Known for its star employment practice and work in the creative industries, Lewis Silkin gives trainees ample room to sample what they like.
Mr Boombastic, say me fantastic
“I didn't want a firm that was overly corporate or stiff,” explained one interviewee. And up popped Lewis Silkin, a Chancery Lane-based outfit on the outskirts of the City, which once marketed itself as 'a rather more human firm'. Unlike its counterparts bearing down from those skyscrapers in the distance, corporate and finance work doesn't dominate Lewis Silkin's platform. Instead, it's renowned for its top-ranked employment practice, as well as its extensive media expertise. The firm particularly packs a punch in the advertising and marketing spaces, but Chambers UK also recognises its abilities in film and television, as well as gaming and social media. Other high performing practices include business immigration, patent and trade mark work and mid-market corporate/M&A.
The opening of a Hong Kong office in 2015 bolstered Lewis Silkin's employment and immigration groups and signalled its appetite for international expansion. Not content with standing still, 2016 saw the firm re-brand and restructure its practice. Managing partner Ian Jeffery tells us: “For years we have worked on our two major areas of focus – employment and immigration, coupled with the work we do with clients in those creative sectors like advertising, entertainment and fashion – but we felt we could do more to showcase those themes. We've updated our visual identity to give it a more modern look, but also to make those areas of focus clear.” Have a gander at the firm's new website and you'll find what one trainee called a series of “big bombastic symbols,” or what we like to think of as kaleidoscopic patterns – chosen, presumably, to show that Lewis Silkin's various strands of expertise align to form a jaunty and colourful whole. We like it.
That's the re-brand, but what about the restructuring? This will have a more measurable effect on trainees, Jeffery explains. Here's the deal: Lewis Silkin used to be split into five departments, but these “created unnecessary barriers to collaboration in the firm.” One department in particular – media, brands and technology (MBT) – had “grown rapidly, so we wanted to build on its success and draw in a wider range of lawyers from around the firm, who could benefit from the type of industries it was serving.” So the departmental divisions were scrapped and replaced with 11 “open and overlapping practice groups,” including brands and intellectual property, data & privacy, real estate and employment. All the firm's lawyers are now classed as 'practitioners' who can become members of “one, two or even three practice groups.”
So how will seat allocation work going forward? “Rather than moving from department A to department B, they will work with HR to identify a new supervisor who they want to work with,” Jeffery tells us. “We will say, 'If you want to sit with this supervisor you will encounter this range of work' and so on. It will take a bit more effort on our part but it will give trainees a better and more considered experience.”
Brand management, IP, commercial and reputation management matters all used to fall under MBT's remit – and all continue to be very popular with Lewis Silkin's trainees. One commented on “the immense range of clients and the variety of issues we handle,” pointing to the firm's work in the mobile, music, TV, sports, film and publishing sectors. For the second year running, the firm advised advertising agency AMV BBDO on the creative treatment of its Christmas advert for Sainsbury's, which featured Mog the cat. Elsewhere, the firm advised Dignity Pictures on the financing structure for the final film in Noel Clarke's trilogy, Brotherhood; acted for AOL during a libel action which centred on two articles that were published in The Huffington Post; and helped various rugby unions – including those in Australia and Argentina – as they dealt with their players' disciplinary hearings in the wake of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
"My partner was always taking me to client meetings, which kept things varied.”
Lewis Silkin's employment work accounts for almost half of the firm's revenue. The focus is on HR-related services, and practitioners here frequently handle injunctions, union issues and boardroom dramas – often in the financial services sector. One trainee described working on “a discrimination claim against a big client from its inception. I took notes during interviews, then assisted with the bundle and requested documents from clients, before helping to draft the witness statements and attending discussions with the claimant's solicitor.” Most of the group's cases are confidential, but we can mention Lewis Silkin's recent work advising easyJet as the airline's cabin crew threatened strike action. Other clients include Credit Suisse, Ford, Freshfields and Marks & Spencer.
