A training contract here offers some fascinating work in a smaller package.
“This firm has the benefits of being a London practice with varied work, but it's also outside the City in a beautiful old townhouse rather than some sterile glass building.” So went one trainee's summary of Collyer Bristow's appeal. Another commented: “We're small enough that you know everybody and they all know you. There are quite a lot of different quirky personalities here!” Taking just four or five trainees a year, Collyer Bristow may be more compact than some firms, but it's not without ambition: we heard of the creation of new business development groups engaging in “lots of brainstorming workshops – it feels like the beginning of something big.”
The firm wins Chambers UK rankings for defamation and reputation management (its best-known practice), family law, banking litigation and private client. A lot of the juiciest cases take place under a veil of confidentiality: some of the most prominent clients are individuals and businesses fighting to keep their affairs out of the spotlight – Collyer Bristow has represented more than 200 victims of phone hacking and surveillance including television's David Tennant and Formula One legend Eddie Irvine, who have taken their compensation claims to the High Court. These celebrity cases inevitably steal the headlines, but they're not the whole story: real estate, litigation, tax, employment, intellectual property and more round out a practice which deals with both domestic and international matters. Banking and tax matters are most international, often co-ordinated with the Geneva office. In addition, the London office houses teams covering Italian, Spanish, Russian, US and Nordic matters, and 30% of revenue comes from outside the UK.
Newcomers submit first seat preferences before arriving. Trainees then meet with HR before each rotation to balance their desires with business need. “The firm is quite flexible and it works out pretty well for everyone,” they explained. “Because of the small intake we can chat among ourselves beforehand to help prevent clashes.” The same is true of qualification, a similarly smooth affair: HR releases available positions, wannabe NQs apply and interview for where they want to go. After a rare wobble in 2016, Collyer Bristow righted the ship in 2017 and four of fivequalifiers stayed on.
Libel to Libor
The dispute resolution (DR) department contains subgroups covering general commercial, real estate, banking and employment/IP matters. Trainees are assigned to a 'principal person' (the firm's term for supervisor) in one area, but “you can get work from anywhere within DR if you have capacity” and most get a taste of multiple subgroups. The general commercial litigation team is where you'll find the headline-snatching media and privacy group – “the juicy work,” according to interviewees. The team works on defamation and harassment cases, and actor Sarah Lancashire, TV presenter Justin Lee Collins, lawyer-turned-reality TV star Nancy Dell'Olio and Conservative MP Caroline Nokes have all called on the firm to challenge the press, sometimes in libel cases. “It's more fun reading through the documents for those cases than other areas of DR,” trainees told us. Their time in the seat involved researching evidence of intrusive practices, taking notes in meetings and writing commentary for the firm's cyber investigations unit – not a science fiction police force as its name might suggest, but a group dedicated to advising victims of online crime. Meanwhile, the banking and financial disputes team deals with Libor manipulation cases, mis-selling claims and disputes over structured financial products. A recent case involved acting for Luxembourg investment vehicle Secure Capital in £23 million proceedings against Credit Suisse.
Trainees in real estate litigation are kept busy with both large contractor disputes and small claims which they have more autonomy over. “The work may sometimes be administrative, but it's always crucial,” believed one trainee. Beyond the admin, attending hearings, taking witness statements and managing disclosure filled sources' days. Clients range from the Bar Council to Italian fashion brand Miss Sixty. 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 purchase and portfolio management for high net worth individuals. The group recently worked on the £300 million Aberfeldy Village development in Poplar, East London. Trainees “really enjoyed” their time in the team – “you start on the basics like filing forms and handling Land Registry applications, but you get to have a crack at running your own matters once you've proved yourself.”
“It's a good place to be if you're nosy.”
A spell in tax and estates can be “very technically demanding.” The team handles a smorgasbord of international and domestic matters for private clients who often keep their assets offshore. Offshore work is a growing focus according to insiders – “the firm manages a lot of old family money. This is a good place to work if you're nosy and find it interesting to see what people spend their cash on!” A source told us “the department was really busy with changes to non-dom tax rules, then it all got put on the back burner when the general election was called.” Trainees get to grips with will drafting, probate work and some client contact. The team works together closely with other departments on private client matters, as well as with the Geneva office.
