Big changes are afoot at this leader in employment and media law.
Head to 5 Chancery Lane and you'll find Lewis Silkin, a shiny high-ceilinged refuge from the hustle of the City and the bustle of the West End. The London-founded firm, which also has branches in Cardiff and Oxford, is home to one of the hottest employment departments in town. It's also a VIP among VIPs on the media front, working with all manner of celebs and sportspeople, plus the head honchos of the publishing, film, TV and advertising worlds. Chambers UK awards high marks to both practices, and also acknowledges the firm's corporate, IP, real estate, social housing and immigration efforts.
In 2015 Lewis Silkin bolstered its international employment practice by launching its first overseas office, in Hong Kong. “We saw a good opportunity to support our existing clients with some of their business immigration needs in that region," managing partner Ian Jeffery says of the move, noting that "big businesses don't just think around national lines any more – that includes people, as well as products and processes.” He also hints that we can “expect to see some more international office openings over the next five years,” though he remained tight-lipped on where.
There are new developments on the traineeship front too: in 2015 the firm switched the seat system from six four-month stints to the standard four six-month stints. “Four months for a seat was just too short," sources agreed. "As as soon as you found your feet, you were moved on.” Like in years past, our sources were split on allocation: some praised “HR's efforts to consider our preferences,” while others felt it "seems to function on a healthy dose of luck” and wished "it was all a bit more transparent." The firm recruits up to six trainees each year, all based in London.
Don't they know it's Christmas time?
The media, brands and technology (MBT) team tackles brand management, IP, commercial and reputation management matters across the mobile, music, TV, radio, sports and film sectors. Interviewees who'd sat here were impressed by the “immense range of clients and the variety of issues we handle for them. There's so much going on, and it can get pretty niche – one trainee found themselves researching sex toy retailers in relation to a possible trade mark infringement!” The team recently advised advertising agency AMVBBDO after its WWII-themed Christmas TV ad for Sainsbury's attracted hundreds of complaints via the Advertising Standards Authority, and represented the lead cast members of The Inbetweeners 2 during negotiations with the film's production company and financiers.
Both contentious and non-contentious matters fill the MBT docket, and “what trainees work on can differ entirely depending on their supervisor's expertise.” One source had spent most of their seat on trade mark litigation, “doing lots of research into whether clients' trade marks had been infringed. I didn't prepare any claims, but I did get stuck into correspondence and prepared the bundles.” Another told of working on defamation cases: “A highlight was dealing with a claim a premiership footballer had made against a tabloid. The partner dealt with the bigger-picture strategy, while I was responsible for the nitty-gritty, like corresponding with the other side." A third had assisted with the sale of the film rights for a popular novel, which involved “attending negotiation meetings and proofing documents. The paperwork was immense.”
God only knows
The 100-strong employment department is the second biggest in the country and accounts for nearly half of Lewis Silkin's revenue. The practice focuses on HR-related services, frequently handling injunctions, union issues and boardroom dramas, often in the financial services sector. “We advise on companies' policies and deal with ad hoc employment queries," explained an insider. "And on the contentious side, it's mostly employment tribunals for unfair dismissal and discrimination cases. Trainees don't belong to one side or the other; you get asked to help as and when.” One trainee told of working "pretty much exclusively on a high-profile discrimination case during my seat. I helped draft a 100-page witness statement and was responsible for analysing a lot of data.” Most of the department's cases are confidential, but certain ones can't escape media attention, like a recent case brought by a Christian duty free worker at Heathrow who claimed she'd been harassed by Muslim colleagues and unfairly prevented from accessing certain areas of the airport. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where LS lawyers successfully defended World Duty Free on the basis that the claimant did not technically fall under the category of 'employee'. Other recent clients include Marks & Spencer, Ford, Linklaters and Shell.
