Proud trainees report that a genuinely “open and warm” atmosphere lies at the heart of this Geordie firm.
Let's get etymological for a moment and consider the word 'muckle'. In archaic Scottish and Northern dialect it means 'very large'. It's how you might characterise a prize marrow or a particularly plump trout. But it isn't the first word you'd use to describe Muckle the firm: with a head count of around 70 lawyers, this Newcastle outfit is pretty petite in the national scheme of things. But when it comes to personality, Muckle's got bucketloads. 'Hello. We’re Muckle,' declares the rainbow-themed website chattily, informing readers that 'as a collection of people we pride ourselves on not being like stereotypical lawyers. We aren’t stuffy. We’re not aloof. And we are definitely not full of our own self-importance.' Lots of firms might try to downplay the stuffiness factor, but this is commercial law we're talking about and most would be more likely to boast about their amazing client service rather than what a lovely bunch of people they are. And according to all our sources Muckle's ethos of looking after the happiness of staff in order to create a better business isn't just a convenient marketing ploy. “There's a different atmosphere here than at other firms where I've had experience. We really do focus on having a great culture – it's fun and warm. I fell in love with it straight away.” For more on the cheery Muckle culture, read on.
Despite Muckle's single location, it does square up pretty well to heftier Geordie residents like Ward Hadaway and Bond Dickinson, matching or beating both in the Chambers UK North East rankings for both banking and property work. The firm's corporate, construction, employment, IP, litigation and social housing practices, among others, also earn Chambers UK recognition. Naturally, businesses from the North East form a major chunk of the clientele, but Muckle also serves bigger outfits like The FA, Santander, the Caribbean Premier League and KP Snacks (of peanut fame).
Mackem and tackem
Seat allocation is largely a matter of “where the business needs an extra pair of hands,” but second-years “have more of an influence” over where they sit. Mid-seat, trainees meet with head of graduate recruitment (and partner) Kevin Maloney to chat about “how things are going and where you are looking at going next.” A stint in corporate and real estate is likely for most.
Muckle's corporate team, comprising six partners and nine other fee earners, receives work from “a complete variety” of sectors. Solicitors recently handled Quantum Pharma's £130 million IPO and AIM flotation – the largest such launch by a North East business. Other clients include the Port of Tyne, Newcastle-based British Engines and North Shields food wholesaler Kitwave. Trainees get stuck into transactions like “disposals of companies, asset purchases and sales, buybacks and share purchases.” A major part of a trainee's role is “doing the due diligence when one company buys another, which means investigating the target company and what the client is taking on.” Rookies also keep busy drafting ancillary documents like board minutes, stock transfer forms and Companies House filings, and doing tasks like “organising data rooms, pulling together the documents bible, keeping track of everything and making sure documents are signed.”
Over in the dispute resolution team, home to 13 lawyers at the time of our research, trainees can be found “sorting out bundles for court and reviewing documents.” We heard that “if there's a small dispute worth a couple of thousand pounds the trainee will be given that file to run.” This entails “taking instructions from the client, corresponding with the respondent or claimant and drafting letters.” It's quite likely that these matters won't culminate in a courtroom showdown – a trainee noted that “the nature of litigation these days is that you're encouraged to settle as early as possible.” Names on the client roster include Newcastle property developer Clouston and Sunderland football club.
“I was taken to a client meeting on my first day in the seat."
Real estate – which has just over 20 qualified lawyers – encompasses finance, corporate support, and residential and commercial development work. Trainees sampling the latter spend time “going on site visits, lodging applications with the Land Registry, and drafting leases, under-leases and licences to under-let.” Sources spoke proudly of “acting as the lead person on smaller files. It means you're in touch with the client and need to juggle lots of different tasks.” The department handles matters for lots of big-name residential developers, landowners and construction companies like Persimmon, UK Land Estates and McAleer & Rushe. Of late, Muckle lawyers helped the Metnor Group sell a portfolio of student accommodation in Newcastle to Far East Orchard, one of Singapore's largest private property developers, for £40.6 million. The firm was also instructed by Newcastle University to handle the development and purchase of its new Urban Sciences Building for around £50 million.
Some of our sources had spent six months in a newly minted split seat spanning employment and commercial work. As one explained, “we have sports, charities and education teams and all their work is either employment or commercial-related, so it made sense to make one seat out of it.” Clients include Tyneside Cinema, Durham Country Cricket Club, England Athletics and the Greggs Foundation (the charitable trust arm of the eponymous bakery chain). On the commercial side interviewees reported “drafting a wide range of contractual documents including terms and conditions,” while over in the employment team “clients like to call up for ad hoc advice on the phone, so there's a lot of contact.” One source recalled: “I was taken to a client meeting on my first day in the seat. I took notes but was also allowed to input ideas.” New recruits also stay busy drafting employment contracts, staff handbooks and employer policies. Apparently, “admin tasks are at a minimum!”
Although trainees have a supervisor – called a mentor – in each seat, they get work “from just about everyone in the team.” The mentor is usually an associate who “keeps an eye on your workload and the types of things you're doing.” Trainees appreciated that “you can talk to them about anything that's bothering you. I sit down with my mentor every couple of weeks for a coffee and have a chat about how things are.” There's also a group meeting with the managing partner after every seat rotation. “We have sandwiches and a chat and discuss any issues: it's a really nice idea and makes you feel management actually cares about the trainees.”
