It's full steam ahead for Bristol-founded Osborne Clarke, which is expanding abroad while remaining focused on its key sectors, especially technology.
Today, Osborne Clarke works with the some of biggest names in the technology world including Facebook, Google and Netflix. Its 'tech' pedigree goes back quite a long way: back in 1841 it advised Isambard Kingdom Brunel on establishing the Great Western Railway. Still puffing away in 2017, the firm was one of eight to win a spot on the government's new £50 million rail legal panel. Financial results are on track too with 2016/17 profits up 5% to £52.5 million. OC's international networking is also expanding: the firm recently opened in Shanghai in 2017 by adding Zhang Yu & Partners to its network, following on from a 2016 association with OC Queen Street in Singapore. The 18 overseas offices also include outposts Silicon Valley, Berlin and Brussels. Training principal Catherine Wolfenden comments: “International growth will only continue, which will benefit all our UK offices, but we want to be innovators in the UK too.” Recently, the firm ran a 'smart cities' campaign, advising companies on how cities globally can bring together finance, technology and infrastructure in the future, be it through driverless cars or new real estate technology. Brunel would be proud.
Osborne Clarke has three offices in the UK: Bristol, London and Reading. Although the London office has recently been made the head office, interviewees still call Bristol the firm's "spiritual home," and all the offices get national and international work shared out. Reading's Thames Valley has sometimes been called the Silicon Valley of the UK, with Microsoft's offices just down the road from OC's, and the area's tech economy turnover second only to London's. The firm has plenty of specialisms beyond tech: its Chambers UK national rankings include financial services, capital markets, procurement, venture capital, energy and infrastructure, and the firm is recognised as one of the best outside London for corporate, litigation, banking and employment work (among other areas). OC plans to continue to work in eight key sectors: digital business, energy and utilities, financial services, life sciences and healthcare, real estate and infrastructure, recruitment, retail and consumer, and transport and automotive. The digital sector remains front and centre though: the firm's homepage has it listed as the first of four challenges businesses face, under the headline 'tomorrow's world'. You get the hint.
Advocating for change
At the time of our interviews, there were 20 trainees at Bristol, 14 in London and four in Reading. Trainees ideally do at least one seat in each of the following three groups: corporate and banking, real estate and planning, and litigation and insolvency, though there's some flexibility. Trainees put down three seat preferences before meeting with HR to discuss the particular reasons for their preferences. In Reading there are just six options, so “you pretty much cover everything and there is less competition for seats.” Trainees are advised to leave the seats they might want to qualify into till later, so they come to them with more experience. There are opportunities for client secondments, which are advertised cross-office – trainees have recently spent time at media content companies, investment funds and technology companies. A new opportunity for trainees is to do a brief one or two-week stint in one of OC's international offices. However, “it's up to trainees to use their initiative to find an opportunity at an international office where their contribution can be beneficial,” Catherine Wolfenden explains. So far, these mini-secondments have been piloted with two or three trainees.
Back on home turf, the corporate group is divided into M&A, private equity, and corporate finance subgroups – the last of these covers funds, payments and financial regulation. Trainees can do a seat in all three, and the London office also offers a seat in equity capital markets, while in Reading the sole option is M&A. Trainees can be found “on the edges of OC's international deals.” The firm recently advised the management team of Odeon & UCI Cinemas Group on its £930 million acquisition of AMC Theaters, the largest cinema operator in the US. It also assisted the UK arm of New York publishers Time Inc on its acquisition of advertising company Collective Europe. Trainees told us they'd worked with OC's international offices by email or on conference calls on cross-border deals. Client contact is frequent. One interviewee said: “That ranges from attending disclosure meetings to asking for documents to networking drinks.” Interviewees praised the opportunities to network across departments, with trainees sometimes going with partners to represent the firm at after-hours events.
“Client contact ranges from attending disclosure meetings to asking them for documents to going to networking drinks.”
In the M&A seat trainees are first tasked with dealing with ancillary documents and then “move on to negotiating simple documents and making sure that the paperwork is done and signed properly.” Supervision in this seat got a thumbs up. "I always got very thorough feedback on anything I'd written," one source said, "with every little thing explained about what I'd done well and what I could do better. At the same time, even though I sit right next to my supervisor, I felt like I was supervised from afar – I just cracked on with the task myself.” In corporate finance, trainees said their work included drafting terms and conditions for payment companies. One said: “We negotiated the contract for a company moving into the UK, including matters related to payment apps and cards – the contracts had to be right for everyone in the payment chain.”
The commercial team is a popular pitstop because it works a lot with the big tech/digital clients the firm is known for. “The clients in this seat are the reason a lot of us applied to OC,” one source revealed. They include Vodafone, Yahoo! and Expedia, plus several other well-known names which we can't list for confidentiality reasons. The work is pretty varied: the Reading office recently advised Canada's Smart Technologies on the launch of its digital classroom service, while over in London the team helped a major Japanese investment bank with the monetisation of various IT assets. Trainees act as “junior support on larger transactions” and advise clients on smaller matters as they crop up – eg cookie and data protection policies and contract reviews. They also do general research into current developments in the tech world. Work for the energy sector is a growth area: the firm recently advised on the £190 million refinancing of a solar park for the Foresight Solar Fund and supported US-based SynTech Bioenergy on a new waste gasification plant in the UK.