How very splendid
Exposure to Lewis Silkin's corporate practice couldn't be further removed from those City stereotypes of 2am deal signings and nights spent in sleeping pods. “I actually worked longer hours when I was sampling other areas and I didn't experience any kind of extreme pressure. That comes from the firm-wide recognition that people have lives outside of work, but also from the fact that corporate isn't the be-all and end-all of our practice.” It recently advised the shareholders of the design and development consultancy How Splendid on its sale to marketing communications group Creston. “I did quite a few M&A deals involving ad agencies, where we acted for owner-managers looking to sell, as well as for big multinationals looking to acquire smaller agencies. I drafted a lot of documents; on the larger deals that meant board minutes, but on the smaller ones I got to draft a share purchase agreement and a business purchase agreement.”
The quality of supervision “depends on the supervisor – I would talk to one of mine every day and we had a good, well-rounded working relationship, but others were a lot more hands-off.” We heard that some supervisors have “mentored trainees for a long time and lost the spark for it,” while others “don't have the time to give feedback.” However, trainees have asked HR to whip said supervisors into shape: "They are on top of it.”
“Everyone is on an equal footing, and you don't have to stand to attention.”
It's fair to say that Lewis Silkin promotes a fairly relaxed environment. “When I first arrived I overheard an associate teasing a partner about something and both of them laughing – I was shocked by how informal it was! Everyone is on an equal footing, and you don't have to stand to attention.” Despite not having an open-plan layout at their disposal (two to three lawyers share an office), the firm's lawyers find plenty of time to interact: “People are always popping into offices to pick each other's brains and discuss matters.”
Lewis Silkin is no longer promoting itself as 'a more human firm', but its humane approach to working hours remains intact. “You're not expected to sit here until ten every night for the sake of it,” sources told us; “normally you'll start at 9am and leave between 6.30pm and 7pm.” Interviewees agreed that “there is a better work/life balance here than at the big City firms, which makes for well-rounded individuals with interests outside of the law.” Many trainees had some work experience under their belt before joining the firm, whether they'd paralegalled or worked in the creative industries they now serve. “The intake isn't dominated by kids straight out of uni, so work doesn't form our only social circle and many of us have family commitments. We're not a bunch of 20-year-olds out on the lash all the time, but we're still a social bunch!”
Employment is a popular area to qualify into; the application process is “quite rigorous, as you have to complete two interviews and a test!” In 2016, three of seven qualifiers were kept on.
How to get a Lewis Silkin training contract
Training contract deadline: 30 June 2017
Lewis Silkin receives around 500 applications for training contracts each year. These are made via Apply4Law, and there are no CVs involved.
The firm shortlists approximately 40 applicants to complete the pre-selection exercises (a written case study, video interview and verbal and numerical reasoning tests) and these do not require any preparation in advance. Following this, 16 are chosen to take part in an assessment centre that involves a group exercise and interviews with two pairs of partners, plus a chance to speak to current trainees.
According to an HR source, the group exercise is “fun and tongue-in-cheek,” but candidates “should still be mindful that they are being assessed: the exercise is designed to test their decision making, analytical skills and their ability to put forward a persuasive argument. It also allows the candidate to show us their personality.”
In previous years, the exercise centred on a management-related scenario in which “an award winning architect and building practice had to create a new landmark building in London by considering the location and design concept.” Future candidates take note: your group exercise – though also focused on management – will not be the same!
To impress, successful candidates need to demonstrate 'personal effectiveness' and people skills. Our HR source explains: “In terms of personal effectiveness, we look at whether they understand instructions and demonstrate a clear thought process. For people skills, we're looking to see if they get along with each other, if they create a team environment and act as a natural leader. We keep an eye out for negative indicators too – for example a limited contribution to the task, and an unwillingness to make decisions and express opinions.”
To bag one of Lewis Silkin's training contracts (of which there are up to six) our source tells us that you need to be “a bright, open-minded and curious lateral thinker, without the baggage of machismo, arrogance, bravado or working at the expense of others.”
Of course, “there's not a single type of person that the firm's looking for,” trainee sources agreed. “Everyone in my intake is sociable and hard-working, but there's quite a wide age range among us, from 24 through to 36. And a lot of different backgrounds too.” It's worth noting that “many of the trainees have work experience in creative industries like media and advertising,” though that doesn't mean those fresh out of law school can't nab a place.
Lewis Silkin has replaced its vacation schemes with two three-day workshops at the beginning of April. These involve a variety of presentations and interactive sessions with partners, associates and business services managers, plus a Q&A with trainees.
