Netting a 5.9% rise in revenue in 2015/16, Collyer Bristow is excelling through advising both businesses and high net worth individuals.
Business or personal?
With over 250 years under its belt, Collyer Bristow has managed to keep strong from the era of the industrial revolution to today's digital revolution. Brexit forms the latest challenge to businesses up and down the land, so how is CB set to handle that? Partnership director Phil Palmer tells us: “Collyer Bristow is well hedged to respond to such challenges thanks to the balance between our commercial and private clients, and we also have a slight geographic hedge in that 30% of our revenue comes from clients outside of the UK. The firm was able ride out the financial crisis thanks to this and we're confident it will help us to withstand any negative impacts of Brexit – and to take opportunities which arise!"
Picking up Chambers UK rankings for its private client, family and defamation work, Collyer Bristow's sweet spot lies in the overlap that occurs when serial entrepreneurs require both business and personal advice. The firm also features in the Chambers High Net Worth guide. CB offers a range of services – including commercial, property, disputes and family advice – to meet the needs of its varied client base. The firm also has an office in Geneva to better serve international clients, as well as teams in London covering Italian, Spanish, Russian, US and Nordic matters.
Four or five trainees are taken on each year, and the small intake and size of the firm definitely appealed to our interviewees. “It wasn't long until I knew everyone's name,” one newbie pointed out. In terms of seat allocation, the petite intake means that “there's a bit of give and take: trainees will quite often discuss their rotation choices among each other to make life easier for HR.” Newcomers submit their first seat preferences before arriving, and a meeting is held with HR before each subsequent rotation to balance trainee preference with business need.
“It wasn't long until I knew everyone's name.”
Sources noted that most trainees end up doing two dispute resolution seats – "it's the firm's largest department, and encompasses a number of different areas” including media and privacy, employment, intellectual property, financial disputes and real estate litigation. Disputes trainees are assigned to a supervisor – referred to internally as their 'principal person' – in one of these teams, though several of our sources had taken on work from others when their schedule allowed. “Gaining that varied exposure is certainly helpful when it comes to informing your rotation and qualification choices.”
Attracting “some pretty glamorous clients,” CB's media and privacy team is a popular seat choice. The firm's reputation in the area has been cemented and augmented by its involvement in the Leveson Inquiry and the fact it's represented over 200 victims of phone hacking. As such it “regularly welcomes first instructions from new clients.” They include some top A-listers from the worlds of sports and entertainment, though we can't name names. The work is split 50/50 between defamation and reputation-based problems, and privacy and harassment issues. One recent example of the latter saw the firm act for Happy Valley star Sarah Lancashire in phone hacking proceedings against the Mirror Group. Trainees told us they'd spent time digging through published articles to check for signs of phone hacking and scoured social media sites for defamatory comments. Harassment cases provide the greatest opportunity for hands-on work, as “the client base is so varied: it could be a politician fighting off libellous comments from a political pressure group or a normal person being harassed by a colleague or family member.” Trainees said they'd attended client meetings, drafted letters to clients' antagonists, and helped assemble documents for trials.
The banking and financial disputes team has advised investors, borrowers and other counterparties on some 30 disputes with banks over the past three years. It deals with Libor manipulation cases, mis-selling claims and disputes over structured financial products. Recently, the team has been busy acting for Shooters Hill Capital, successfully overturning a £1 million failed bond trade claim raised by Molton Street Capital. “It's an unexpectedly interesting seat,” we were told. “The team is small, so there's lots of discussion. People are always popping into my office to talk with my supervisor. I'm invited to all of our meetings, so I get a really good grasp of what's going on.” Trainees keep busy with “a lot of research” and bundling on higher-value cases, as well as drafting letters on more discrete matters.
“I went to all the client meetings.”
In employment, meanwhile, trainees had had the opportunity to run the show on smaller cases, dealing with everything from the initial claim to the hearing. “I went to all the client meetings,” another source added. “I also drafted letters to the client and attended an Employment Tribunal.” The team handles a lot of corporate support work, and has many commercial clients on its books, like Addison Lee, Radisson Hotels and Carluccio's. Lawyers here also help high net worth individuals to negotiate exit packages and litigate against employers, as well as offering them advice when defending claims from domestic staff.
Over in real estate litigation, trainees had come across “a lot of cases where people either hadn't left at the end of their tenancy, owed money to their landlord or were squatting in a deserted building.” Trainees do on-site viewings, draft instructions to counsel, apply for possession orders and attend hearings. “After you've done a few of those it's quite straightforward, so trainees often run the show,” we were told. On the non-contentious side, Collyer Bristow's real estate team specialises in providing development and construction advice to the mixed-use and residential housebuilding sector, and also excels in purchase and portfolio management for high net worth individuals. As a trainee “you begin by running smaller residential files – mainly property sales for wealthy individuals – but by the end of the seat it's an even split between residential and commercial dealings.” Overall, real estate now represents between 25% and 30% of the firm's overall turnover.
