Sifting through ancient leases and scribing wills, advising Britain's biggest chippie on its leases, litigating on behalf of a national charity – there's lots to muck in with at this Cambridge/Northampton firm.
Do you imagine yourself as a lawyer, but also imagine yourself cycling home from work through bucolic scenery while the sun's still up? Consider Hewitsons. It's a 100-lawyer firm with most of its lawyers based in Cambridge and Northampton – trainees are recruited into both offices. The firm acts for private individuals, businesses and institutions like charities. “As a trainee you get all of it,” a sourcesaid. Most work is regional or national in scope, but the odd bit of cross-border or offshore work does crop up.
Among the ripest fruits the firm has brought forth are its 20-lawyer private client practice and the smaller agricultural practice, both of which have strong regional rankings in Chambers UK. The firm's sizeable litigation, property, corporate, construction and IP departments are also Chambers-ranked in East Anglia. In 2015 Hewitsons absorbed small City outfit Moorhead James to grow its London presence (the business is known as Hewitson Moorhead in the capital, and expansion here gave the firm revenues of £16 million in 2015/16). The firm isn't Chambers ranked in London, but trainees can potentially do a seat here and in Milton Keynes (the firm told us that movement between locations is possible but not common).
Trainees told us that seat allocation is a bit of a lottery: “Your first seat is randomly assigned. On your first day you're just told where you are sitting – it's pot luck. Once we've started we have a review with HR manager Caroline Lewis once a month and we are able to put forward preferences.” Most interviewees reported a positive experience of the process, getting to do the seats they wanted, and having their concerns and interests listened to.
“it was almost like them wanting me rather than the other way round.”
Unfortunately NQ retention wasn't great in 2016 with no qualifiers kept on, but our interviewees didn't seem to concerned about this, thanks to a transparent NQ process and a more positive outlook for 2017. The qualification process is fairly painless with a jobs list released around March and a straightforward application form to fill out followed by an interview – “it was almost like them wanting me rather than the other way round,” one second-year commented. In the end all seven qualifiers were retained in 2017.
Fat cats and threatened birds
Hewitsons' private client practice offers an “extremely busy seat in which you almost run files yourself. There’s a great deal of research alongside drafting things like wills, lasting powers of attorney and trustee documents.” The team does a mix of local, national and international work with one case involving work across England, Germany and Barbados. Clients are chiefly well-off families, family trusts and the executors of wills who the firm advises on inheritance tax planning, trust reorganisations and administration, foreign asset management, estate management and charitable donations. For those wishing to hone their client-facing skills there's plenty of client contact. “Meetings happen on a far more regular basis than in the other teams,” one source reported. As most clients are individuals, there are plenty of smaller discrete tasks to do, “which was great because it meant there was a lot of work that could be done just by me,” an interviewee recalled.
The agriculture and rural affairs practice also keeps trainees on their toes as “there’s so much work to do and you have to muck in and share the load; a large amount of it is dealing with unregistered land.” Clients include the charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, but are chiefly farming businesses and landed estates such as Newmarket's Great Bradley Farms, the Long Melford Estate and the Great Wilsey Farm estate on the Suffolk/Cambridgeshire border. Trainees spend their time organising paperwork to get land registered and “sifting through paper deeds that go back 100sof years to work out who owns what, who has the right to the property and what restrictions apply. It's all very interesting – kind of like an investigation.”
“Sifting through paper deeds that go back hundreds of years to work out who owns what.”
The litigation department boasts Microsoft and Japanese motorcycle manufacturer Kawasaki as clients. Hewitsons also advised on a negligence claim against Manchester architecture firm Ian Finlay and worked on a case for educational charity the United Church Schools Trust. Litigation trainees often find themselves “giving a lot of practical support on a series of big court cases and mediations. A certain amount of the work is mundane: on one case there were 22 bundles to prepare, but that’s the nature of litigation. I did get to do a lot of court visits and to attend mediations although that was primarily as a note taker. I was very grateful to be exposed to them, however.” Unsurprisingly these regular meetings and court dates see trainees travel back and forth to hearings and negotiations, often in London.
Over in commercial property the firm advises on issues including lettings, lease renewals and the purchase of existing business premises. Clients include the Chesterford Group – the largest independent fish and chip shop chain in the country – regional property developers and investors as well as the Homes and Communities Agency and various Oxbridge colleges. Trainees' levels of responsibility varied somewhat. One source commented: “I mainly did admin tasks like form filling at the start. Now I am a lot more involved as I get to produce reports on title and liaise with and speak to clients.” Another source said that right from the start they were “doing title investigations, negotiating with the other side. organising searches and drafting reports on title and leases.” The consensus was that trainee responsibility levels “depend on what work crops up in the moment.”
