that Bristolian trainees feel they are very much coming out on top.
Burges Salmon LLP
1 Glass Wharf,
- Partners 81
- Assistant solicitors 350
- Trainees 55
- Contact Frances Lambton, recruitment advisor (trainees olicitors), email@example.com
- 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 in 2016
- 2016 vacation scheme 14 January 2016
- 2018 training contract 31 July 2016
- Training contracts p.a. 30
- Applications p.a. 1,500 approx.
- % interviewed p.a. 10%
- Required degree grade 2:1 in any discipline
- Training salary
- 1st year (2015)£34,750
- 2nd year (2015)£35,750
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- Post-qualification salary (2014) £45,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2015) 100%
Main areas of work
Sponsorship & awards