Mills & Reeve has long prospered as a non-City firm, but now it's targeting the capital.
Someone's had their Weetabix
Do you hear that? London's calling. A huge number of trainees already respond to that call – not surprising considering London's the legal centre of the universe – but traditionally our sources at this firm have been drawn to it precisely because of its success beyond the confines of the M25. Founded via a 1987 merger, and beginning with only a Cambridge and a Norwich office, the firm now picks up more regional and national Chambers UK rankings than you can shake a stick at. They span a broad range of areas, from corporate to private client to professional negligence; M&R still picks up the strongest collection of rankings on its home turf of East Anglia (where 11 out of its 12 nods sit in the top category), while on the national stage M&R's sector strengths in healthcare and education shine.
"Our plans in the capital do signal the ambition we have.”
Recent developments show that M&R has got a good thing going on: in 2016/17 it bagged a 7% increase in turnover, securing its place within the top 50 UK law firms by revenue; it's maintained international referral relationships with the likes of FIDAL in France and Graf von Westphalen in Germany; and showed that it can pull in some hefty deals, like Weetabix's £1.4 billion acquisition by US firm Post Holdings. But for how long can an ambitious firm resist the temptation of beefing up its presence in London? M&R's had an office in the big smoke since 2000, but it's recently decided to take things up a notch by snapping up London boutique Maxwell Winward, which was known for its real estate, construction and projects work. The tie-up has given M&R 22 lawyers and an extra £6 million to add to its revenue – all feeding into the firm's 2020 strategy to grow its City presence and lure more international clients into its capable fold.
The firm currently offers training contracts in its Norwich, Cambridge, Birmingham and Manchester offices. At the time of our calls 13 were in Cambridge, nine in Norwich, eight in Birmingham and four in Manchester. (We conducted research before the Maxwell Winward merger.) Despite planned growth in London, trainees told us that M&R “isn't and probably will never be London-centric; we have powerhouses in different regions. But our plans in the capital do signal the ambition we have.”
Trainees do six four-month seats with the first seat allocated at random – “we have no idea what happens behind the scenes with that one.” Halfway through their first seat, trainees send graduate recruitment a wish list of further seat preferences. Second-years get priority, but most trainees were happy with where they ended up, telling us that “eventually you get what you want.” The six-seat system was popular, though it came with the obvious disadvantage of more regular upheaval: “Building relationships can therefore be harder.” There's also the opportunity to do seats in other offices, including London and Leeds, which occasionally offer placements.
The corporate team is especially prominent in Norwich and Cambridge. It handles M&A, joint ventures, IPOs and listings as well as company secretarial work. There are also specialist groups like healthcare and education. Trainees told us about an interesting range of matters, including the sale of Bupa Home Healthcare to healthcare services company Celesio UK, “the buying of restaurant chains,” and “a lot of festival acquisitions. Our client acquired a number of festivals which present some really niche issues: music licences, premises licences – things you wouldn't normally be exposed to.” In addition, the firm recently advised the Midwich Group – a distributor of audiovisual technology – on its £165 million AIM IPO; this involved collaborating with its relationship firms in Germany, France, Australia and Ireland. On the education side, corporate bods recently advised the University of Cambridge as it set up a foundation in India, as well as the University of Suffolk as it established itself as an independent entity free from the joint venture that created it. Trainee tasks included “a lot of due diligence and a lot of document management,” plus “client care stuff like summarising contractual documents.” One trainee felt this seat provided “the most drafting opportunities because of the wide variety of documents, including all the ancillaries for a transaction: board minutes, resolutions, waivers and simple clauses for certain documents. A good amount was free drafting too [as opposed to drafting from precedent].”
“We have powerhouses in different regions.”
Real estate is a possible seat in all offices taking trainees. Cambridge and Norwich are again the best performers in this field, with strengths in public sector work pertaining to the healthcare and education spheres. Among the clients here are Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Trinity College, Cambridge; lawyers here recently advised the latter on its collaboration with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills to create a £20 million technology centre at Cambridge Science Park. As a whole, the department handles commercial property deals, portfolio management and planning and development matters. The team also advised a pension fund on the £100 million (plus) funding of 'One the Square,' a building to be constructed opposite Cambridge Railway Station as part of the 'CB1 development,' where tenants include Amazon and Deloitte. For trainees there's the chance to run files: “I found that for fairly straightforward transactions – like leases for a floor in an office building – I was given the file to manage from start to finish. I dealt with the client and the solicitor on the other side, negotiated the lease and then drafted it.”