Fizz at the Fitz
Trainees spoke in glowing terms about the balance between the quality of their work and their lifestyle. “We have high-level clients, but we're based in Cambridge which gives us a different atmosphere. From our office I can see the river Cam; I can sit next to a swan while having lunch; and I can cycle home through the commons.” Work/life balance is good – trainees usually get in at 8.30am and regularly finish by 6.30pm. There was a similarly positive chorus regarding the approachable nature of all of the staff: “When you start, everyone knows your name and there’s no one you feel you can't approach,” one source gushed. Another concurred: “The best thing about Hewitsons is the people. You are given tasks that stretch you but there are always people on hand to take you through things that are unfamiliar.”
"I can sit next to a swan while having lunch."
Despite the existence of a social committee, sources wanted to see more events organised throughout the year. However, they did feel that there were plenty of networking events on offer, including Horizons, a series of networking dos for young professionals held at the Fitzwilliam Museum launched by Hewitsons in 2013. There are also regular training lunches that all trainees are invited to, “which we have really benefited from.” However, sources felt that “it would be good if there was more team socialising in situations without an external agenda.”
Trainees attend introductory talks on each of the firm's departments during their three-week induction period; departments subsequently host training sessions throughout the year. We were also told that supervisors – particularly in private client and litigation – are “good at identifying work you haven’t yet experienced and then going out to find some relevant work you can do. After one appraisal I mentioned a particular bit of work I hadn't yet done and the next day I had a stream of emails from other fee earners offering me tasks in that area.”
After piloting a mentoring programme with its associates, Hewitsons will now be rolling out the scheme for all of its fee earners and trainees.
How to get a Hewitsons training contract
Hewitsons offers around seven training contracts a year – five in Cambridge, and two in Northampton – though according to director of HR Caroline Lewis, “we may increase the numbers where we are impressed by particularly good candidates.” The firm's small intake means that snagging a training contract can be competitive, but Lewis insists that this helps to “ensure that there is plenty of responsibility and enriching work for all of our trainees.”
The firm does offer placement opportunities throughout the year, and each one stretches over the space of two or three days. Those who are interested in applying should send in a CV and covering email to [email protected] The placements are highly sought after and provide rookies with the opportunity to shadow fee-earners practising in areas of interest. Preference is given to undergrads on course to achieve at least a 2:1 with AAB at A level.
The application form
To score a traineeship, candidates are first required to fill in an application form. “We're looking for consistently good academic results,” Lewis asserts, “as well as a coherent, measured and logically reasoned account as to why you've decided you'd like to be a lawyer at Hewitsons.” Fibbers should take note, as Lewis “will always ask to see applicants' original certificates,” later on in the offer process, so make sure you have a copy of your A levels, degree, GDL and LPC to hand. If you haven't always made the grade then fear not: “If a candidate has spent a year as a fee-earning paralegal at Linklaters, it may mitigate against them achieving three Bs at A level,” Lewis says, by way of example. “We don't want to lose out on people who miss the cut by a thread.”
All applications are collated into one giant spreadsheet at the end of August. Candidates' names are withdrawn from the document to ensure anonymity, and those that meet the aforementioned criteria are then invited to interview. It's a process that Lewis feels works well, as “the only thing I know at this stage is that they're an individual applying for a training contract. I learn applicants' names on the very day that I interview them, so it's all very fair.”
The interview itself is held with Lewis and a member of the firm's trainee interest group (who is always a partner). The interview is relatively formal, and is designed to test interviewees' commitment to a career in law, and a career at Hewitsons. “It's important to show us that you've done your research,” Lewis nods. “We want to see applicants who are excited to explain where they want to be and why they think they'll get there with us.” Evidence of good teamwork is also important, so we'd advise applicants to think up a few scenarios where they've led or been responsible for a group of people. There is also a practical exercise involving a case study which is undertaken on the same day but in advance of the interview.
Though evidence of prior work experience can be valuable, “we try not to put too much store on it. There's a chance that someone who's spent a week at a magic circle firm may have just secured that experience through their father's friend, so what we're really looking for is something a little more substantive that demonstrates a degree of individual merit.” Lewis hints that a stint paralegalling could be a good example of this.
When it comes to academic credentials, Lewis feels that “it is good to see the benefits of a mix of learning experiences, including non-law degrees.” And as far as universities are concerned, “we've found that the likes of Oxbridge, Bristol, Exeter, Warwick, Durham, Sheffield and Leeds have produced a number of excellent solicitors for us. They're certainly not the only places that we'd look to hire from, but we have been particularly impressed with their graduates in the past.”
Living and working in Cambridge
42 Newmarket Road,
- Partners 46
- Assistant solicitors 50
- Total trainees 13
- UK offices Cambridge, London, Northampton, Milton Keynes
- Overseas offices: None but the firm is a founder member of LawExchange International.
- Contacts Caroline Lewis, director of HR, [email protected], 01604 463121
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 12
- Applications pa: 500
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 minimum
- Minimum A levels: AAB minimum
- Work experience: Throughout the year
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 July 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2020: 31 August 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £23,500
- Second-year salary: £23,500
- Post-qualification salary: £37,500
- Holiday entitlement: 22 days, bank holidays and an extra dat at Christmas
- LPC fees: No
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Generally Cambridge and Northampton with placements in London and Milton Keynes
Main areas of work