“It's widely acknowledged that Lewis Silkin has the nicest corporate department around,” said one trainee matter-of-factly. “It's a great, supportive group of people you can learn a lot from." The department primarily handles M&A, and is a big player in the advertising and marketing services sectors. "There's also some general corporate governance work, like if a company wants to appoint a new director.” In recent years the firm's grown its presence in the tech, media and communications industries, onboarding a fair few start-ups to the client list. Lawyers recently advised PR company Publicis on its £50 million acquisition of part of digital advertiser Matomy Media. On such matters, trainees typically busy themselves with drafting ancillary documents. “How much responsibility you get depends on who your supervisor is. Some might say 'go downstairs and get this document finalised with the client.' Others will just do it themselves.”
This dynamic seems to go for supervision in general. As one source told us: "You could get assigned a supervisor who trusts you with a lot and is fantastic at giving feedback, or you could get someone who's bit more head-down and doesn't give you a great deal of comments." Another chimed in to say: “You get what you put in. Don't come here if you're expecting a lot of supervision. It's more on-the-job training instead.”
Lewis Silkin has long billed itself as more 'human' than its peers, a claim that's laid bare, trainees said, "in that they don't expect us here at all hours." As one noted: "The big selling point here has always been that you can work at a very good City firm without working crazy City hours." That said, "the workload has become more intense in recent years, and as a result they're expecting trainees to put in more hours than before." One told of "working 100 hours during one particularly hectic week in my employment seat." Still, everyone we spoke with cited 7pm as their typical departure time, "which is a nice level of busy to be. You're never going to be completely free of overtime, but it's not the firm's strategy to become especially corporate." Trainees' extra efforts aren't going unrewarded: in 2015 the firm upped its starting salary for trainees from £32,500 to £34,000.
Another new development in 2015 was the addition of a basement hang-out room kitted out with ping-pong and table football gear. "It's good fun! The firm is already a really welcoming place, and this has given trainees more space to bond – especially the more competitive among us!" Outside the office, the fun continues with Christmas and summer parties where “you're drowned in alcohol." The horror! Departmental dos also dot the calendar: at the time of our calls, the employment team had recently returned from an away weekend in which "we discussed the future of the firm and went bungee jumping.”
In 2015 three of Lewis Silkin's six qualifiers took up NQ jobs with the firm.
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How to get a Lewis Silkin training contract
Training contract deadline: 30 June 2016
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 careful in how they come across – we are marking them.” 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. It allows candidates to show their personality.”
To impress, successful candidates need to demonstrate commercial awareness (particularly of clients' needs), '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.
Lewis Silkin's offices
While Lewis Silkin only takes on trainees in London for the moment, it's still worth getting to know the firm's two other domestic outposts: Oxford and Cardiff. That triumvirate might seem a tad odd at first, but the motivations behind each opening were very clear in the firm's trajectory.
Managing partner Ian Jeffery explains the Oxford office began almost 15 years ago “because a couple of practitioners wanted to be based there but remain part of the firm,” and that it still “acts as a seamless extension of London.” Cardiff, on the other hand, was chosen because “the running and the employment costs were somewhat lower” in the Welsh capital, enabling the firm to redirect some of its “most price-sensitive work” there. Sources agreed that the firm operates as one, with this trainee confessing: “I worked with someone for three months before realising she was in Cardiff, not downstairs!”
Oxford now houses over twenty people. Jeffery admits that while the office “doesn't predominantly focus on a Thames Valley client base,” it does “work for some clients there.” He continues: “Clients serviced from the Oxford office are national and international businesses, much as the ones serviced from London are.” The office is a short walk from the station, and handily situated close to several restaurants and cafés.
Trainees insisted that “clients don't know if someone is speaking to them from Cardiff or London.” Jeffery confirms that “in terms of culture and communications, we treat the Cardiff office as an integrated part of the overall organisation.” Like Oxford, it's tactically situated close to the station and the charming river.
For a little bit of freaky trivia, note that the Oxford office is located on Park End Street, opposite the Royal Oxford Hotel, while the Cardiff office is just round the corner from Park Street Lane, opposite the Royal Hotel Cardiff. Coincidence? We're not so sure... One trainee also predicted that “a further office out in Scotland might be on the cards,” but we have no formal confirmation from the firm.
