For a non-City firm, Mills & Reeve is pretty big and its "international work is growing all the time."
The Reeve's Tale
Rumour has it that Soler Hall in 'The Reeve's Tale' from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is actually a fictionalisation of Trinity College Cambridge, which has also been a Mills & Reeve client (see what we did there – tenuous, right?) since 1861. And like Chaucer's determined pilgrims (bear with us), this originally East Anglian firm has now spread out into England with six hubs across the land. Cambridge and Norwich are where it all began with the 1987 merger of Norwich's Mills & Reeve and Cambridge-founded Francis & Co. Since then Mills & Reeve has grown into one of the 50 largest law firms in the UK, with a varied knapsack full of clients including Aviva, the Financial Conduct Authority, the Law Society, Weightwatchers and The FA.
Chambers UK awards Mills & Reeve rankings in all five UK regions where it has a presence for areas ranging from agriculture to intellectual property to corporate M&A. The East Anglian offices have the best showing with over a dozen top-tier rankings, and the education and healthcare practices are both top-ranked by Chambers UK nationally. Mills & Reeve's strong domestic reputation has also travelled overseas. The firm has referral relationships with French law firm FIDAL and Germany's Graf von Westphalen. “We have 'best friends' – or at least 'good friends' – relationships with them and we refer international clients to each other, so that we know they are in safe hands,” explains training principal Brian Marshall. "Our international work is growing all the time."
Norwich, Cambridge, Birmingham and Manchester all offer full training contracts, but trainees are encouraged to undertake seats in other offices if they want to and can also qualify into offices that they haven't trained in. London and Leeds occasionally offer seats to trainees from other offices, with the former taking charge of the firm's insurance practice and the latter still small but "next to be expanded" according to Brian Marshall. At the time of our calls there were 13 trainees in Cambridge, eight in both Norwich and Birmingham, four in Manchester and one in London.
Trainees do six four-month seats with the first seat allocated at random –“written on a piece of paper given to you on day one.” Halfway through their first seat, trainees send graduate recruitment a wish list of further seat preferences. Even if you don't get your first choice, “HR is really good at giving you your second or third preference.” Most enjoyed the six-seat system, “which lets you try out more areas,” though some noted that “four months go by fast and as soon as you get to grips with things you have to move on.” But for most the sextet set-up was one of the key reasons for joining Mills & Reeve.
Grist to their Mills
The corporate team is especially prominent in Norwich and Cambridge. It handles M&A and joint ventures plus corporate governance and company secretarial matters ("that's everything related to the day-to-day running of a company"). There are also specialist groups like food and beverages, healthcare and education. Trainees told us of working on things like “the sale of a restaurant chain and a drinks brand” as well as “for dentists and doctors whose small practice is being acquired by a larger commercial entity.” In addition, the firm recently advised on the £23 million sale of the SDI Group – which builds and runs distribution centres for retailers like ASDA, TK Maxx and M&S – to logistics company Dematic. The Department of Education is a frequent client too, and on the education side the firm recently advised on the merger between the Institute of Education and University College London and helped Kaplan set up a joint venture with the University of York. Trainee tasks include things like “updating company registers to input company charges like mortgages or payments to directors” and “drafting all the ancillary documents for share and asset purchases.” One source told us: “I worked on four completions in ten days. That involved a lot of due diligence, as well as drafting diary letters to clients listing key dates and legal information in terms a layperson could understand.”
“Drove to a farm in the middle of nowhere to meet the owner.”
Real estate makes up 22% of Mills & Reeve's revenue and all four offices with trainees offer a seat here. The department recently represented the shareholders of 99p Stores in the £55 million sale of all their shares to Poundland. Besides such commercial property deals the department also handles portfolio management, planning and development matters. Tech, healthcare and education work is likely to crop up in Cambridge. Trinity College is a client as is Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust (which runs Addenbrooke's Hospital). Mills & Reeve is advising the latter on the big new 'Forum' development which will include a 100-bed private hospital, four-star hotel, educational centre and shopping complex. For trainees in the department the chance of running your own files is in the offing. "If you show initiative you're allowed to progress files by yourself, speak directly to clients and deal with initial enquiries that buyers raise about the seller.” Other tasks include “assisting with licences to assign and alterations, applying to the Land Registry for changes of title, and registering leases.������
Cambridge and Norwich trainees can also do a property-focused seat in the food and agribusiness team (previously called 'agriculture'). Clients here include farmland managers Farmcare, Norfolk's Kilverstone Estate and several Oxbridge colleges. The team also stepped in recently when "National Rail wanted to build across a farmer's land for HS2!” Trainee tasks include “drafting tenancy agreements, dealing with the registration of previously unregistered land, and handling boundary disputes.” One reminisced about the time they “drove to a farm in the middle of nowhere to meet the owner.” The separate real estates disputes group, which is only found in Norwich and Birmingham, gives trainees the chance to “attend possession order hearings alone with the client and counsel” and head off to the High Court in London. Clients include Birmingham City University, property developers Urban & Civic and rail freight operator DB Schenker.