"I was basically involved in making sure people would not be dying at work, so I felt like the work really mattered."
The commercial litigation seat gives trainees the opportunity to take charge of small matters, as well as working on bigger cases. “I worked on a High Court trial, which involved a lot of document preparation, liaising with chambers and attending the trial,” one interviewee said. There are some higher-level tasks too. "On one County Court matter, I even did some advocacy," a source reported. "I was told to do it by my supervisor and was expected to step up to the job." The commercial regulation and disputes team deals with a mix of contentious and non-continuous work: as well as financial and contractual disputes, its work involves reviewing health and safety policies. “I was basically involved in making sure people would not be dying at work, so I felt like the work really mattered which motivated me to do every detail properly,” a trainee beamed.
Real estate does both commercial and residential work, including some international matters. For example, the Bristol office recently advised Global Student Accommodation Ltd on purchasing accommodation in Germany. A more domestic matter had London lawyers acting for Santander on the £60 million refinancing of three offices in the UK. Trainees are encouraged to get a feel for sector specialisms. “As you progress in this seat, you are encouraged to look around at the fee earners' work and think about which sector you might be interested in, for instance retail work.” Another source told us: “I pretty much got to run my own matters, and I was the first port of call for the client's questions.” Trainees said this is a good opportunity to get some negotiation experience. “On one matter involving asset management for an energy plant, I was allowed to contact the other side, have a go at drafting the documents, and get the documents checked.”
OC's focus on innovation is evident in the workplace. For instance, agile working in the Reading office means a clear desk at the end of the day and sitting where you want when you come in. One interviewee commented: “I can sit with any team I need to be working with and sit next to different partners from one day to the next.” It's possible this way of working may be rolled out in the bigger offices too. Agile working also means trainees can adjust their working hours to work from home or a client's office, or just to come in and leave later to miss the traffic. "It's open to everyone, so there's no feeling of inequality," a trainee said. "Everyone can take this up to help them make work fit their lives better." OC has also recently started a Women's Network to address the diversity imbalance. Catherine Wolfenden told us: “It's about making women feel they can talk to their line managers to get the support they need to move forward in their careers.”
“It's about making women feel they can talk to their line managers to get the support they need."
Despite OC's growth and international expansion, interviewees insisted it will maintain the friendliness and approachability which drew several to working at OC. “Clients say they enjoy spending time with us," claimed one Bristol trainees. "That's not something we want to lose as we expand internationally." The friendliness and open-plan offices mean that trainees sit next to partners and "integrate into the team really quickly. You end up knowing the partners' kids' names and what they did at the weekend – you actually get to know them, so there's no pressure about appearances." A London trainee told us the social perks keep them motivated: “When it was 26 degrees, the head of the London office bought us all ice creams and we all went to sit out on our terrace.” If you have a good idea for a social and are willing to spearhead it, there's usually a budget available. At the time of our calls, we heard all trainees would soon be getting together in London for a cross-office social at the Southbank's Udderbelly Festival. The whole London office is treated to an annual boat party as well as a treasure hunt through the city, and softball, cricket, netball and football teams are present across the firm. Finally, there's an annual summer party for all the offices, including those overseas. In 2017 it was held at a new members' club in London –“it looks expensive,” we heard from one trainee before the event.
Back in the office, stress stays under control thanks to yoga and pilates classes, and even massages in the Bristol office. “It can be a bit strange as it takes place in a boardroom, but people seem to like it,” said one sceptical trainee. In Bristol, there are “tons of plants” all over the office and an allotment where vegetables are harvested for the popular on-site cafe, while London's trainees get a view of St Paul's through the office's massive windows. Typical trainee hours are 9am to 6.30pm, though the corporate seat involves the occasional long day and maybe even an all-nighter. “We do then get the next morning off, and it's a good opportunity to prove your dedication,” one trainee reflected. Supervisions are generally on the ball: for instance, some ask to be copied into email requests their trainees receive from others in the department to make sure the workload's manageable.
The NQ process is pretty transparent, with second-year interviewees saying that they'd had the process explained to them six months before it started. Trainees tell HR where they want to qualify, and then HR liaises with the departments – an interview is usually involved once you apply. In 2017, 21 of 24 qualifiers were retained.
The Bristol office recently voted for a partner to jump off a crane – not a ritual sacrifice, but an effort to raise money for charity. Partners nominated themselves before the staff decided who should be attached to the bungee cord.
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How to get an Osborne Clarke training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2018): 15 January 2018
Training contract deadline (2020): 15 January 2018
Open day deadline (2018): 28 February 2018
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, Birmingham, Cardiff, UCL and Oxford all feature.
