Business is booming at this Bristol-born firm, which counts technology and energy among its sector specialisms.
Mention 'OC' and you'll likely conjure images of chiselled beach bods strutting a boardwalk overlooking glittering white sand beaches. In the legal world, 'OC' refers to a slightly less tanned though no less glamorous entity: a full-service international firm with 19 offices across Europe and the USA. The UK side is spread between the firm's Bristol hometown, Reading and its London headquarters. One thing this OC does have in common with the other OC? “We're quite tech-focused and cater to clients like Nintendo, Facebook and Amazon." Indeed, all three offices have the glitterati of the digital world splashed across their roster, and Reading is even tasked with a similar role to the Palo Alto branch, helping players on the local tech scene ("aka the UK's Silicon Valley") branch out, earning a handful of top Chambers UK rankings for its efforts. That said, "our expertise isn't limited to just the tech sector,” insiders were keen to point out. Indeed, OC keeps eight key sectors in its sights: digital business, real estate and infrastructure, financial services, energy and utilities, life sciences and healthcare, recruitment, retail, and transport and automotive. Chambers UK awards top nationwide rankings for OC's media and private equity work, and also recognises its corporate, real estate and telecoms capabilities, among many others.
OC's revenue rocketed up more than a quarter in 2013/14 and climbed another 15% in 2014/15. “We're seeing a period of rapid expansion,” training principal Nick Johnson confirms. “We've aimed to grow in both scale and international reach, with a particular focus on western Europe. One of the main highlights in 2014 was opening an office in Amsterdam, having not long ago opened offices in San Francisco, Paris and Brussels." OC also launched an affiliate office in Hong Kong and formalised a best friend relationship with a firm in India in 2014 – early steps in its plan to build up an Asian presence. "It's been a super year,” says Johnson, who adds: “We're increasing our trainee intake as our headcount increases. Generally, we've had around 33 trainees in total, but we have increased the number of trainees across the three UK offices to 40 from September 2015, with 20 in each year. We've dropped our March intake and now only have trainees joining in September.” In 2015, 14 of OC's 18 qualifiers nabbed positions.
At the time of our calls, the firm had 14 trainees in its Bristol office, 15 in London and four in Reading. All trainees are required to complete one stint in corporate or banking, one in real estate or tax, and one in litigation or another contentious department. “Those are our key areas, so it makes sense to get that exposure,” trainees agreed, “and in reality it's not as rigid as it sounds." As one reported: "We have one-on-one meetings with HR before each rotation to discuss our preferences, and I know people who haven't stuck to the list. The firm is keen to accommodate us.” New joiners attend an induction week together in Bristol, and go on to receive “an informal refresher on basic law and its everyday applications” in each seat. Each department runs regular lunchtime sessions to keep everybody up to date on recent legal developments, and trainees have mid and end-of-seat reviews to help keep them on track too.
Real estate is one of OC's largest departments. It's home to both residential lawyers, who handle development and regeneration work for large house builders like Barratt Homes, Campus Living Villages and Persimmon, and commercial ones, who see more acquisitions, disposals and asset management deals. Those on the latter side recently helped Halfords acquire some London retail space for its new 'Cycle Republic' brand, and advised Santander on its £73 million development and investment finance facility for Imperial College London’s new Research and Translation Hub. For trainees, “it's common to work across both sides.” An insider in Bristol told us: “Commercial is larger and has more juniors, so it's quite lively; the residential side is more partner-driven and sedate.” Trainees here can expect “a very busy seat” – there are leases to be negotiated and drafted, packs for auction sales to be prepared, and site visits to be conducted. “They throw you in as deep as they think you can handle, and then they push you a few inches further out! But honestly, it's an ideal first seat because much of the work in property can be done at a junior level. We even get to run small files by ourselves. A fee-earner once told me not to worry too much, 'because whatever you do wrong we can fix.'”