The “really nice people” in Mills & Reeve's family team “mostly work on the divorces of wealthy people like judges and diplomats.” (There is some child law work too, but divorce is this firm's forte so if it's all children work you're after this may not be the best place for you.) Trainees spend their time going through the finances of couples with complicated business interests and drafting advice to clients. Some even get to run more straightforward matters on their own. “I went to my first client meeting with a partner and the partner told the client that I'd be the one doing things,” one happy source reported. “I then drafted the Form E financial statement, consent order settlement and letter to the spouse to inform them of the divorce application – I also filed all the papers at court.”
In Cambridge and Norwich the regulatory, public and commercial disputes department pools the firm's expertise in healthcare and education matters. Trainees spend their time “visiting clients, taking witness statements, drafting instructions to counsel and running around the country going to courts, coroner's inquests and tribunals.” Clients include Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, heart monitor manufacturer Sentec, Norwich-based magazine and newspaper publisher Archant and the University of East Anglia. On the education side, a trainee told us, one strand of work revolves around “judicial reviews of universities for discrimination against students.” In Birmingham the client list includes more general household names like Jaguar Land Rover, Centrica, Shell and Weetabix, while the Manchester office recently represented a property developer in breach of contract litigation over the building of a new marina in Cheshire. The latter office is also known for its sports work – clients include Manchester City, Everton and the Professional Players Federation.
Finally, it's worth mentioning the commercial seat, where trainee tasks include "reviewing terms and conditions for websites, checking for updates to legislation, drafting and negotiating supply of goods and services agreements, and dealing with consumer credit issues." The Cambridge commercial team does quite a bit of intellectual property work (and is top-ranked for it by Chambers UK), capitalising on the region's reputation as 'Silicon Fen' – “it's widely publicised that the M11 corridor is the most fertile place in the UK for the development of tech and science businesses.”
Reevers and lakes
“The firm is pushing for a firm-wide 'one big family' vibe," one interviewee believed, adding that they felt there was "a real lack of hierarchy” in the workplace. To achieve this Mills & Reeve organises a range of events, most of them social, for which trainees and others come together from across the offices. For starters newbies begin their time at the firm with a week in Cambridge for induction workshops and training. Then there's the annual charity challenge which trainee representatives from each office are tasked with organising. Over 80 fund-raisers undertake “a massive physical challenge – this year we did a 40-kilometre hike in the Lake District, but in the past we've done canoeing, cycling and caving.” All this to raise money for YoungMinds, the firm's designated charity for 2016, which cares for children and adolescents with mental health issues.
There are office-by-office socials too. Manchester has "Friday night drinks and quizzes" and participates in the Manchester Trainee Solicitor Group's quarterly 'Why Not Wednesday?' networking event. Birmingham trainees recently went on a firm-organised theatre trip to see Of Mice and Men and have apparently started a swing dancing club. Norwich trainees, meanwhile, can get involved in firm footie matches against other local businesses, while Cantabrigians can join the netball team or attend the Cambridgeshire Junior Lawyers Division's annual ball “held at a different Cambridge college each year.”
"We can see everyone's salary bands."
Regardless of location, trainees all earn the same. Most were happy with their pay and linked it to the core reasons they'd picked the firm –“I wanted to do good-quality legal work, but without the City ethos," said one interviewee, who said they'd been aiming for a firm with "a good work/life balance which is reflected in the salary.” Well, they aimed right: trainees earn a pretty decent amount (the starting salary is £25,000) and usually work a very manageable 9am to 6pm or 7pm. "I sometimes stay until 8.30pm if it's very busy, but that's not horrendous is it?" observed one source, while another credited their "relaxed and amazing supervisor" for the good hours. We did hear a few mumblings from Cambridge trainees about their pay level (as we've done from trainees at other firms based here): “People assume Cambridge prices aren't as high as London, but really there isn't much difference.” So the same pay package doesn't go as far in Cambridge as in Norwich or Manchester. At the same time, trainees who move offices for one seat have their accommodation paid for by the firm, and sources also praised the transparent approach to pay: "We can see everyone's salary band and what performance is expected of people at each level, which helps you make the right career decisions.”
