A ferocious feline takes pride of place on Osborne Clarke's logo, but trainees assured us there's nothing predatory about working at this techy firm.
Live long and paws-purr
A distinctive – albeit ambiguous – big cat features prominently on Osborne Clarke's bright orange and white logo. And, much like its elegant emblem, OC is top of the food chain in a number of fields – with a particular expertise in the technology sector. Founded in 1748, this Bristol-born firm has over 250 years' experience working with cutting-edge industries – it helped Isambard Kingdom Brunel to establish the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol in 1841. Today it represents the likes of Google, Netflix, Amazon and Facebook; indeed the firm's talent for tech was one of the things that initially attracted many of our interviewees to the firm.
"An international practice that grew from a Bristol base."
But there are a lot more whiskers on this cool cat's chops, and OC boasts Chambers UK rankings for areas ranging from telecoms, media and entertainment, retail and interactive content to financial services, capital markets, venture capital and transport. The firm groups its sector expertise into eight areas: digital business, energy and utilities, financial services, life sciences and healthcare, real estate and infrastructure, recruitment, retail, and transport and automotive. Non-technology clients of the firm include Bristol City FC, student accommodation providers Unite Students, and financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown. These are all Bristol-based institutions but the firm also acts for national clients and international ones. Indeed, OC has 17 overseas offices in locations including Paris, Hong Kong and Silicon Valley. Training principal Catherine Wolfenden describes this as "an international practice that grew from a Bristol base."
Tail of three cities
At the time of our research, there were 17 trainees in Bristol, 12 in London and five in Reading. All trainees are required to complete one contentious seat, one in corporate or banking, and another in real estate or tax – although we were told that this rule “isn't an absolute must. The firm likes you to do one seat in each of those categories to make your training more well rounded, but there are certainly trainees who haven't done that, either because of their own preferences or business needs.” Newcomers are sent a questionnaire before they start, which informs the first seat allocation, and then “during each seat you'll have a meeting with HR to talk about where you want to go next.” While not everyone had had their preferences met every time, most agreed that the system “works as well as it can.”
Osborne Clarke's corporate group is divided into M&A, private equity, and corporate finance subgroups; the last of these covers funds, payments and financial regulation. While trainees are assigned to one of these teams, “if someone else needs a hand or you show an interest in another area, they're more than willing to accommodate that.” The London office also offers a seat in equity capital markets. Those who had worked in M&A reported working on acquisitions on both the buyer and seller sides. The London office recently advised Caledonia Investment on its £241 million acquisition of the Gala Bingo chain from Coral, while Bristol acted for RWE Innogy on the sale of its 50% stake in the Triton Knoll wind farm off the coast of Lincolnshire to Norwegian state hydropower firm Statkraft. Trainee tasks include due diligence and drafting ancillary documents such as board minutes, as well as attending completion meetings. One trainee noted that “towards the end of the seat you get to manage some deals, compiling reports and getting the documents together ready for exchange or completion.”
Over in corporate finance, we were told that “funds work is mainly in Bristol, while London deals with payments and crowdfunding.” Those who had worked on the funds side described kicking off the seat with a lot of research, which developed into assisting with the drafting and amending of funds documents. The work is highly technical and “very heavily regulated,” so trainees are under close supervision – sounds rather strict, but a source said "it means you learn a lot.” Tech companies make up a significant chunk of the client base, but the firm also works with businesses from the pharma, real estate and renewable energy sectors. OC's Reading and Bristol offices recently acted for financial technology firm Prodigy Finance as it raised $100 million of equity capital from institutions including Credit Suisse and Balderton Capital.
The cat's whiskers
The real estate department – one of the firm's largest – offers a mix of residential development and commercial work. The residential side of things involves “working on development and regeneration projects for large house builder clients” such as Persimmon and Barratt. OC London is currently advising the latter on a 30-acre regeneration scheme at Hendon Waterside in North London, which includes the construction of 2,000 new homes. Meanwhile, the Reading office recently acted for Millgate Developments on its purchase of a 43-acre site in Cobham, for a £50 million residential development. The commercial side of the practice sees lawyers act for real estate funds, asset managers and other entities on acquisitions and financings, “which involves crossover with the banking department.” A recent example of such collaboration saw the teams advise Barclays on the provision of a £53 million loan to property investor NewRiver Retail. One trainee described their experience in the seat as follows: “The seat is more commercial than the others. I didn't deal with much actual law – I was busy negotiating contracts and leases. From day one I had clients calling me up, asking questions.” Another interviewee pointed out that the relatively small size of some of the matters, particularly on the residential side, means “you get to manage your own files and deal with small transactions like selling small parcels of land yourself.” Trainees reported often being the primary contact for clients, which “really helps you gain confidence – and your supervisor is always there if you need them.”