Sun and Siemens
OC's litigation side primarily handles commercial matters in the tech, energy and financial services industries. In addition to the general commercial team, which has a presence in each office, the firm has specialist groups in international arbitration, public procurement, IP disputes and property litigation scattered between offices. Litigators in Bristol recently advised EE on its tenders for public sector contracts across central and local government, and represented specialist salvage operator Blue Water in a High Court claim against the Department for Transport regarding the largest recovery of precious metals from a World War II-era wreck to date. The firm also has the likes of Virgin Media, EDF Energy and NatWest on its books. “My seat was so varied, which was the best part about it,” a commercial litigation trainee in Bristol enthused. “I went to mediations, attended court and worked with the other offices an awful lot.” Other interviewees told of instructing experts, going on court runs, drafting settlement agreements and witness statements, and conducting research "into the industries certain clients are operating in.” We hear there's a tad more supervision here than in real estate, “as the nature of the practice means you have to be more careful about what you say.”
OC's corporate group has M&A, private equity and corporate finance sub-teams. Trainees are assigned to one, “but you can get work from everywhere.” Knocking on this department's doors are newspaper publisher News UK (of The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun), engineering giant Siemens, and retailer Carphone Warehouse – the London team recently assisted Carphone Warehouse on its £3.6 billion all-share merger with Dixons. A corporate seat comes with a hefty stack of paperwork, “as it's the trainee's job to make sure all the documents are signed and all the lists are kept up to date.” In addition to managing the due diligence, trainees can often be found drafting board minutes and shareholder resolutions, talking clients through disclosure letters, and proofreading investment agreements. “You're essentially performing a support role for the fee-earners, who rely on us to complete the things they don't have time to do,” a source explained. “It's definitely a worthwhile seat for finding out how companies operate.”
Over in banking, "there are partners who specialise in all different kinds of finance – acquisition, real estate, project finance. Trainees get a good mix of work across the department. Lots of what we do is cross-jurisdictional. We often work closely with the Europe offices." The firm has a lot of lenders on its client list – including Barclays, HSBC and Lloyds – though it also works on the private equity side, with lawyers in Bristol recently advising PE investment manager Foresight Group on the implementation of a £100 million project acquisition facility from RBS, RBC and Santander for a flagship solar fund. "I was really impressed with the level of responsibility I was given," said an interviewee here, describing how they'd negotiated contracts and drafted security agreements and shareholder resolutions. “Before a bank is willing to lend to a borrower, they need certain conditions to be fulfilled, and quite often you're the one managing that list,” they added.
All three OC offices are open-plan, and our interviewees were big fans. “When I first joined I thought it seemed a bit like a call centre,” one in Bristol admitted. “But now I love it! You can see the whole floor, so you never end up awkwardly disturbing someone who's busy. And you learn a lot just by listening to the people around you.” The “modern and bright” Bristol office is based in Temple Quay, around the corner from the harbour and less than ten minutes' walk from Temple Meads Station. We hear the on-site cafe, which serves subsidised hot food, inspires a bit of envy among Londoners and Reading residents. “They're just jealous because they don't have one!” Probably best not to mention the afternoon cake trolley then...
Over in London, the office is spread across three floors in One London Wall. “It's a really nice location. On one side you've got the Barbican, and on the other you can see the Old Bailey and St Paul's." Inside "there's none of the wooden stuffiness you see at some firms; we've got white tables, blue carpets, and loads of photos printed onto canvas that were taken by people who work here.” Reading's a tad more conservative – “it's not all plate glass and swanky Apple-style decor” – but it is conveniently located: right next to Reading Station and five minutes from The Oracle.
