Glasgow-headquartered MMS offers a London-based training contract which fuses “a City feel” with Gaelic tradition.
Urge to merge?
Maclay Murray & Spens and its Scottish competitors have had to navigate a rather challenging domestic legal market over the last decade. Out of Scotland’s original ‘Big Four’ law firms, two have merged with larger outfits south of the border, leaving MMS and Shepherd and Wedderburn holding the fort as the country’s leading independent legal shops. Over the past three years, MMS has continued to reel in steady financials – in 2015/16 turnover increased by 3% to £44.8 million – and it’s kept an opportunistic eye out for lateral additions; it snapped up some of McClure Naismith's lawyers when the seasoned Scot went into administration in 2015. Yet at same time MMS hasn’t ignored the calls of potential suitors. Both Bond Pearce and Addleshaw Goddard have held out their hands to discuss mergers (in 2011 and 2015 respectively), but talks came to a halt on both occasions. So while a future merger can't be ruled out, litigation partner Euan Palmer makes the firm’s stance on joining forces clear: “We're fortunate enough to not be forced into discussions, so we will only talk for the right reasons.”
Fuelling its rep as one of Scotland’s major firms is MMS’s coverage across Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In its homeland, MMS picks up 20 separate Chambers UK rankings in a range of commercial areas, with top nods awarded to its real estate, competition, tax and transport expertise. While the firm’s London office (opened in 1989) doesn’t boast the same range of accolades, Palmer tells us that it plays a significant part in the network: “We're a leading firm in Scotland, and there's no reason not to promote that, but London is a substantial and important part of our practice, so it would be erroneous to say we are just a Scottish firm with a London satellite.”
The firm focuses on four major practice areas: company/commercial, commercial property, litigation and private client. This configuration can largely be found in London (with the exception of private client), though training partner Jonathan Ingram tells us “financial services is probably one of the strongest areas.” For trainees, seats in corporate, banking and finance, property and commercial dispute resolution are usually available, although precise options can vary from year to year. Overall, work is sourced from both ends of the island, meaning a lot of collaboration with the other offices: “Scottish lawyers routinely hotdesk in London, and our lawyers go up there to meet clients too,” sources told us.
“You get the most out of those extra two months.”
MMS offers a twist on the standard seat structure: trainees in London only complete three seats, each eight months long. “You get the most out of those extra two months,” satisfied sources told us, “as you’re more familiar with the work and what you have to do, so you’re given a lot more responsibility.” Before they join, newbies sit through “short presentations on each of the departments offering seats.” They then discuss their preferences with HR and all three seats are mapped out. Sources saw pros and cons to this approach, with one summing up: “It's great to know where you're going and what you can get out of each seat, but it does have its disadvantages, particularly if you don't get your top choices or get stuck somewhere you really don't want to qualify.” The firm told us it has now made the system more flexible and that your initial roster of allocated seats is not set in stone.
A stint with the financial services team offers both payments services and regulatory work. Clients include a mix of FinTech companies like The Currency Cloud and banks like Santander. According to trainees, “working with the FinTech clients is exciting, as we conduct research to help them set up the payment platforms they're looking to provide.” Banking sources revealed “there's a lot of property finance and lender-side work on large loans.” These deals typically involve “liaising with the client and the other side's solicitors continually. Trainees have to ensure the conditions precedent are satisfied, so we're liaising to get all of the documents in and reviewing them too. It feels like you're running the transaction.”
"It feels like you're running the transaction.”
MMS's property department is split between commercial and social housing work. On the former side, lawyers handle a lot of investments, developments, disposals and joint ventures. Clients include Irish life assurance company Friends First, as well as investment managers like Mayfair Capital and Aberdeen Asset Management. The team recently acted for developer Oceanic Estates during its £89 million sale of an industrial estate in Southampton. One trainee here reported: “I was working on plot sales for a housing association, so I got to draft the leases and the transfers involved. You can run these things and liaise with the client, but everything still gets checked.” On the social housing side, another sources conducted “reviews of properties and land, drafted reports on title and drew up search reports on risks like flooding. It meant I learnt loads about leases and the documents from the Land Registry.”
London's corporate team primarily does mid-market M&A deals, and recently advised Ennismore – a London-based hotel and restaurant developer – on its acquisition of the luxury five-star Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire. Other specialisms here include insurance, gaming, technology and media. Sources raved about getting their hands on some important documents. “I was given the chance to draft some of the clauses in a joint venture agreement. I was given feedback on each attempt until I got it right.”
Over in commercial dispute resolution (CDR), there are insolvency cases, property disputes, financial services spats, oil and gas-related litigation, competition cases, and more. All were fair game for trainees who’d “worked with a range of partners, each with their own specialism.” Trainees agreed their highest levels of responsibility came from “small debt matters, where you'll be emailing the debtor to try and get them to pay up!” These cases are “given to a trainee to manage. You get involved in the early stages like drafting the letter before action and filing proceedings. Then you might also arrange the court visits and look into lining up counsel – I had maybe seven or eight of these on the go at one time!”