Cambridge and Norwich trainees can also do a property-focused seat in the food and agribusiness team. One Cambridge-based trainee explained how “we act for many of the Cambridge and Oxford colleges – who've got huge swathes of agricultural land – as well as large farming businesses.” Clients include farmland managers Farmcare and produce supplier Univeg. “Over in Norwich it's more focused on private client work, with a lot of landed estates involved: buying, selling, managing, option agreements – whatever's required really.” There's still work for the likes of Barclays and grain-storage company Fengrain, however. Sources recalled that “on larger transactions you're helping to micromanage the document handling, by keeping an eye on what's going in and out, but on smaller matters you can help with the first registrations of property by tracking down ownership.” The separate real estate disputes group, which is only found in Norwich and Birmingham, gives trainees the chance to “go on trips to court: it's a really small and intimate team so you get involved and know everyone very well.” One trainee described “researching a huge area of law – all the reading up on case law made me feel like I was back in law school! Often the technical questions are really complex.” Clients include NHS England, Birmingham City University and rail freight operator DB Schenker.
Mills and Mrs
M&R's family team work on “divorces – predominantly on the financial side – and ancillary relief proceedings. We don't really do childcare issues, unless they crop up in the context of divorce. You can attend court and client meetings, but also draft consent orders and complete the standard trainee task of bundling, which is always fun!” In fact, trainees admitted that “there's not too much bundling – we spend more time drafting letters to experts and liaising with clients after the meetings.” The work here is understandably confidential, but with a collection of stellar Chambers UK rankings in Cambridge, Birmingham, Leeds, Norwich and Manchester, we can reveal that matters here are top-notch and challenging.
"You can be helping with any sort of contract tied to any sort of business.”
In Cambridge and Norwich the regulatory, public and commercial disputes department pools the firm's expertise in healthcare and education matters. Clients include the University of East Anglia and Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, with the group in Cambridge recently advising Queen Mary University of London after a highly-sensitive Freedom of Information request was made for patient data pertaining to a clinical trial. In Birmingham the client list includes more general household names like Centrica, Shell, West Bromwich Albion FC and Weetabix, though private healthcare clients like Virgin Care and BUPA also make an appearance. Manchester's specialisms can't be narrowly defined either, with specialisms ranging from fraud to reputation management to IP; a recent case saw the team advise pharmaceutical drugs wholesaler Phoenix as it faced an £8.4 million claim for allegedly selling patent-infringing generic drugs. Sources undertook work on a range of matters, spanning “Inheritance Act claims, Insolvency Act issues and debt recovery matters – I even got to attend inquests with the regulatory team!”
We'll round off proceedings with the commercial seat, where a trainee raved that “they're good at letting me do the initial review of a contract. I'll mark it up, and then my supervisor and I will discuss it and I'll explain my logic to him.” Another trainee told of working on “a lot of terms and conditions for business distribution and concession agreements. It's very varied though – you can be helping with any sort of contract tied to any sort of business.” In East Anglia the commercial team does quite a lot of intellectual property work (and is top ranked for it by Chambers UK), capitalising on the region's reputation as the 'Silicon Fen.' The office has served tech clients like inkjet printhead developer Xaar and mobile games publisher Team Lava (now Storm8).
“There's an extremely positive culture and loads going on: sports teams, charity work, internal networking events... I could go on and on and on.” That sounds exhausting! “Well you aren't expected to do everything,” our source confirmed, “but you are encouraged to get involved in as much extra-curricular stuff as possible.” The calendar of events starts with M&R's new starters across all offices gathering in Cambridge for a week of “getting to know everyone,” with plenty of training and socialising thrown in. Next up, trainees are trusted to organise the firm's annual charity challenge, which in 2017 focused its efforts on raising money for 'Dogs For Good,' a charity that provides assistance dogs for people with physical disabilities. The 'challenge' aspect is usually physical, and in previous years M&R lawyers have scaled snow-capped peaks in Wales and the Lake District for a good cause.
In Norwich we heard about “rounders events, a cricket team and football matches with local firms,” as well as netball and theatre trips in Birmingham. Cambridge also offers up its share of sports teams – netball, hockey and rowing are among them – but trainees here had also attended the Cambridgeshire Junior Lawyers Division's annual ball, plus wine-tasting and bowling events. Meanwhile in Manchester a source told us:“I'm very good friends with all of the trainees. We will go for coffee at least once a week and hang out at weekends. Every Friday there are people in the pub too.”
"You are encouraged to get involved in as much extra-curricular stuff as possible.”
For our interviewees, this whirlwind of activity helps to foster a “culture where you do exciting work, but you never feel like you are on your own.” Hooray! Sources reported “speaking to partners on a daily basis. Although they're your superiors it doesn't feel like a hierarchy. They know that you're still learning, so they're very supportive.” This all feeds into M&R's “one-firm attitude,” trainees felt. Charity events, PSC courses, corporate away days and cross-office working mean that contact between offices is regular. All locations are also on the same page when it comes to pay, with each dishing out the same salary to its juniors. In addition, if trainees want to swap offices for a seat or two, the firm will pay for the required accommodation. “At the junior end there are certainly links between offices,” said our sources, before recommending that future trainees “look at the firm as a whole and remain open to moving.”