Trainees across the firm reported “a very good work/life balance.” As one noted: "Certain teams, especially in London, will require long hours. I found banking particularly harsh – I was in until 9pm or 10pm pretty often. But I think an average day for most trainees is probably in at 9am and out by 7pm.” In each office “there's usually an e-mail flying around on Friday asking people to go for drinks,” though the offer tends to be taken up more frequently by lawyers outside of Reading, “where a lot of people commute in by car or train.” Formal events on the social calendar include departmental Christmas parties – which can include everything from sit-down lunches to indoor skiing trips – and the “eagerly anticipated” summer do. “It's firm-wide – all the international offices are invited. We have a sports day beforehand, and then a big fancy dress party and barbecue-style buffet at a venue midway between the UK offices. Last year's theme was 'what I want to be when I grow up'. People went dressed as pop groups and Power Rangers; surprisingly, there weren't any lawyers!” Our sources held this up as “a good reflection of the firm's culture.” As one elaborated: “This is a relaxed place. We're not stuffy at all, and we have a good time." Trainees went on to tell us: "You don't have to wear a suit every day, and the hierarchy feels pretty flat. Of course the partners are still in charge, but they get us involved and are interested in us as people. You could easily find yourself chatting with the managing partner in the lunch queue.”
So who's the ideal OC trainee? “That's tricky – I don't think there's a 'type' here,” one interviewee replied. “Osborne Clarke prides itself on having a workforce with people of varying ages and backgrounds – we've even got an ex-pilot! Nick Johnson tells us that “like any firm, we're looking for candidates who can show they're bright, hard-working and adaptable.” Click on the 'bonus features' tab above to read more about the recruitment process and Johnson's pointers on how to impress.
Trainees agreed “the best way to get a training contract at Osborne Clarke is via the vac scheme.” Click on the 'bonus features' tab above for deets.
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How to get an Osborne Clarke training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 15 January 2016
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2016
Osborne Clarke attends law fairs at 14 or so universities each year. The list changes from year to year, but the firm does have a core set that it always attends: Bristol, Exeter, Reading, Southampton, King’s, UCL and Oxford all feature.
Landing a training contract at OC is competitive business. As training principal Nick Johnson tells us, the firm only interviews around 10% of the 1,000-plus candidates who apply each year. Trainees come from a mix of top and mid-range universities, and Johnson informs us that “those invited to interview have generally scored a First or a 2:1 throughout their studies. They will also have given really strong answers to our competency-based questions.”
The firm is particularly welcoming to those with second careers. Among the current trainee intake are those with backgrounds in fields as varied as teaching, telecoms and the armed forces; there's even a former water polo Olympian. Confidence is their unifying factor, Johnson tells us. “You need to be intelligent but also have the ability to hold your own in a room full of people you don’t know, including partners.” As our trainee sources added: “You also need to be very sociable, outgoing and willing to get stuck into everything.”
Applications and assessments
OC's vacation scheme is by far the best route into the firm, accounting for around 70% of each trainee intake.
Applications for spots begin with an online form and verbal reasoning test. Strong written communication skills and attention to detail are essential to pass these.
Those who impress are invited to an assessment centre that involves a written exercise and a formal interview. “It’s really about showing an interest in what the firm does and having done research beforehand,” Nick Johnson says. “We can tell which candidates are interested in the firm as their answers are tailored to our specialities and what we’re doing in the market.” The firm makes its vac scheme offers after this.
Those who want to take their chances at applying directly for training contract complete the same online form as vac scheme applicants. If they pass the initial screening, they go on to participate in an assessment centre like the one detailed above, followed by a partner interview.
OC's Bristol, London and Reading offices each run a two-week vacation scheme. These run concurrently. Bristol and London each host around ten students at a time, while Reading hosts four or five. Vac schemers split their time between two different departments and are assigned a trainee buddy each. Past attendees told us they'd gotten to grips with hands-on tasks and “actually assumed the role of a trainee solicitor.” The scheme tends to go easy on the social side, an approach our trainee sources appreciated at the time. “It’s nice to be wined and dined, but that’s not what it’s actually like as a trainee. Also, too many evening events can wear you out.”
According to trainees, “the vac schemers who impress the most are the ones who make an effort to speak to people and ask as many questions as they want.” On the final day of their placement, vac schemers interview for a training contract with two partners.