MMS doesn't mess about when it comes to building bridges across the border: “You start off with three days’ training in Edinburgh; they fly you up there to meet all the other trainees, and it's great to get to know the people that work in Scotland from the beginning.” Trainees across the network are also reunited through seasonal firm-wide parties. The Christmas party brought “fun and frivolity, a lovely dinner and some dancing, all followed by kebabs in the morning!” We just hope trainees packed some Gaviscon. In addition, there's the annual ball, which switches between Edinburgh and Glasgow each year. The Glaswegians in particular “know how to throw a good party,” and taught London's trainees to master the ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee), a traditional Scottish dance. “It involves lots of spinning around, and obviously the Scots know it well as they learn it at school, but you pick it up as you go along. It was a good laugh!”
The good times keep rolling back on home turf. London's departments organise get togethers and the office is treated to a drinks trolley; “it gets wheeled around the office on a Friday and people huddle around it to chat.” But all this larking about is hard won, as busy periods in corporate, banking or even CDR can inflict long City-style hours. “I was finishing between 10pm and 11pm for a month in corporate. You stay until things are done, so there's always the potential for hours to get longer!” Most sources reported working past midnight or on a weekend at one time or another, but equally had many spells of finishing at 6.30pm.
The workload adds to the “City feel of the office.” One source told us: “I was surprised by the level of work and the extent to which we deal with magic circle firms. We're based near St Paul's, in the same building as DLA Piper, so that adds to the feel too.” That said, trainees warned readers not to get carried away with visions of harsh City stereotypes. “We have an open-plan layout and everyone’s approachable. Overall the atmosphere is quite relaxed.” Another added: “I haven't experienced any sharp elbows. So far my colleagues and the other trainees have been really supportive. They've given me a helping hand when I've needed it and I've never had to worry about asking a silly question.”
Trainees can qualify both into the London and Scottish offices, but bear in mind that the latter means adapting to a different legal system. The firm did not provide London retention figures in 2016 but 14 of 20 stayed firm-wide.
How to get a Maclay Murray & Spens training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: January 2017
Training contract deadline: 5 December 2016 (2018 start)
MMS runs a three-week summer internship in London each year. Participants sit alongside a partner in a single practice group for the duration of the scheme and give preferences in advance for the area they'd like this to be.
“We try to give them substantive work and not just leave them photocopying," says HR consultant Lynn Crombie. "They do the types of work the trainees do, including going to court and to client meetings.” As one intern recalled: “I filled out forms to be filed at Companies House – all before I'd even done the LPC. I was assigned a buddy who looked after me, and I worked with a senior solicitor who gave me plenty of work and made me feel I could turn to him with any questions.”
Applications and assessments
The firm typically receives around 100 applications for its four to five training contract places in London. Applications for both the training contract and internship are done via an online form. Our trainee sources warned “the form is particularly long and takes a while to complete.” According to Crombie, “people sometimes let themselves down when they don't make sure they've answered each question properly. Sometimes the example takes over from the question they're meant to be answering.”
Those who impress on paper are invited to an assessment day which typically involves a group and a research exercise. The former sees candidates given a scenario designed to see how they communicate within a team and how they use reasoning skills; the latter, meanwhile, tests analytical skills as well as an applicant's ability to translate raw data into credible and comprehensive advice. Successful candidates – usually around 20% of those interviewed – are invited back for an interview with a panel comprised of partners and an HR representative. This typically involves a role-play exercise where candidates are given a scenario which tests how they would establish communication with a client and cope under pressure.
Overall, “it was good fun, actually," recalled one trainee. "The partners were quite free and open to joking. We discussed current affairs and business needs – it was more of a chat rather than them sitting there, grilling me.”
How to wow
Prospective trainees need a minimum 2:1 degree to get in here. Lead recruiting partner Roger Tynan tells us: "We look for individuals who can demonstrate initiative, contribute to the team effort and have a sense of humour. We are not looking for identikit trainees."
Lynn Crombie has this to say about impressing at interview: “We're keen to get an idea of what candidates are like and encourage them to really think about the examples they use in the interview, not just what they think we want to hear.”
Becoming a lawyer in Scotland
Maclay Murray & Spens LLP
1 George Square,
- Partners 66
- Assistant solicitors 142
- Total trainees 41
- Contact Karen Falconer, HR assistant, [email protected] co.uk
- Method of application Application forms only, accessed at www.mms.co.uk/careers/traineeship
- Selection procedure Two-stage interview process. Assessment day followed by a partner interview. During the recruitment process candidates will be asked to complete a role-play and research exercise or similar.
- Closing date for 2018 London and Scotland training contract recruitment November 2016
- Training contracts pa 20-25
- Applications pa 353
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary (2015)
- First year (London): £37,000
- First year (Scotland): £20,000
- Holiday entitlement 34 days per year, including public holidays
Main areas of work