Attendees also get to participate in an interactive speed networking session. “We give them some soft skills training, and then we let them loose with staff from across the firm and get them to try to find answers to a set of questions,” an HR source says.
There are between ten and 15 spots available per workshop. Applications are made through Apply4Law.
Who was Lewis Silkin?
You might have noticed how firms like their names to be double, triple or even quadruple-barrelled. In an ever-consolidating legal market, these names often reveal the patchwork of mergers behind a firm's current form. They also frequently point to founding members, as Lewis Silkin's does. But there were not – as you might think – two people: one called 'Lewis' and one called 'Silkin', but rather one person: Mr Lewis Silkin. So who was the eponymous Mr Silkin?
In short, he was a lawyer, a Labour MP, a minister of town and country planning under the post-war Labour prime minister Clement Attlee, and latterly a baron. Born in 1889 to a Jewish family of Lithuanian migrants, Silkin grew up in London's East End. Early on he showed academic promise, but his family's finances prevented him from taking up a place at Oxford, as did the intervention of his schoolmaster, who helpfully informed the university that “this boy will not benefit from a university education.” With his academic career cut short, our young hero tumbled into the world of work: first at the East India Docks, and then at a solicitors' firm as a clerk. Inspired by his employer, Silkin eventually went on to qualify as a solicitor and soon went about setting up his own firm.
Running alongside his career in law was an interest in politics – particularly socialism – and it quickly overtook his legal work. In 1925 Silkin was elected to the London County Council and by 1936 he had a seat in parliament as the member for Peckham. When his brother Joseph also qualified as a solicitor (forming – you guessed it – Silkin & Silkin), Lewis put law on the back-burner to press on with his political career.
Silkin's first decade as an MP coincided with the Second World War and presented many challenges. However, he still found time to cover some endearingly-everyday topics in parliament. On 25 July 1940 Silkin asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food what action he intended to take to ensure that an 'exceptionally abundant' crop of plums didn't go to waste. He followed this in 1943 with a timely question to the Minister for War Transport, which touched upon the beloved British topic of queueing: “[Is he] aware that the regulation requiring queueing at omnibus stops is frequently not being observed?” A scandal!
As minister for town and country planning, Silkin went on to shape three key pieces of legislation during the post-war drive to reconstruct Britain. The first, in 1946, came the New Towns Act, which created 14 new towns beyond the big city boundaries. Second was the Town and Country Planning Act (1947), which set an early precedent for modern planning law. The third was the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949), which reserved national parks “for the hikers and ramblers, for everyone who loves to get out into the open air and enjoy the countryside.” Of all the political legacies to leave, this is evidently one of the more desirable ones.
And what about the law firm that bears his name? Well, it developed quite independently of the man himself after his departure into politics. Silkin returned later on, applying his specialism in planning and development law, but the modern incarnation of the firm was mainly shaped by other family members and fellow partners. However, the firm still wears Silkin's name as a badge of honour, paying tribute to the man who traversed the worlds of law and politics and achieved success in both.
Interview with managing partner Ian Jeffery
Student Guide: Could you start by summing up how you think the firm has performed this year, and perhaps tell us about some highlights?
Ian Jeffery: The firm has a pretty wide range of practice areas, but two major areas of focus. One is around employment law, nationally and internationally, with associated immigration partnership law. The second is on working with clients within the creative, innovative and brand sectors. Those are the major themes that the firm has been pursuing for some years and will continue to pursue.
Looking back at the past year, we continued to do a good deal of M&A work in the creative and innovative sector, some for longstanding large marketing services clients, who are all pretty acquisitive, both in the UK and internationally. The work is broader than that though: the corporate team act for clients in this country and internationally in other sectors within the wider creative community. Our international work is becoming more significant year by year. We have done more work for some French clients and two or three transactions in the research and scientific sectors, all illustrative of the international side. On the employment side it's difficult to be totally specific, but clients cover some main industry sectors like financial services, professional services, manufacturing and a wide range of other industries.
One highlight is that we opened an overseas office in Hong Kong. That is an office which we use predominantly for immigration and employment, as part of a wider international alliance called Ius Laboris which we have been involved In for some years. It's part of the long-term strategy for that major area of the business, and Hong Kong is going to be part of that wider alliance offering.