In 2015 the firm elected not to accept any direct training contract applications in the summer, instead recruiting its 2017 trainee intake entirely from its 2015 summer vac scheme.
A rough guide to Bristol
A bit about the city
Nestled between the borders of Somerset and Gloucester, Bristol is commonly labelled the 'gateway to the South West', thanks largely to one Isambard Kingdom Brunel – the esteemed, cigar-chomping Victorian engineer behind the Great Western Railway, which links Bristol to London Paddington. He was also responsible for one of the city's most iconic landmarks: the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
These achievements have had a lasting impact on Bristol's position and status in the country: after Brunel kick-started the city's connectivity, Bristol went on to become the success story it is today.
'Bristle' used to be a bustling seaport that thrived on maritime commerce (and, in the early, the slave trade). These days, the Port of Bristol no longer plays a vital role in keeping the city afloat. Instead, its prosperity is far more dependent on the aerospace, technology, and research industries, which alongside neighbouring tech hubs Gloucester and Swindon, have helped to put the West Country's Silicon Gorge on the map. Major companies that operate in and around Bristol include multinational conglomerate Toshiba and American IT giant Hewlett-Packard, both of which have national research laboratories based in town.
The forecast for Bristol over the next few years is very promising. According to the economic growth researcher Centre for Cities, Bristol's total number of businesses grew 22.8% between 2004 and 2013. Only four English cities charted higher. With strong tech credentials, and healthy media, financial services and tourism industries, Bristol has proved a key force in the UK's economic recovery. The 'City Deal' – a deal agreed in 2012 between the mayor of Bristol and the government which empowers the city to draw in a sizeable amount of private investment – will no doubt help to boost Bristol's strength in the years to come. According to early estimates, this investment should hit £1.5bn and forge around 40,000 jobs over the next 30 years.
All in all, the city's future looks pretty rosy.
The city's legal market
Bristol has long been recognised as an important hub for legal services. There used to be a time when Bristol was solely the turf of strong native firms like Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke. Slowly over the past few years, however, bigger national and international firms have begun to see the allure of Bristol. CMS was the first to cotton on to the city's potential, launching an office all the way back in 1990, but since 2010 Irwin Mitchell, RPC and Simmons & Simmons have all set up shop too.
That London firms are drawn to Bristol underscores the legal community's confidence in the city as a viable hub for business. The knowledge-based economy in Bristol tallies with many of the aforementioned firms' existing and target clients, and a Bristol base means firms can drive down costs – a key factor in Simmons & Simmons' decision to open in the city.
The emergence of non-native players hasn't dislodged the performance of the city's home-grown firms, though. Burges Salmon posted an 6% rise in revenue in 2014/15, cashing out at a tasty £80.8 million. Osborne Clarke put in a similarly strong performance: its turnover rose 9% to £96.5 million in 2014/15. TLT too has grown substantially over the past few years, with firm turnover breaking the £60 million mark for the first time in 2014/15.
Where the firms go, the legal education providers go too, and Bristol is no exception. The University of Law stormed into the city in 2010 to join long-standing providers BPP and the Bristol Law School at UWE, and it didn't take long before ULaw brought up the rear, securing deals to educate Osborne Clarke's and DAC Beachcroft's incoming trainees.
Life at a Bristol firm
Bristol firms have a long history of poaching City lawyers tired of excruciatingly cramped, rush-hour tube journeys followed by 14-hour days in the office. Burges Salmon has embraced this stereotype quite strategically over the years, producing adverts that depict 'sardines' (hapless tube-passengers with their faces squashed against the doors) placed above the bold word 'salmon' (a nod to the idea of free-swimming solicitors merrily leaping upstream to work at BS). Another advert simply depicted ecstatic lawyers in wetsuits, implying that you can have enjoy a desirable beach lifestyle if you decide to practise at the firm.
