Originally a Liverpool marine firm, full-service Hill Dicks has steered its way through choppy currents and sailed into calmer waters.
Halliwells that ends well
Hill Dickinson's story over the past few years has been one of growth tempered by right-sizing. The nearly 200-year-old North Westerner snapped up bust Halliwells' Sheffield and Liverpool operations back in 2010, and in 2013 added offices in Hong Kong and Monaco to existing international bases in Piraeus and Singapore. Yet around the time of this overseas expansion, HD sold its Chester office to Knights Solicitors and launched the first of two redundancy rounds. All that was a while ago now, and trainees this year were confident that the ship has well and truly been steadied, pointing to a successful restructuring, booming practices and a great retention rate as proof. “It was a difficult time but we needed to streamline,” thought one trainee. “It's turned around.” When we asked a colleague if there was anything they would change about the firm, they confirmed: “No! If there was anything fundamental I wouldn't have accepted an NQ position.” The firm kept on 13 out of 14 second-years in 2016.
Hill Dickinson started life as a Liverpool shipping firm, and while “its roots are in marine,” HD has “branched out over the years and is now very much a full-service regional firm serving not just the North West but clients all over,” a Manchester source summarised. Today, HD organises its business along four main categories: marine, trade and energy; insurance; health; and business services, which covers the likes of corporate, property, commercial litigation, banking, and employment. Chambers UK rates these areas (and more) highly in the North West and UK-wide. These overarching business groups contain numerous seat options. After being allocated their first placement, trainees chat about subsequent seats during each mid-seat review. “They don't provide us with a list of options per se. We don't know what's available; we go by where other trainees are sat. You can choose up to three seats in order of priority.” If a seat isn't available in their assigned office, Liverpool and Manchester trainees sometimes hop onto the M62 to switch for a seat, but movement between the North West and London is less common. Sheffield, meanwhile, used to take on trainees but doesn't any more.
In 1912, lawyers here represented the insurers of the 'Titanic', and much more recently were involved in the run-aground 'Costa Concordia' clean-up in the Mediterranean. However, trainees doing a shipping seat in London (where it's big) or Liverpool are more likely to find themselves getting into the nitty-gritty of ship-building contracts and contractual disputes rather than headline-grabbing accidents. There's also “debt recovery-type work on matters in Singapore and elsewhere” and “some cases of noise-induced hearing loss. It's probably 70:30 non-contentious to contentious, so it's a good seat to do in terms of exposure to both.” In one recent case, lawyers successfully defended an international superyacht broker in Hong Kong against contract breach allegations over the delivery of an Italian-built luxury pleasure boat. In slightly scarier work, HD advised the owners of a cargo vessel attacked by pirates off the coast of Yemen.
At the time of our calls, trainees were fairly evenly spread across Liverpool (six trainees), Manchester (seven) and London (five), with one London trainee on secondment in Singapore. “It's usually the London trainees who go abroad, as most of the overseas offices do marine work, which London does a lot of.” London actually has two offices, one in the City's slick Broadgate Tower near Liverpool Street station and one in posh St James's, which contains the yachts team for the super-wealthy “because all the yacht brokers are based there.” Superyachts work is “mainly transactional,” encompassing a lot of “sale and purchase work and the delivery of newbuilds.” St James's is “really different from the City office; it's all open-plan and smaller. There are weekly team meetings with cakes and team days out. In the City you share an office with one or two people.” Lucky trainees in this nautical seat may also get the chance to spend a few days topping up their suntan in Monaco.
“London-quality work and all the perks of a regional firm."
Trainees in the North West told us they picked HD because it offers “London-quality work” alongside “all the perks of a regional firm, like friendly people and a good work/life balance.” A Liverpudlian pointed out that “here we have a huge office and range of seats.” Commercial litigation is one “busy and large team” where “you work for EVERYBODY, doing everything from research to meetings, drafting witness statements and providing instructions to counsel, to huge disclosure exercises, where we review a considerable number of documents to decide what's relevant to the case and what's not.” In addition, there's “the usual sort of trainee jobs, especially preparing bundles for court or mediation.” Bundles aside, “there's not loads of grunt work.” In one unusual case that garnered a lot of publicity, the team represented the estate of the late police officer David Rathband, who was shot by on-the-run murderer Raoul Moat, against his former employer, Northumbria Constabulary. Although they lost the claim, it received many plaudits for raising workplace welfare issues.