“Everyone knows each other!”
Trainees said an average day lasts from maybe 8.30am or 9am (sometimes earlier) to 5.30pm or 6pm. But they declared that “if you want to be a commercial lawyer you need to be committed to not always working nine to five.” The corporate seat in particular demands “some late nights,” said one trainee; “the latest I've stayed is 1am, although that was an exception.” But “it's not like you're left on your own – there's always someone with you. The team is really passionate about what it does and that's infectious!”
Muckle's humane approach to hours was just one aspect of the culture enjoyed by trainees. “When I first looked at the website and how the firm talks about itself I thought 'this is just marketing!'” revealed a source. “But it's real! Everyone knows each other, it's very close-knit.” The BEAM (Be Engaged At Muckle) team are responsible for organising social events, including “a cinema night where we hired out a screen and watched the new Bond film Spectre. And we had an end-of-year party at a bar in Newcastle – most of the firm was there to let their hair down!” BEAM also adds “little touches of fun” to office life via things like Easter egg hunts and “randomly leaving pick ’n' mix on people's desks.” A trainee summarised: “What makes Muckle unique is that it's so open and has a real family atmosphere. That sounds like a massive cliché but it's true! You can have a really good laugh with most people. Our culture is about working hard, obviously – we get the job done and get it done right, but that doesn't mean we can't have fun doing it.”
The qualification process is a “pretty informal” affair. At the time of our calls, second-year sources weren't sure yet how it would pan out. In the end, all three qualifiers stayed on in 2016.
How to get a Muckle training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
Muckle receives a roughly equal number of vacation scheme and direct training contract applications. In total, between 200 and 230 candidates apply for the four trainee spots on offer. The same form is used for both routes.
“The application form is crucial, so we look at it very closely,” graduate recruitment head Kevin Maloney tells us. “We look for people's personality and attitude coming through, and how they come across as an individual. We also want to see a genuine motivation to want to work at Muckle.”
Prior work experience is a plus, though it doesn't necessarily have to be legal. “We always tell candidates that any work experience you've got is relevant, especially if it demonstrates client service,” says Maloney.
Between 25 and 40 vac scheme applicants and 25 and 35 training contract candidates are invited for an interview, which takes place with two members of the graduate recruitment team. Maloney assures us that the 45-minute ordeal is “generally quite relaxed: we ask lots of questions but it's not an interrogation! We're interested in getting to know them better, in getting a picture in our head of what they're really like and whether they'll fit in at the firm.” Successful vac scheme applicants then progress to the scheme while direct candidates go straight to the assessment day.
The vacation scheme
Between 16 and 20 vacation scheme slots are available each year, split over four week-long stints at the end of June and the beginning of July. Those who make it onto the vac scheme kick off their week with an induction hosted by people from different parts of the business. From there they receive work from several practice areas. “It's flexible,” says Maloney, telling us: “We try to make it like they're a trainee for a week. The work is very hands-on, and there are no assessments.” One trainee who'd completed a scheme with Muckle said: “It was great to do stuff the fee earners actually needed doing – it made my time feel more realistic.”
The assessment day
Between 15 and 20 applicants in total –“an equal mix of vac schemers and direct applicants,” according to Maloney – are invited to an assessment day, which is split into two parts. The morning, reserved for direct applicants, sees candidates take a tour of the firm, attend a presentation and participate in a Q&A session with current trainees. Afterwards those who've attended a vac scheme join the direct applicants for lunch, and they all spend the afternoon working on group exercises.
“We don't have any critical thinking assessments or psychometric testing,” elaborates Maloney. “Instead we emphasise role-play scenarios, where candidates are split into teams and given a group exercise. There's nothing they can do to prepare; it's about seeing their collaborative and interpersonal skills, and their ability to work under pressure.”
From there, approximately seven to ten candidates are invited back for a final interview, which takes place with Maloney and managing partner Jason Wainwright. At this point “what we're really looking for is a cultural fit,” says Maloney. “Can we see them working at Muckle? Have they demonstrated they understand what we're about? We don't have set questions; some revolve around the candidate's personality and how they think and approach things – for example, we might ask them to tell us about an experience they've had that didn't go well and what they learned from it.”
Additionally, interviewees can expect the odd question regarding their ties to the North East, although soft Southerners can take heart in the knowledge that neither Maloney nor Wainwright is from the area originally; both moved to Newcastle later in life.
The Newcastle legal market
Time Central, 32 Gallowgate,
Newcastle upon Tyne,
- Partners 28
- Fee earners 73 (incl partners)
- Total trainees 9
- Contact Jane Hedley, 0191 211 7879
- Method of application Apply online via our website www.muckle-llp.com
- Selection procedure Interviews and an assessment day
- Closing date for 2017 summer vacation scheme Monday 31 January 2017
- Closing date for 2018 training contracts Monday 31 July 2017
- Training contracts pa ~4
- Applications pa Approx 180
- % interviewed pa 27%
- Required degree grade Preferably 2:1 unless mitigating circumstances/unique experience
- Training starting salary (2016) £23,000 with regular reviews throughout training contract
- Holiday entitlement 25 days holiday a year and flexible holiday option
- Post-qualification salary (2016) £36,000 with regular reviews
- Aim to retain 100% of trainees on qualification
- Office Newcastle upon Tyne
Main areas of work