There's no doubt a refreshing walk down a tree-lined hill is a million times more enticing than a sweaty crush on the Central line, but we should point out that life in Bristol isn't always a nine-to-five paradise. At Osborne Clarke, for example, our research shows trainees – especially those in transactional departments – occasionally encounter the kind of late-night shifts seen at City firms, though the average day is still a reasonable 9am to 7pm. As our trainee sources confirm, the atmosphere at such firms has become increasingly 'corporate' over the years, and many are keen to dispel the myth that life at a Bristol law firm is a piece of cake.
Indeed, the pressure's cranking up as the stakes get higher, and the city's legal market has become more competitive as a result. In 2011 Temple Quarter, near Temple Meads station, was declared Bristol's upcoming enterprise zone, and many firms – including Simmons & Simmons, Osborne Clarke and Burges Salmon – have since relocated to the area. As such, many trainees in Bristol today have quite a different experience than what they would have ten or so years ago – one with more of a 'City' flavour. As one Burges Salmon trainee told us: “Temple Quarter is a much more corporate area than where we were before, which does change the overall atmosphere at the firm.” With this change has come a bigger range of local, national and international work for the aforementioned firms, plus more opportunities for client contact for their young lawyers, so we get the impression that Bristolian trainees feel they are very much coming out on top.
Sweet Valley High-tech: the tech industry in the Thames Valley
“Slough's a big place, and when I'm finished with Slough there's Reading. Aldershot, Bracknell...you know...I've got Didcot, Yately.”
– David Brent
The winds of innovation blow strongly through the Thames Valley. As the fertile seat of the UK's knowledge-based industries – that is, IT and life sciences – it's perhaps the UK's answer to the Silicon Valley, albeit with less sunshine and more self-deprecation. Forget London; the towns that flank the M4 are home to a whole load of high-tech companies: Microsoft has its UK headquarters in Reading, as does IT giant Oracle, whose founder Larry Ellison is now the third-richest person in the US. Global networking company Cisco is also a Reading resident. Vodafone's main office is over in the Berkshire market town of Newbury, while O2 is based in Slough (along with Mars – indeed, the first ever Mars Bar was developed in town). Finally, Hutchinson 3G – operator of the 3 network – has its base in Maidenhead.
Osborne Clarke is in the thick of digital business in the Thames Valley. The firm recently advised the shareholders of Precise Media, which monitors and analyses how brands are doing in the media, on that company's sale to Kantar, part of advertising giant WPP. It also helped cloud technology experts NewVoiceMedia raise cash from a number of venture capital funds. (Given the 2014 theft by hackers of nude pictures which various celebrities had stored on their iCloud accounts, this type of deal raises cybersecurity issues too.) OC's also helped Bracknell-based Redwood Technologies, a major supplier of network services to the telecoms industry and government, on various contractual, property, payment systems and distribution issues in recent years.
Another company located in Bracknell is Daler-Rowney, maker of artists' materials. OC regularly helps the enterprise out with its IP portfolio and trade mark disputes. Going back to the tech sector, the firm recently represented Korean electronics giant LG – another Slough resident, for the record – on compliance with the Bribery Act and competition rules and a number of commercial disputes.
Interview with former training principal Nick Johnson
Student Guide: What can you tell us about the firm's international reach? Why did you recently open offices in Amsterdam and San Francisco?
Nick Johnson: We opened our Amsterdam office in 2014 shortly after opening in Paris and Brussels in 2013. We aim to grow our international scope and reach with a focus on Western Europe. While these office openings may seem very rapid they are actually the culmination of years of planning.
We also opened a San Francisco outpost alongside our Silicon Valley offering. This reflects the growing presence of tech businesses in central San Francisco as well as Silicon Valley.
We announced our formal association with Koh Vass & Co in Hong Kong in 2015. We also have a 'best friends' relationship with BTG Legal in Mumbai, a firm opened by a former Osborne Clarke lawyer, Prashant Mara.
SG: What can you tell us about the firm's practice area and sector focus?