Landing a training contract at OC is competitive business. Training principal Catherine Wolfenden tells us that the firm only interviews around 10% of the 1,500-plus candidates who apply each year. Trainees come from a mix of top and mid-range universities, and Wolfenden 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. Confidence is their unifying factor, Wolfenden 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
The firm now recruits almost only through its vac scheme. (The direct route is for those who are unable to complete a vac scheme for practical reasons.) 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 group exercise, written exercise and a formal interview. “It’s really about showing an interest in what the firm does and having done research beforehand,” Catherine Wolfenden 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 15 students at a time, while Reading hosts five. Vac schemers split their time between two different departments and are assigned a trainee buddy each. Past attendees told us they'd got 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.
A rough guide to Bristol
Interview with training principal Catherine Wolfenden
Chambers Student: Are there any highlights from 2016/17 you think are important to mention?
Catherine Wolfenden: Firstly there's our continued growth and establishment of the firm's international offering. In 2010 we voted on a new strategy to establish more international offices, and we have achieved this.
We've now got offices in the US aiding US clients going into Europe and Asia, and just this year we opened our Shanghai office. We're not a UK-centric firm and this international offering sets us apart from our immediate peers.
Looking at the UK, there's been continued internal growth: there have been five partner promotions recently, and post-Brexit referendum, we are still showing growth in revenue. We're not resting on our laurels though, as growth can't be taken for granted.
The last thing to mention is our thought leadership, and in particular two campaigns. One looks at 'smart cities' globally and what they require from business; the second centres on the 'connected consumer.' As lawyers, it's important that we are also innovators.
CS: An OC women's network has been set up recently. Could you tell us about it?
CW: We need to live and breathe diversity in our firm, so we're looking at how we support women coming through to the senior stages of their career. This involves thinking about actually getting women into senior positions, as well as considering why some women don't stay on.
The women's network puts in place a culture in which you will feel comfortable saying 'I want to take parental leave;' it creates a culture where women feel they can talk to their line managers to get the support they need to move forward and it serves as a clear visual statement that we're having these conversations. We've also appointed a full-time diversity and wellbeing manager, Su Akgun, who is bringing new ideas into the practice.
CS: Agile working is offered across the firm, and is particularly a feature at the Reading office. What does it aim to do?
CW: The firm takes its time to make sure we feel empowered and there is a drive from the top down to make sure that we can work flexibly – right down to making sure every trainee and lawyer has a laptop.
Flexible hours are offered across all the offices, and lawyers can work in any office. We also have a policy whereby if you can find an air fare cheaper than a London-to-Bristol return train ticket, you can work in the offices abroad – and some people do do it!
Reading is also a paperless office with no allocated desks; instead you have a locker to store your things. All of this allows you to consider what the client needs you to be doing: be that sitting with the corporate team, or deciding to meet with clients.
CS: How involved are trainees in Osborne Clarke's international offices?
CW: This depends on what seat trainees are in. Day to day, it could range from no involvement to sitting in on us advising clients on the laws affecting drones across jurisdictions. We've also done pilot schemes which give trainees ownership over work in other offices. It's up to trainees to use their initiative to find an opportunity at an international office where their contribution can be beneficial. So far, two or three trainees have gone out.
CS: What should students know about the firm’s strategy and what you want to achieve in the next five years?
CW: International growth will only continue, which will benefit all our UK offices, but we want to be innovators in the UK too. While our work across offices will increase, there will still be a strong culture of people being together and we'll continue to differentiate ourselves by creating a fun place to work.
In the next five years we're anticipating a huge amount of innovation in technology, so we would be looking at recruiting people who can code, and people who can advise clients as businesspeople. We don't want people who do law and nothing else – we want people who challenge each other and continue to have outside interests.
CS: What advice do you have for readers who are about to enter the legal profession?
CW: Law is about running a business – that's something I didn't appreciate myself when I came in. You have to be good at sales and management, not just applying the academics.
Commercial lawyers have a great variety of skills, and you need to take the time to develop those by remaining open-minded to opportunities and learning from them. You also shouldn't take yourself too seriously, you need to be a team player.
CS: Why do you recruit most of your trainees through the vac scheme?
CW: The majority do come through the vac scheme, because this is a two-way process where we get to see the candidates in action for two weeks, but they also get to see how we operate as a firm which helps candidates to decide if this is the right place for them. Nevertheless, we do occasionally get applications from people with amazing CVs and previous careers who we are happy to consider through the direct training contract route.
Osborne Clarke LLP
2 Temple Back East,
- Partners 120
- Associates 284
- Total trainees 42
- UK offices Bristol, London, Reading
- Overseas offices: 18
- Graduate recruiter: Zoe Reid
- Training partner: Catherine Wolfenden
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 20
- Applications pa: 1,500
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: AAB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 35
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 November 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 15 January 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 15 January 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £34,750-£40,000
- Second-year salary: £36,750-£42,000
- Post-qualification salary: £48,000-£65,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £6,500
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Bristol, London, Reading
- Client secondments: Yes
Main areas of work
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2017