This Cambridge-headquartered firm may be a congenial mid-sizer, but a recent London merger shows there's nothing middle of the road about it.
Take a punt
Most trainees at Hewitsons didn't quite fancy vaulting over the tube's slow-movers to get to work or deliriously highlighting documents at 2am. “I thought about applying to City firms but it didn't appeal to me – I wanted a good work/life balance,” said one representative source. So instead they decided to take a punt up to Cambridge, where they found Hewitsons. “It's not too big or too small, it's full-service, so you're not pigeon-holed, and you get good-quality work for a range of clients.” It's also a good place to head to if you're a good mixer, as “you often get a chance to meet people from the other offices.” Hewitsons also has bases in Northampton, Milton Keynes and, thanks to a 2015 merger with City-based Moorhead James, London. Full training contracts are up for grabs in the Cambridge and Northampton dens, but if trainees do get restless, they can pitch up in either Milton Keynes or London for a seat.
While many insiders weren't totally sold on the idea of adopting the City as a permanent workplace, they did appreciate the chance to dip in and out of the capital. One year on from the merger, they told us that “having a London presence has made it easier to meet existing clients that are based there and it's helped to bring in new clients too.” It's also boosted the amount of cross-referring going on: “The corporate group in particular has been good at sharing work, and there's been a push to grow our private client practice in London. More construction work has been sent to Milton Keynes as a result too.”
Hewitsons' private client and agricultural practices are its regional strong suits, but Chambers UK also bestows a series of high rankings – especially in East Anglia – on the IP, environment, construction, real estate litigation and corporate/M&A expertise. A range of rankings points to a range of clients, and trainees can potentially work with a mix of private individuals, businesses and institutions. On the business side, clients could be local, national or even international, as Hewitsons is a founding member of a global network of referral firms, LawExchange International. East Anglia-based manufacturer Fencor Packaging, national security specialists Openview, and Microsoft all appear on the client roster. When it comes to institutions, Hewitsons is especially known for its work in the charities and education sectors, with clients including the RSPB and King's College Cambridge.
Luck of the draw
At the time of our calls, seven trainees were based in Cambridge, while four called Northampton home. “Your first seat is just allocated so it's pot luck,” sources revealed, but subsequent destinations are determined after an “informal conversation” with HR about halfway through the current seat. “You can cite as many preferences as you want – well, as many you can get away with in one conversation!” All were happy that the firm did its best to accommodate people's choices, with most getting what they wanted from their second seat onwards.
“It helped me to learn all the tactics used behind the scenes.”
Both the uber rich and the uber “normal” call upon Hewitsons' private client lawyers. The practice does wills, probate, powers of attorney, tax and trusts work. The group's “always at full capacity,” trainees revealed, “so you'll be attending client meetings and will signings from the second day onwards.” Sources had typically been assigned “the more straightforward tasks, like letter drafting: some are tied to estate planning, so after someone dies you'll write to request information that we'll need in order to move on to the next step of proceedings.” Many felt that “you get good exposure to the different areas, and they always ask you if there's anything specific you want to sample.” Our interviewees had therefore been able to draft wills, handle last powers of attorney filings and “see an entire probate file through from beginning to end.”
The corporate department handles a host of matters, spanning IPOs, refinancings, reorganisations, insolvencies and share sales and purchases. Given Hewitsons' proximity to Silicon Fen, there are a number of technology clients knocking around, including TV-tech whiz Amino Technologies. Those LawExchange connections recently came in handy, when lawyers in Northampton helped a Canadian firm, Navtech, snap up a UK-based company, DW International – an aviation software specialist. “They encourage us to draft from day one,” said trainees, who'd cut their teeth on “lots of contract risk assessments, board minutes, Companies House filings and share and asset purchase agreements.” Some had even taken the reins on their own small matters. “I represented a client who was selling 25% of their company for cash injections. I advised on the share sale process and dealt with the preparation of new company articles.”
"Having them come on board has re-energised the firm and made us more confident.”
Over in employment, trainees assisted with day-to-day client advice, which required one to research “whether an employer could use the image of an ex-employee in a brochure.” TUPE transfers and corporate support matters also crop up on the non-contentious side, but there's a contentious element to tap into as well – employment tribunals and high court cases over restrictive covenants and breaches of fiduciary duty often arise here. These spats tended to bestow more responsibility on trainees: “On one case I delivered all the documents to the respondents, drafted all the notices and court forms and attended client meetings. It helped me to learn all the tactics used behind the scenes.” You'll find the UK arm of American construction consulting firm Hill International on the books here, as well as aerospace company Avionicare and estate agents/auctioneers Cheffins.
Which brings us to the property seat. Work here could see trainees chipping in on development projects (particularly in the leisure sector); advising both private clients and institutional investors on their property portfolios; and helping landowners to get strategic by embarking on joint ventures, site developments and disposals. The team recently advised a group of 17 landowners on a collaboration agreement to develop over 10,000 new homes in Essex over the next 30 years. One Northamptoner reported: “Most of the work I did was for developers with strong links to the area. The partners took me through everything in a very methodical way, and helped me to draft leases. By the end of the seat I was able to take on small files on my own.”
Sofa, so good
On average, trainees are in the office between 9am and 6pm, but on rare occasions stayed until 9pm if a matter had reached a crucial stage. Trainees are encouraged to leave on time: “My supervisor said that we don't get brownie points for staying late just for the sake of it.” Being freer in the evenings means more time to socialise – and it sounds like there's plenty going on at Hewitsons. “There are a lot of team get togethers,” but the insolvency lot take the crown for best acronym-tagged outing: “They have a Statement of Affairs (SOFA for short) networking night out in the City once every three months.” Trainees take a similar approach to work and play: in both Cambridge and Northampton they attend networking events hosted by young professionals group Horizons. “For the last one we went to an art gallery and had a couple of glasses of wine; it was all very sophisticated!”
The firm's size helps to maintain its genial atmosphere: “In your base office, everyone knows your name, so as a trainee you don't feel like a number and can make your mark. We have an inclusive, anti-hierarchical culture.” So will the merger with a London shop contaminate the firm's culture with intense City-slicker types? Probably not. “Moorhead James was similarly friendly. Everyone's been enthusiastic about it – having them come on board has re-energised the firm and made us more confident.”
Trainees receive an email listing available NQ jobs in March. “They treat your training contract as a two-year interview,” so trainees can only expect to be grilled if more than one person goes for a role. In 2016 the firm did not retain any of its four qualifiers because of a mix of business needs and personal reasons. It had retained five of eight in 2015.
Take note: in London the firm trades as Hewitson Moorhead, while elsewhere it's just Hewitsons.
How to get a Hewitsons training contract
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 August 2017
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 doesn't run an extensive vacation scheme, but does offer placement opportunities that stretch over the space of two or three days. Those who are interested in applying should send in a CV and covering email to email@example.com. Placements are offered year-round, 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.
The application form
To score a trainesship, candidates are first required to fill in an online application form, which as of 2015 has replaced its papery predecessor. “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 49
- Assistant solicitors 52
- Total trainees 11
- Contact Caroline Lewis Elgin House, Billing Road, Northampton, NN1 5AU
- Method of application Firm’s application form online
- Selection procedure Interview
- Closing date for 2019 31 August 2017
- Training contracts pa 10
- Applications pa 850
- % interviewed pa 10%
- Required degree grade 2:1 minimum
- Training salary
- First year: £23,500
- Second year: £23,500
- Holiday entitlement 20 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 50%
- Post-qualificationsalary £37,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2015) 62.5%
Main areas of work