NJ: We're a full-service commercial law firm so we cover all the usual practice areas such as corporate, commercial, litigation and employment, but we describe ourselves with reference to sectors rather than legal disciplines. The key sectors for us are digital business, real estate and infrastructure, financial services, energy and utilities, life sciences, recruitment, retail and transport, and automotive – eight in total. When we first embarked on our journey to be sector focused we initially concentrated on four sectors, but given our international outlook we've broadened our approach.
While we don't organise trainee seats by sector, most strategic thinking is done on a sector basis. Lateral hires are also sector driven, as are business development and budgeting.
SG: How does sector-based business development work in practice?
NJ: For example, if a pensions lawyer is looking to market themselves they will have to make their work relevant to our key sectors. This is really useful because it means many disparate practice areas can work together, talking to the same clients and using the right kind of language. It also means that our know-how has a strong sector flavour: our expertise on digital business doesn't just come from a bunch of commercial lawyers practising TMT; it involves people from our litigation, corporate, real estate, commercial and employment teams all working together.
SG: How well would you say the firm is doing financially? You've experienced some quite large revenue increases lately.
NJ: 2014/15 was a super year for us. We've had continuing success over quite a period now, a sign that our strategy is working. I think the sector focus has helped a lot: we've seen good growth in key sectors. I think the fact that we're able to deliver an international solution for clients in a joined up way has also really helped.
SG: Your grad recruitment website markets Osborne Clarke as 'the world's least stuffy law firm' – do you think it lives up to this tag?
NJ: Personally, I think it's true. For example, our offices are completely open plan which helps foster an atmosphere in which people can be open. We did away with the old-fashioned two-lawyers-in-a-cellular-office approach years and years ago and I think we'd struggle with it now. Overall, we're a modern, progressive place to work. But don't take my word for it – talk to our trainees!
SG: Osborne Clark was founded in Bristol – what do you think makes it different from other firms in the area?
NJ: Bristol is where we come from and it's where the heart and soul of the firm is. We're still one of the largest firms in Bristol and we're the most international of the firms in that area. We're deeply embedded in the South West and while a lot of the work we do here has regional roots, we also undertake national and international legal work in the city. This mix of local, national and international work differentiates us from other Bristol firms.SG: You have offices in London, Reading and Bristol. Is there much of a difference between them? Do they have different specialities?
NJ: Certain specialist departments work from certain offices, so not every seat opportunity is available to trainees in every location. For example, London is where our tax department is based, so tax seats are done in London. Competition seats, by contrast are usually done in Bristol and just occasionally in London. Other London specialisms include financial regulatory work and advertising law.
Reading has a good range of typical commercial activity: employment, corporate and litigation are all on offer as seat options. It doesn't have some of the more specialist disciplines like pensions, tax or competition. Reading is a smaller office and there are typically only ever four trainees there at any one time which gives it more of a family feel. We have an office in Reading for the same reason that we have a Silicon Valley office: it's where a lot of our tech clients are, or where they have a UK presence. The Reading office attracts lawyers who prefer to work outside London still remain close to the city.
Osborne Clarke LLP
2 Temple Back East,
- Partners 203
- Lawyers 534
- Trainees 43
- Contact Zoe Reid, recruitment officer
- Email email@example.com
- Website www.joinoc.com
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Assessment centre comprises of group exercises, psychometric test, partner interview, written exercise
- Closing date for 2018 31 July 2016
- Training contracts p.a. 20
- Applications p.a. 1,200
- % interviewed p.a. 10%
- Required degree grade: 2:1, any discipline
- Training salary
- 1st year £34,000-£39,000
- 2nd year £36,000-£41,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree p.a. 40%
- Post-qualification salary £47,000-£62,500
- Overseas / Regional offices Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brescia, Bristol, Brussels, Cologne, Hamburg, London, Madrid, Milan, Munich, New York, Padua, Paris, Rome, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Thames Valley.
Main areas of work