Other litigious seats include casualty in the business services group, and professional risks in the insurance group. “It's a very full-on role,” said one trainee with experience of the former. Tasks include “drafting settlement agreements, and attending trials and joint settlement agreements with counsel and the client.” The team handles compensation claims on behalf of defendants in various industry sectors being sued for such things as slips, trips, harassment and even false imprisonment. “I dealt mainly with fast-track claims worth between £1,000 and £5,000 as opposed to higher-value multi-track claims.” The professional risks team, meanwhile, “deals with professional negligence claims against people like solicitors, medical professionals or property surveyors. It's a really good seat to start with because the claims you get are on a smaller scale to shipping, so lawyers feel they can delegate more, and give more responsibility. It was challenging with multitasking and lots of deadlines but I enjoyed it. Everyone was available and helpful.”
HD's corporate team is on a roll right now, according to trainees who'd done a seat here. “The first few months involved more admin-based grunt work, like sifting through data rooms, but as time went on my responsibility increased. The team has grown considerably in the past 18 months.” Recently, it acted for North Wales-based information management specialist Samarind as it was acquired by healthcare IT company Instem plc. Typical trainee fare for M&A work includes “heading up the disclosure process, creating all the documents, drafting letters and share purchase agreements, working with apprentices, and being involved in meetings.” This reference to apprentices refers to the firm's legal apprenticeships scheme which offers ten places to school leavers for two years. As well as M&A, there's also a lot of AIM and main market-related work, like advising Cenkos Securities and WG Partners on a £10.2 million placing for AIM-listed medical diagnostics company Angle. Corporate deal sizes usually fall within the £1 million to £40 million range.
Trustee on this
Another, albeit smaller scale, growth area is education. “It's been very busy since the government made it clear it wants to move schools to academies. The work also involves various practices.” Since schools clients are “educators not lawyers,” they often have “varied queries” covering everything from handling complaints to changes in the law. “We make sure they're updated on Department of Education publications,” among other things. “It's heavily regulated.” Trainees here see “lots of articles of association and commercial transfer agreements” as well as property-related issues that arise in order to “get the conversion to an academy done.” Clients have included the University of Chester Academies Trust (it consists of seven academies) and Blackburn's Tauheedul Education Trust (ten academies).
Those doing a straight property seat found they “really enjoyed it. I didn't think I would as land law at uni tends to scare you. I ran smaller transactions on my own. It was a nice balance between regular commercial property and property finance work.” Another added: “A partner joined with some fantastic clients in London. We were acting on the sell side, working closely with the construction team on things like sale and leaseback, drafting leases and licences to alter, licences to sign, due diligence, and by the end I was negotiating leases. I felt I came on the most in this seat.” The property team is something of a heavyweight in the North West and increasingly strong in London, representing household names like the Co-op, Iceland, Lloyds Bank and HSBC.
“Mock tribunal, with trainees and apprentices as the witnesses."
While healthcare and insurance-related work are big at HD – the former represents over a hundred NHS and private sector clients – trainees highlighted areas like pensions and employment for future trainees to also consider. Pensions, for example, is “one of the growing and more profitable areas of the business. It's a nice team, and I enjoy the detailed research in this type of work, which requires you to look into legislative provision and then provide digestible advice to businesses.” The team provides advice to trustees on regulatory changes and also gets involved in the pensions aspects of corporate deals, among its various activities.
Commercial employment is “not one of the largest teams, but fairly substantial; it's based mainly in Liverpool but with quite a few people in Manchester too” (plus some in London). Trainee tasks include “assisting with settlement agreements, drafting advice to clients, research, drafting maternity and shared paternal leave policies, and lots of HR-type investigations into things like whether an employee has brought a complaint through a company's official procedure. The company would want impartial advice, and we'd go in, do the interviews and write a report. It was mainly non-contentious work while I was there, because of the fee alterations in tribunal cases.” Thanks to the government raising the fees to bring a tribunal case, the volume of tribunals work has decreased. Nevertheless, the team still organises a “mock tribunal, with trainees and apprentices as the witnesses, so an HR manager could see what it would be like if they were to be called in the future.” Like other practices we heard about, “the team is friendly and ambitious, with a mix of clients from Liverpool-based businesses to much larger companies, and individuals too.” Employment clients include local organisations like The City of Liverpool College as well as big corporates like pharma giant AstraZeneca.
School of rock
A few trainees qualified early in March as they had previously paralegalled with the firm, but HD considers both applicants who have just emerged from law school and those brandishing experience-laden CVs. London qualifiers tend to find out about NQ jobs a little later than those up North, and some suggested that HD's London arm can feel “like a separate firm.” One clarified: “It's different but not in a bad way. You feel the influence of the North West more at the manager level, through official emails and decisions. I think there are more relations between partners across the offices, but at my level not so much.” That said, for trainee social activities “invites are always extended to London, but it's hard logistically.” London trainees do trek up to Liverpool for their week's induction with all the others at the start of the training contract, then for a few days of occasional Professional Skills Courses (PSCs), and again at the end of the two years.