Trainees in the corporate/commercial team spend their time reviewing commercial contracts, drafting terms and conditions and film option agreements, and looking at non-contentious IP issues. CB also oversees M&A deals for private companies, with trainees normally in charge of due diligence and reviewing share purchase agreements. Sources liked the fact that “the corporate/commercial team acts for quite a few media and entertainment companies,” and also enjoyed the legal research the seat throws up, for example into the new PSC register (register of people with significant control) brought in by the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015. Clients include Middlesex University, estate agents Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward and post-production company Molinare. We also heard that tax and estate planning is a growing practice at CB – click on the Bonus Features tab above for more on this seat.
Our interviewees noted that supervisors “take their role very seriously, and always try to explain things in as much detail as they can.” Trainees had “never felt unable to ask a question,” are given progress updates during mid and end of seat reviews, and have monthly informal check-ins with their junior associate mentors to discuss any queries or concerns either side may have. “It means there are no surprises during reviews,” one source noted. Insiders also appreciated the conscientiousness supervisors had shown towards their work/life balance. The latest any of our interviewees had been in the office was 10pm, but “as long as you work hard and are efficient, you can usually get all of your work done by 6.30pm.”
Home is where the art is
CB's digs on leafy Bedford Row feature an art gallery devoted to works by emerging artists, which serves as “an excellent space for networking.” A new collection is featured every few months, and the occasion is marked by a launch party frequented by lawyers, clients, prospective clients and artists alike. “It's a great way to hone your business development skills,” one trainee mentioned. “There can be some pretty out-there stuff on display at times, so you can usually find something to say to break the ice.” The firm stages summer and Christmas dos for its employees, while a social committee organises events every month or so. Plus there are ad hoc netball, football and cricket games and regular trips to nearby boozer the Old Nick.
Where trainee retention is concerned “it's been a disappointing year in comparison with the past,” Phil Palmer admits. Just one of four qualifiers was kept on in 2016, while the firm has had a pretty decent retention record in recent years, keeping on 15 of its 19 qualifiers between 2011 and 2015. “This year there was a mismatch between where qualifying trainees wanted to go and where the openings were,” Palmer explains. A trainee added: “No one left for acrimonious reasons. The firm was very honest about where vacancies were.”
"The firm asks a lot of interview questions about extracurricular activities, and likes affable all-rounders who can keep clients happy during stressful periods.”
How to get a Collyer Bristow training contract
Training contract deadline (2019): 28 July 2017
Instead of a formal vacation scheme, Collyer Bristow offers week-long work experience stints for up to 15 candidates. Applicants are asked to submit their CV and a covering letter outlining the specific areas of work they're looking to experience so the firm can try to match them to supervisors accordingly. Stints are rolling, so there's no application deadline.
During their week with the firm, attendees are exposed to “different tasks depending on who they are being supervised by,” HR director Jan Dalgleish tells us. “They could be taken to meetings, given pieces of research to do or set drafting exercises.”
Following their placement, work experience attendees who'd like to apply for a training contract submit a separate application, as outlined below.
Each year the firm receives more than 300 applications for its four or five training contracts. Candidates complete an online form covering “the standard questions about qualifications, strengths and previous work experience,” current trainees told us.
Applicants are asked to submit a CV and handwritten cover letter alongside their form. “Obviously people have different styles of handwriting – that's not taken into account,” Jan Dalgleish assures us. “But we do look at the structure and consider their logic. We also look for how succinctly they write.”
She goes on to tell us the firm looks particularly favourably upon those with some exposure to life in a law firm, whether through a vacation scheme or a less formal arrangement like shadowing: “It gives them an understanding of what it's like to be a lawyer, and acts as a check and balance for them to ensure they're going into the right profession.”
The firm invites around 25 applicants to a day-long assessment centre. This begins with reasoning tests and various exercises in the morning, then lunch with the current trainees “so the candidates can relax and get to know the firm from a trainee perspective,” says Jan Dalgleish.
In the afternoon attendees face a 45-minute panel interview, with two partners and the HR director. Current trainees recalled this as “a challenging but friendly interview – they do try to make you feel at ease.” According to Jan Dalgleish, “the feedback we receive from applicants is that, aside from the assessments, they find it an enjoyable day and leave feeling positive about the experience.”
When it comes to impressing, “we're looking for a self-starting individual with good common sense,” Jan Dalgleish tells us. “Potential technical excellence is a given. We need candidates to demonstrate commercial awareness and an understanding of the importance of delivering the highest-quality client service.”
“Come prepared,” she continues. “That means having an insight into the firm, which you can get by drawing conclusions from our website and other relevant publications. This will allow you to relax and focus, so that when you go for an interview your personality will shine through.”
Tax and estate planning at Collyer Bristow
When we researched Collyer Bristow in 2016, it quickly became apparent that tax and estate planning had been earmarked as a key focus area for growth over the coming years. Serving a wide mix of private clients, the team assists everything from landed estates to entrepreneurs on matters concerning wills, trusts, probate and tax restructuring. With confidentiality a big concern, we're not permitted to disclose any recent case examples, but it's worth pointing out that cases with a value exceeding £100 million are not out of the ordinary here.