That overview gives you a restatement of the overall focus. The firm has grown pretty consistently in the years since the financial crisis in 2008/09. While years can vary in their individual outcome, last year was slightly slower, but overall it's continuing growth for the firm.
SG: Your re-branding is something which we have heard a lot about. Would you be able to tell us what the main features of that are, and why you chose to do it now?
IJ: As I've outlined, while our firm has the breadth of legal practices that you would expect, it does focus on major themes. For years we have worked on our two major areas of focus – employment and immigration, coupled with the work we do with clients in creative sectors like advertising, entertainment and fashion – but we felt we could do more to showcase those themes. We've updated our visual identity to give it a more modern look, but also to make those areas of focus clear.
SG: Your previous branding focused on the firm being 'rather more human'. Does the rebranding signal any kind of change at all, or does it remain a focus for you?
IJ: It's true to say that we did use the tag line 'rather more human' as an explicit part of our previous branding, not just for employment but also for the client market. While we believe that the firm does bring a human touch to the delivery of legal services and wishes to continue doing that, in updating the market-facing brand we felt we should make more of our legal and commercial approach, and not only communicate the human side of dealing with us.
There is a change in external branding but not a change to our underlying culture or day to day life. We are very collaborative, have a flat structure, and anyone can talk to anyone else in the office. Nothing has changed, hopefully, about accessibility or consultation. But we do have to update ourselves. We mustn't confuse visual identity and marketing, and team culture. 'Rather more human' is very much alive and well in the business.
SG: What is involved in the restructuring we've heard about this year?
IJ: I'm glad you've been hearing about the changes in structure. It's something that people in the firm have really taken an interest in, partly because we consulted them beforehand. It's not a dramatic resizing of the business or a change of emphasis. It's just a step, albeit a relatively bold one, in the same strategy we have been pursuing.
Media, brands and technology was the name for one of our five departments as we used to call them, and it was the home of commercial, IP, media and IP/media litigation work. That practice had grown rapidly over last ten years or so, so we wanted to build on its success and draw in a wider range of lawyers from around the firm, who could benefit from the type of industries it was serving. We want more open and overlapping practice groups to cover things like IP, brands, commercial law and data and privacy. Practitioners, meaning trainees as much as anyone else, are able to be members of one, two or even three legal practice groups. The old way of doing things, in one department, created unnecessary barriers to collaboration in the firm.
SG: What do these changes mean for trainees?
IJ: What it means to a trainee is that they will, in conjunction with HR, focus on the sort of experience they want to get out of each seat, and we will do a matching process, bearing in mind the needs of different parts of the business. Rather than moving from department A to department B, they will work with HR to identify a new supervisor who they want to work with. We will say 'if you want to sit with this supervisor you will encounter this range of work' and so on. It will take a bit more effort on our part but it will give trainees a better and more considered experience.
For the trainees you've spoken to this year, this is a new process, and the current seat assignments they've got were developed before the changes. By 2018, this is expected to be a well-embedded process.
SG: What would you say to a potential trainee who perhaps likes the sound of Lewis Silkin and the way it operates, but doesn't have an interest in either of the sector focuses, and thinks that might be an issue?
IJ: I'd say that, as I said a couple of times earlier on, the firm has a broad range of practices. We cover international arbitration, as well as media contracts and film financing. There is every opportunity for trainees to practice in those areas. The client base does have a pretty clear set of characters, but there are still clients from all sectors of the economy. It is true though that we have a particular focus which we are pretty committed to. If there are aspiring trainees who have an interest in maritime law or commodities arbitration, it's true to say other firms can offer better opportunities in those areas. But for the majority of trainees, unless they were dead set on areas outside our scope, there is a good chance for them to be exposed to the areas they want.
Lewis Silkin LLP
5 Chancery Lane,
- Partners 58
- Assistant solicitors 94
- Total trainees 13
- Contact Human resources
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Assessment day, including two interviews, a group exercise, analytical and aptitude test
- Closing date for 2019 intake 30 June 2017
- Training contracts pa Up to 6
- Applications pa 600
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary
- First year: £36,000
- Second year: £40,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days plus public holidays
- Post-qualification salary (2016) Up to £55,000
Main areas of work