On the international scene, Lewis Silkin took the plunge in 2015 and opened its first overseas office, in Hong Kong. Jeffery hints that there could well be additional international launches in the years ahead, but for more on this and all the goss on Hong Kong, please read our full interview with the man himself, just below.
Interview with managing partner Ian Jeffery
Student Guide: What were the firm's highlights over the past year?
Ian Jeffery: People know that as a firm we're focused on two particular areas – employment law and related HR services, and working with clients in the creative industries – so even though we're a full service firm, doing litigation, corporate, real estate, commercial, and IP, the big themes are the first two I mentioned. We're looking to grow those areas and grow our capabilities, so when looking at the past year's highlights, that's the story within which they feed.
In terms of financial performance we saw growth of about 8 or 9% last year in turnover, and quite a bit of growth in profitability. The majority would have come from those two main areas. In trying to develop our capabilities, the other relatively headline thing we did was open an office in Hong Kong, the firm's fourth office.
We also had two or three lateral hires join the firm, and at the beginning of the year we promoted another associate to partner. Five or so usually go through each year.
SG: Which practice areas are growing, and are any shrinking?
IJ: Nothing is shrinking. I think when we talk about the practice areas, the two central themes are relevant across the whole firm. Even something like employment law, which sounds like an individual department, is somewhat related. We work a lot with professional partnerships including some law firms: quite often corporate law or tax advice is needed for solving some of the client problems the employment lawyers are working on.
I also mentioned the creative industry and the media, and that section produces work for all our teams; quite a bit of real estate, dispute resolution, and corporate work is being done for clients in those industries. So all the service departments have maintained or increased their revenues last year. Of course we work for clients in other sectors, we're not completely niche in what we do!
SG: Let's return to that office opening in Hong Kong. How long had it been in the pipeline and what are your hopes for its development?
IJ: We'd been thinking about it for a couple of years; I took a trip there myself a few years back. The work we're doing there will mainly be around the international employment practice and the related business immigration issues that arise. As a firm that specialises in employment law we have a lot of international and global clients that come to us for that kind of advice. We saw a good opportunity to support our existing clients with some of their business immigration needs in that region; big businesses don't just think around national lines any more – that includes people as well as products and processes.
Over time it will be good to find opportunities for other parts of the firm to source and do work in that area. In the meantime it acts as a very good stopping off point when people are out in that region on business, promoting cross-firm dialogue.
SG: Will future trainees be able to complete an overseas seat in Hong Kong?
IJ: There is a good possibility of that happening pretty quickly. I don't think we'll be offering a permanent seat out there, but there will be opportunities relatively regularly for trainees interested in those areas of the law.
SG: What's Lewis Silkin's strategy for the future?
IJ: Picking out the two major themes as I did in my first answer, our strategy takes us up to around 2020, setting up the vision for the firm we want to be. We're working on a series of three year cycles towards that: we're coming to the end of one of those cycles this year, as well as working on the 2016-19 cycle.
When we strategise we do so under several different headings: clients and markets is the first, and in that respect there is an aspiration to do more of the international work we've been building up, but that probably won't result in a rush of overseas office openings. The reason for that is that much of our international work is done in conjunction with alliance partners; we're members of two alliance partnerships, one is called Ius Laboris, focusing on the HR and employment side, the other is the Global Advertising Lawyers Alliance, which needs no further explanation. Alliances like these tend to work on the basis of one member per country, so it would be difficult for us to open a number of international offices without creating potential clashes. Hong Kong was a good example of somewhere we could open an office, because it wasn't creating any clashes and there was need for coverage in that region. For people who might be looking to apply for training contracts one to two years from now (and thus looking to train here for the subsequent two years, then thinking about their careers here for a few years beyond that) certainly more likely than not I would expect to see some more international office openings over the next five years. There are no plans to open one this year or next year.