Much of the firm's tax and estate planning work has an international aspect, with trainees highlighting Switzerland, the US, Russia and Egypt as particularly frequent sources of work. The firm also has an office in Geneva, which trainees labelled “a particularly useful location to be in to help the tax and estate planning department to grow.”
Trainees in the department had taken on a wide variety of work. “I started by working on lasting powers of attorney and drafting wills,” said one rookie. “A little later on I got involved in offshore and onshore tax planning, which is difficult but rewarding work. The tax work in particular can really raise some tricky technical questions, but partners never got irritated if I had questions to run by them.”
With a lot of private clients wanting to use Collyer Bristow for more than just its tax and estate planning expertise, the team also works in close quarters with the residential property, family law, reputation management and immigration teams.
The Collyer Bristow art gallery
Strolling the distinguished streets of Bedford Row, one marvels at the beauty of the many Georgian terraces, a reflection of the capital's rich legal history. Each door proudly bears the plaque of the chambers or firm housed inside it. And nestled in this little corner of justice, you'll find Collyer Bristow.
But don't let CB's traditional façade fool you: through its doors visitors are greeted with a dose modernity in the form of a boutique modern art gallery. CB has housed it for nearly 20 years. The space is light – check out the firm's website for a 360-degree look – and provides visitors with a warm welcome. The exhibitions focus on certain themes rather than particular artists and carry intriguingly oblique titles like The Jolly (Good) Show and Electric Sheep. Face Value, the show that ran from June to October 2016, featured work from 27 artists.
The firm's trainees have long spoken with great fondness of the firm's aesthetic side project. “I really like having the art gallery,” one told us. “Before every exhibition you have a walk round with the curators to get informed so you can have a chat with the clients about what everything is. It's nice that they let the trainees talk to clients about that and are happy to give us responsibilities in a social context. Although I must admit I still normally wing it on the art front!”
Another told us: “The art varies, but it's always interesting, and certainly a good conversation starter. It's nice having it around so you can have a little chat with clients about it. It's something we're quite proud of. It shows we are not just purely a legal business; we're interested in things beyond that. One of the partners is an artist too, so we've showed off some of his work in the gallery as well.”
Below are some of the exhibitions of years past. In the firm's own words.
Face Value (summer 2016)
“An exhibition that celebrates those artists who continue to make portraiture central to their work but who also continue to push the boundaries of the genre. The exhibition sees [curator Kathleen Soriano] undertake a consideration of contemporary portraiture through the work of 27 emerging and established artists, covering a broad range of media from porcelain to thread, from oils to ink, from etching to photography.”
Complicity: Artifice & Illusion (spring 2016)
“The question is not what you look at but what you see.”– Henry David Thoreau
Liberties (summer 2015)
“An exhibition of contemporary art reflecting on 40 years since the Sex Discrimination Act.”
Material tension (spring 2015)
“Painting is unlike any other medium and perhaps one of the most challenging. One can circumnavigate a sculpture, gauge understanding and intent through the choice of material and relationship with its given space, but painting is a slippery being, demanding a different kind of attention from both artist and viewer.”
Fabric (summer 2014)
“Artists have wrapped, knitted and woven for centuries but the use of 'fabric' as a medium is going through an interesting resurgence. Increasing global demand for cheap clothing and huge technological advancement have both imbued the very material with meaning beyond the domestic, enabling fabrics to be printed and manipulated in hitherto unimaginable ways.”
Speaking Space (spring 2014)
“An exhibition that allows us to imagine buildings as sentient beings. The fun to be had imagining architectural form, function and devices, released from the constraints of practicalities and budgets, unleashing a new order on an unsuspecting audience is evidenced by the tactile joy inherent in all of the works.”
Fifties, fashion and emerging feminism (2011)
“Features iconic John French prints from the V&A Archive, alongside highlights from the Museum and Study Collection at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, bespoke visualisations by FABRIC, work by WESSIELING, Carole Evans and new commissions by artists Alice Angus of Proboscis with Fee Doran (aka Mrs Jones) and Freddie Robins responding to the world of fashion.”
Concerning Matter (2009)
“An intriguing exploration of work by artists where the everyday, familiar or domestic object is transformed through appropriation, subversion or re-use. Scourers and other cleaning tools are presented as liquorice allsorts; yarn, knitting and crochet needles are transformed into a lethal weapon and a defunct television lies against a velvet backdrop and is composed, lit and photographed like an Old Master painting.”
Curious Nature (2008)
“Seeks to explore the darker side of nature through a selection of intriguing and contemporary works.”
Collyer Bristow LLP
4 Bedford Row,
- Partners 33
- Trainees 9
- Total staff 136
- Contact [email protected]
- Method of application Application form
- Selection procedure Testing and interview
- Training salary
- First year (2016): £31,000
- Second year (2016): £33,000
- (both reviewed annually)
Main areas of work