A corporate/commercial seat offers a mix of private M&A, commercial contracts and non-contentious IP. Middlesex University, Twickenham Studios and concierge firm Quintessentially are all on the books; the team recently advised on a range of contracts for an international airline, a leading construction firm and an art institution. “A seat here comes with a lot of drafting,” be that shareholder agreements and articles of association on the corporate side or terms and conditions and distribution agreements on company commercial matters. Interviewees reported getting “exposure to important parts of client meetings, and seeing deals through from start to finish.” The department is one of the firm's most international, but be aware that big-money corporate matters can call for long days.
Firm-wide “you're expected to stay late if needed to.” What 'late' means varies by department: a corporate source “was working until 11pm three or four weeks running,” albeit followed by “weeks of leaving at 5.30pm every day,” whereas tax and estates is “more steady,” with trainees heading home at 6.30pm most days. Litigation is “more chaotic – you don't know what might come in at any moment,” but across the board trainees made it clear that “Collyer Bristow respects your work/life balance. If there's nothing urgent to stay for you go home.” Similarly laissez-faire, performance reviews every three months are “more of a conversation than an evaluation,” and sources commended the firm for “establishing a two-way process, asking if there's anything you haven't done and would like to” alongside typical commendations and constructive criticisms.
The “aesthetically gorgeous” Bloomsbury office was dubbed “most people's highlight of working here” by one insider, who much preferred its Georgian elegance to “a sterile glass skyscraper." One quipped: "This isn't what you imagine an office looking like today. It might have been 100 years ago!” Trainees share an office with one or two senior lawyers, normally but not always including their supervisor. Nobody worried about being cut off from peers, suggesting “you can learn a lot from the partner just by hearing them on the phone, and they can see better how you develop across the course of the seat.”
“Whenever we meet clients the art always comes up.”
No visit to Collyer Bristow's HQ is complete without perusing the “incredible” art gallery, housing new exhibitions every few months. “Whenever we meet clients the art always comes up," said interviewees. "You can't miss it, especially some of the more abstract pieces – there are no still lifes of bowls of fruit!” As well as exhibition openings that trainees are welcome to attend, the firm stages summer and Christmas dos for its employees. A social committee organises events every month or so including drinks, bowling nights and music or pub quizzes, all of which makes socialising “quite a big part” of the trainee experience.
Go to our website for an overview of the modern art exhibitions that Collyer Bristow has played host to in recent years.
How to get a Collyer Bristow training contract
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.”
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. Nestled in this little corner of justice, you'll find Collyer Bristow.
Don't let CB's traditional façade fool you: through its doors visitors are greeted with a boutique modern art gallery, which has brought a splash of culture to the office for over 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 (or admirers') own words:
StrangeLands (summer 2017)
“Through its themes of displacement and other-ness, 'StrangeLands' explores the dizzying, distrustful nature of the world today.”
Exceptional (spring 2017)
“Exceptional showcases emerging talent from three of London’s top art schools, Goldsmiths, Middlesex University and City & Guilds of London Art School. Students who have graduated during the last three years were invited to enter.”
Telling Tales (winter 2016/17)
“A fascinating exhibition that lures you in gently and then slowly seduces you until you've entered another world, another reality, the unknown.” - ArtTop10
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.”
Collyer Bristow LLP
4 Bedford Row,
- Partners 30
- Associates 38
- Total trainees 8 (first and second years)
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 1
- Graduate recruiter: Corinne Johnson, [email protected], 0207 242 7363
- Training partner: Janet Armstrong-Fox
- Application criteria
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum A levels: Strong grades
- Work experience places pa: 15
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 March 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 July 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £32,000
- Second-year salary: £34,000
- Post-qualification salary: £53,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
Collyer Bristow is committed to providing a commercial and innovative approach to clients’ legal issues, combined with a discrete and personal service, often not available from a large city practice. The firm’s client base includes private companies and owner-managed businesses, partnerships, entrepreneurs, and high and ultra-high net worth individuals.
The firm is well known for its support of the contemporary arts, having operated a ground breaking in-house art gallery for almost 30 years.
Main areas of work
The firm boasts an impressive client base across a number of focus areas including leisure and brands, media, arts and culture, disruptive technology, and financial services, as well as its substantial private client following.
Trainees spend six months in four of the firm’s five key practice areas, working with a range of people from senior partners to more recently qualified solicitors. The firm has mentoring, allocated seat supervisors, training and appraisal programmes which nurture the development of technical expertise and client advisory skills. Trainees are encouraged at an early stage to take responsibility for their own files and to participate in managing the client’s work with appropriate supervision.