Another perk for M&R trainees is the fairly steady nature of the working hours. “Generally it's 9am to 6pm for most teams,” our sources agreed, with one revealing that they were once “told off for staying past six!” If they still like the set up after two years, trainees can apply for NQ positions once a jobs list is published. The formal process involves an application form, followed by an interview and a written exercise. However, if there's no competition for a job the latter stage is ditched. In the end, M&R kept on 14 out of 17 qualifiers in 2017.
“It's definitely transparent – the whole firm is. We get sent our team's billing stats every month, which includes our partners' figures. People are open and when it came to the 2020 strategy they talked us through what it meant for each department.”
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How to get a Mills & Reeve training contract
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2018 (open 1 November 2017)
Mills & Reeve offers just 20 training contracts a year – spread across the Birmingham, Cambridge, Manchester and Norwich offices – so be aware that competition is high. In 2016 the firm received 945 direct training contract applications.
Mills & Reeve requires a minimum 2:1 degree. Graduate recruitment manager Fiona Medlock says applicants should research the firm very well: “Don’t use generic answers, and don’t just regurgitate our published material.” She points out that proofreading is, as ever, essential.
Assessments and interviews
The application process is the same whether you're applying for a vacation scheme or directly for a training contract. Everyone submits an online application form, and the firm invites the top 300 to take an online critical thinking test. After further shortlisting, 90 are invited to a half-day assessment centre in either Birmingham, Cambridge, Manchester or Norwich, which consists of a group exercise and an interview.
For the group exercise, candidates are tasked with conducting a mock meeting around a business scenario and then giving a presentation to partners. The exercise is designed to test their commercial aptitude and ability to work in a team.
Our trainee sources recalled the interview as “fairly informal” and told us “you’re not expected to have any technical legal knowledge.” As one elaborated: “They asked me about current affairs and went through my application in detail. Ultimately, their aim is to get to know you and understand why you’re interested in the firm.” In return, interviewees should “make an effort to show what you as an individual can bring to the firm.” Interviews are conducted by at least one partner, but there may also be an associate in the room. “Try to find out who’s interviewing you beforehand,” a trainee advised. “The partner I spoke to was very impressed that I knew which practice area he specialised in.”
From here the firm makes its vac scheme and training contract offers.
Mills & Reeve holds a summer vac scheme in its Cambridge, Birmingham, Manchester and Norwich offices. Each lasts two weeks, and there are ten places available in each office. Attendees receive £300 a week for participating. Over the course of the fortnight, they sit in four departments, receiving “a good flavour of the range of things you might do as a trainee,” sources told us.
During their visit, vac schemers undertake a mix of live work and set tasks. “Everything I did was constructive, decent work,” recalled a current trainee, while another recounted how “they really invested in me by taking me along to client meetings and getting me involved – when I came back two years later the partners even recognised me!”
Each vac scheme features a handful of social events, from punting in Cambridge to a treasure hunt around Norwich, and candidates are encouraged to socialise with current trainees to get a feel for the firm and its lawyers.
The vac scheme is capped by a short chat with HR about the experience. Fiona Medlock advises approaching the vac scheme as an opportunity to “show that you’re willing to learn and make the most of the opportunity you’ve been given. We don’t expect anyone to know the law inside out, so really we’re looking for enthusiasm and a good attitude.”
Cutting the costs of divorce law
Mills & Reeve LLP
100 Hills Road,
- Partners 117
- Assistant solicitors 411
- Total trainees 39 (first and second years)
- UK offices Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds, London, Manchester, Norwich
- Contact Graduate recruiter: Fiona Medlock, [email protected], 01223 222336
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 20
- Applications pa: 950
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or equivalent
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: 300
- Vacation scheme places pa: 36
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 November 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 January 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £26,000
- Second-year salary: £27,500
- Post-qualification salary: £41,000 (Birmingham, Cambridge, Manchester)
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £4,500
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Birmingham, Cambridge, Manchester, Norwich
- Overseas seats: None
- Client secondments: Occasional
Commercial clients include global and UK based businesses, FTSE and AIM listed organisations, private companies and start-ups. Mills & Reeve works with firms across the globe (including fellow members of the SCG Legal, a worldwide network of leading law firms) to support their clients’ international requirements.
For the 14th year running Mills & Reeve has been listed in The Sunday Times Top 100 Best Companies to Work For, which recognises that the firm puts people at the centre of its business.
Main areas of work
Training is supported by a full induction, in-house training programme developed by our team of professional support lawyers and the professional skills course (PSC).
University law careers fairs 2017