Complimentary services for clients is the second of the headings under which we build our strategy. For many years we've been trying to meet the legal advice needs of certain types of clients, but we recognise that those clients need other types of things from professional services too. We think it's possible for us to grow what we do, through some forms of additional training or risk management, or whatever it may be. We have a number of projects going on to provide those kinds of services.
Financially, we've seen growth over the last year, and pretty decent growth over the past eight to ten year period, including during the 08/09 recession. We want to continue growing as a firm, and we want it to be organic rather than achieved through a merger. A key part of organic growth is the people and the creation of career opportunities.
Another set of things we're looking at is the way the systems run. It's important for all firms to run as smoothly and efficiently as they can; we try and pick up suggestions from people all across the business. Everyone has a voice.
The final area is in relation to our people. We participate in the Best Companies employee engagement survey each year as a central plank of our people strategy. We are proud to say that for seven years running the firm has been listed in the Sunday Times Best Companies To Work For Listing and we have been awarded two-star accreditation status. It’s a well-designed survey providing analysis and feedback from staff that covers most of the areas we think are important. We aspire to continue doing well but also to improve employee engagement based on the feedback received.
SG: Some interviewees felt that the recent trainee salary increase reflected the more “City-like” hours they'd been working and a move away from the firm's rep for providing a good work/life balance. What's your take on the salary increase?
IJ: Yes, the salary has gone up. But we're not consciously pursuing the transition you describe. The way we think about paying people, is that the pay should be seen as fair, relative to the wider market. One of the areas the Best Companies scheme tests on is one called “Fair Deal,” so everyone in the company gets surveyed on whether they think their pay is fair. We haven't raised hours targets and we don't intend to do so. We do think that it's a point of differentiation for Lewis Silkin that the experience of working here is a rather more human one than it is in some firms.
We know there will be trainees out there for whom the very, very long hours culture will be a point of attraction, but the people who suit Lewis Silkin – and this is not to say it's an easy life here or that the hours target is very low – are encouraged to work consistently and well during the day. Sometimes this extends to the evening if needed, but if we see that recurring we encourage a period of recovery afterwards.
We're certainly not looking to pay more in order to demand more. We're looking to pay more to make sure that people's salaries are fair in relation to the wider market – without changing the culture and philosophy of the wider firm.
SG: What's the number one thing you expect from a trainee, and the number one thing you think the firm can offer a young lawyer-to-be?
IJ: In terms of the first part, it's the keenness to learn. By the time trainees come to us they've learned a lot about the law in an academic sense, and to an extent the practical sense, but it's the appetite to take it beyond that and to learn about the application of the academic side of things to the real world problems that clients have, and finding a practical solution. Personally I also look for people who are willing to learn skills outside – or complementary to – those of the traditional lawyer, so that as their careers grow they can bring a wider set of tools. I'm thinking of things like IT skills, management skills, communications, running teams, and so on. Although they're touched on at the academic stage, it's easy for lawyers during the first five or so years of their careers to not see those as important and to focus on tasks like drafting or research. People who do pick up those skills can go on to move up more quickly afterwards, by being differentiated in that way.
In terms of the top thing the firm can offer to young lawyers, it's around the combination of what we focus on and the workplace culture we have. For graduates or soon-to-be graduates with strong interests in employment, immigration, or people-related law, or in more or less any kind of law for clients in the communications, media and technology sectors, I would hope that we would be on their shortlist of firms. One thing that might push us to the top of that list should be the workplace culture, where we're trying to combine early responsibility, a very flat structure, open lines of communication, and a sense of enjoying the working day. Those would be the things that help Lewis Silkin stand out in the graduate recruitment market.
Lewis Silkin LLP
5 Chancery Lane,
- Partners 61
- Assistant solicitors 122
- Total trainees 14
- 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 2018 intake 30 June 2016
- Training contracts p.a. up to 6
- Applications p.a. 600
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary
- 1st year £34,000
- 2nd year £37,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days plus public holidays
- Post-qualification salary (2015) up to £54,000
Main areas of work