"It's very transparent – so not many places to hide!”
Trainees really dug their “very modern” digs in Liverpool, not least because there's “a subsidised café that's a bit cheaper than popping out to Gregg's.” The location is St Paul's Square, the main hub of the commercial district. “Weightmans and DWF are next door. There's lots of glass so it's very transparent – so not many places to hide!” By contrast, the Manchester office is “not as nice as Liverpool” as it's in an older building “with no aircon.” One source claimed optimistically that “we're probably going to move once we get out of the lease.” The firm confirmed these rumours.
Why join Hill Dickinson? “From a Northern perspective, the HQ is in Liverpool and the firm has a big presence in Manchester – it's a really good firm to work for up here. London was traditionally marine but has been diversifying, so we're offering more in the capital too.”
How to get into Hill Dickinson
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 July 2017
Applications and assessments
Hills Dicks has 12 training contracts available for 2019. If you want to bag yourself a place on the vac scheme or training contract then in addition to a written application, you'll have to go through what training partner Richard Capper describes as an "extended selfie." He's referring to the process of answering questions via an online video submission, a requirement which is becoming increasingly popular among graduate recruiters.
Candidates who stand out at this stage are invited in for an assessment day which is split into four stages: a presentation, group exercise, written exercise and interview. For the first, applicants are given a general interest topic that’s recently been in the press, something which “you should be able to tackle without any specific legal knowledge,” according to Capper. That said, it’s definitely a good idea to keep abreast of current affairs in the run up to the day. The group task is usually a negotiation exercise, while the written test could involve drafting a document or letter to a client, and aims to test analytical skills as well as spelling and grammar.
There are no two ways about it: the day is “difficult and high-pressured” trainees told us. That said, when it comes to the interview it seems the firm is mostly concerned with ensuring candidates really want to work for Hill Dicks: “It’s important for them to be able to present a convincing case, with evidence, as to why exactly they’re applying here,” Capper stresses. Other questions revolve around situational judgement, business development and commercial awareness.
Hill Dickinson offers around 60 one-week vac scheme places a year: 12 places each week in Liverpool and Manchester, four in London. The first four days are spent in a specific department, and the fifth consists of a training contract assessment day just as previously described. Our sources appreciated that they hadn’t been treated “like a spare part” and felt that they’d “been able to actually contribute something to the team.” At the same time, they’d found the first four days “fairly informal” and “more like work experience really.”
Richard Capper tells us vac schemers might be taken to court, to client meetings, and to tribunals, and also sit through talks and presentations from various business groups. There are also “fancy lunches and drinks with trainees,” before the assessment really starts to bite on Friday. The firm recruits heavily through the vac scheme, with more applying via that route than for a training contract alone.
The ideal candidate
The firm requests that candidates have no less than an ABB at A level and 2:1 at degree. “We usually recruit slightly more law grads than non-law (about 60/40),” Capper adds, ”though you don’t need a law degree and experience in a commercial firm to work here. Any work experience is useful provided it’s informed your decision to apply, and this allows us to recruit an interesting and diverse mix of individuals.”
The Liverpool and Manchester legal scenes
Hill Dickinson LLP
No. 1 St Paul’s Square,
- Partners and legal directors 190
- Senior associates 78
- Associates 157
- Total trainees 22
- Contact Emma McAvinchey-Roberts, Jennifer Hulse in the talent and development team, [email protected]
- Selection procedure You will need to have completed an online application, a video interview and a psychometric test by the closing dates, so apply early and please ensure you give yourself plenty of time.
- Closing dates
- Vacation schemes (2017):31 January 2017
- Training contracts (2019): 31 July 2017
- Training salary
- First year (London): £32,000
- First year (Manchester/Liverpool): £24,000
- Second year (London): £34,000
- Second year (Manchester/Liverpool): £26,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2015) 74%
- Offices Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, London, Singapore, Piraeus, Monaco, Hong Kong
Main areas of work
Immediate responsibilities: because of our small intake, there’s lots of interesting work to go around and you will be given challenges from the start.
Choices: you will work four seats and select preferences from a variety of different areas of law.
A mentor: your mentor (a Hill Dickinson solicitor) will be on hand from day one and throughout your training contract to offer advice, guidance and support.
Office sharing: you will share an office with a partner, who will help you develop your legal knowledge and be there to support you.
A brilliant start: before you officially start your training contract, you will spend a number of days in our offices learning about our business, as part of our LPC+ scheme.
A social scene: our trainees work really hard and as you’d expect, it’s not all fun and games. But when they do let their hair down, they get together and do it properly! You’re welcome to get involved in the firm’s sports and CSR teams, too.
Sponsorship and awards