The qualification process kicks off when a list of jobs by department and office is released. Trainees then fill out an application form consisting of four questions like 'What do you think the biggest challenge you'll face once you've qualified will be?' Candidates are then interviewed and have to complete a written exercise, although if there's only one applicant for a job most departments forgo this final stage. Trainees said that waiting to see the jobs list to find out what's on offer where is the most nervy part of the experience. This is alleviated by the fact that "you have informal conversations with teams alluding to the possibility of vacancies." Not all offices will have vacancies for all qualifying trainees: we heard that in 2016 Birmingham had jobs for all qualifiers but Norwich had just two for four qualifiers. Overall 12 of 16 qualifiers were retained in 2016.
At a recent Christmas do, first-seaters performed a 20-minute sketch. “Cambridge did a nativity while Birmingham had a wrapping challenge – no, not like Kanye West, we had to wrap weird objects.”
How to get a Mills & Reeve training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
Mills & Reeve offers just 21 training contracts a year – nine in Cambridge, five in Birmingham, four in Norwich and three in Manchester – 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 advises applicants to 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 400 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 £270 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
Interview with training principal Brian Marshall
Student Guide: What do you think Mills & Reeve will look like in a few years' time, when some of our readers may be joining you?
Brian Marshall: I think that we'll be doing a little more international work. Our focus is on the mid-market at the moment, but our international work is growing all the time. We also have 'best friends' – or at least 'good friends '– relationships with international law firms and we refer clients to each other to know that they'll be in safe hands. Repeat work builds from that. Our relationship with the French firm FIDAL is very strong and generates a lot of work for us. It's the same with Graf von Westphalen in Germany and we have a strong network of friends in the States too. We also have our own international clients, particularly in China, so we want to maintain and strengthen those relationships. Some of our lawyers over two years qualification can even do stints abroad.
SG: Can you give us a quick breakdown of Mills & Reeve's network of offices?
BM: In terms of practices, there's a full range of areas on offer in Cambridge, Birmingham and Norwich. We recently brought Manchester up to full size and service. London and Leeds are still a bit more specialised. Trainees regularly complete seats in London, which is principally insurance-focused as we service the insurance market there. Leeds is the next to be expanded. The focus there has traditionally been on family and agricultural work.
SG: How do you promote cohesion between the offices?
BM: At the trainee level it's a lot easier to promote cohesion, as they're all brought together in the Cambridge office for training. As trainees, you also get to work in different offices and this happens throughout your time here; a lot of teams spend time working in or with other offices. We're not trying to produce uniformity. Instead, we want to have a level of consistency across our locations. We really feel that our culture of free movement helps us to do this.
SG: How can a person really impress in an interview?
BM: Really think about the things you've done that we'd find interesting and tell us about them. Don't just quote from the website. At the assessment centre, show us that you can work maturely in teams during the group exercise – contribute but don't dominate. It's important to demonstrate enthusiasm in our firm, but go beyond saying 'oh I've seen that you've worked on deals with x and x.' Ask sensible questions. We look for people with a broad range of interests (like music and sport, for example) and we're really keen to see more than just academics.
Mills & Reeve LLP
100 Hills Road,
- Partners 110
- Assistant solicitors 490
- Total trainees 35
- Contact Fiona Medlock, 01223 222336
- Method of application Online
- Selection procedure Normally one day assessment centre
- Closing date for 2019
- 31 July 2017 for training contracts
- 31 January 2017 for work placements
- Training contracts pa 21
- Applications pa 1,064 per annum
- % interviewed per annum 8%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary
- First year: £25,000
- Second year £26,500
- Holiday entitlement 25 days per annum
- % of current trainees with a non-law degree 35%
- % of trainees offered job on qualification 81%
- Offices Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds, London, Manchester, Norwich
Our business model is straightforward – the highest quality advice, outstanding client service and value for money. We advise more than 120 universities, colleges and education bodies and over 100 healthcare organisations, as well as leading international insurers. Our commercial clients include global and UK-based businesses, FTSE and AIM listed organisations, private companies and startups. We have the largest private tax team outside of London and one of the largest family teams in Europe.
For the 13th year running Mills & Reeve has been listed in The Sunday Times Top 100 Best Companies to Work For, which recognises that we put people at the centre of our business.
Main areas of work