The commercial litigation team works on matters ranging from health and safety to financial regulation and contractual disputes. Or, as one trainee described the client base: “It was anyone from energy companies to M&S!” Some of OC's other big-name clients include EDF Energy, Vodafone, EE, Virgin Media, Dell, PwC, Eurostar and Siemens. The London and Bristol offices recently advised UK-based IT company Micro Focus during a $40 million software licensing dispute with Israeli bank Leumi, while the Reading base has acted for Hyundai in a range of commercial and contractual disputes. Trainees who'd sat in this department said they'd been “involved in all the different elements of a case, from drafting letters to attending mediations to filings documents at court.” Other tasks include research and taking witness statements. One insider commented that “in commercial litigation there are relatively few ongoing matters at any one time and each matter is bigger than in a department like real estate."
It's worth mentioning the commercial team too as this is where a lot of the firm's techy work happens. “It was a seat I was really keen to do,” said one trainee. “The team handles corporate support work but also has clients in its own right which it provides with commercial advice on issues like IP, advertising and data protection.” Clients hail mainly from the technology and digital sectors. For example, the firm recently helped German financial technology company Wirecard negotiate an agreement with Vodafone about a mobile phone loyalty scheme which involved discussion of software licences, IP and IT security issues. “I've reviewed a lot of contracts, had a go at a couple of first drafts of agreements, and been to client meetings,” one trainee reported.
"You can apply to go to another UK office for a week or so."
Perhaps unsurprisingly given OC's overseas presence, interviewees had been involved in fair number of international matters. “In every seat I've worked with different jurisdictions," said one interviewee, "and I was often in meetings or on the phone with lawyers in other countries.” Other sources alerted us to OC's exchange programme: “You can apply to go to another UK office for a week or so, and people from abroad come to the UK too.” There are currently no overseas seats for trainees, but Catherine Wolfenden hinted that some kind of overseas secondment programme was in the works. The firm does already offer occasional UK-based client secondments: we heard trainees had recently spent time at real estate fund PGIM Real Estate and at Warner Bros. Interaction between OC's domestic offices is very much the norm, kicked off with introductory training in Bristol for trainees from all three offices; there are frequent follow-up sessions for which the offices hook up via video link.
Most of our interviewees reported working from 9am to 6.30pm or 7pm on most days and agreed that their hours are "very reasonable." One even said that most of the time "if you are still working after 6.30pm, people will ask why you are still here." But commercial law does make some demands on the spare time of its young guns. "On one deal with an overseas element I was called in at 6am once," a trainee reported – one of the more unusual stories about hours we heard this year, and another indication of OC's international interconnectedness. More commonly, deal closings in corporate can bring with them "a few 10pm or 11pm finishes" and in commercial litigation too we heard trainees occasionally work until 9pm or so before hearings.
The Great Cat-sby
All the trainees we spoke agreed that “everyone at Osborne Clarke is really keen to make time and help you learn.” This sentiment was evidenced by the high levels of support trainees reported receiving as they made their way through the training contract. For example, “every trainee has a supervisor and a supervising partner. Your supervisor is often a senior associate who you can be a bit more frank and honest with.” And as well as mid and end-of-seat reviews, trainees have weekly meetings with their supervisors to “set expectations and goals." All offices are open-plan and “because of the way they are designed, you don't feel intimidated going up to a partner to have a chat about the work.” Another source added: “It's really helpful to be able to hear how more senior people talk to their clients and colleagues on the phone, and it's much more sociable than just sharing an office with one person.” We asked if there were any downsides to this layout, and one interviewee joked that “everyone has a moment at the beginning when they have to record their voicemail message. That's a bit embarrassing...”
OC's Reading office relocated in April 2016 to a building “literally across the road” from the old digs, so the convenient location – just a short walk from the railway station – remains unaltered. "As part of the move we switched to agile working,” a source informed us. This means everyone hotdesks, which allows lawyers to mingle across teams. Meanwhile, the sleek Bristol office is located in the Temple Quay development, just ten minutes' walk from Temple Meads station. We were told about a glass-fronted lift –“which gives me a bit of vertigo!” one trainee confessed – and a subsidised cafe with “very affordable lunches.” In London, the oval-shaped building at One London Wall has “a cracking view of St Paul's Cathedral at one end.” However, a few bemoaned “the lack of a communal space” in this office. “It would be really nice to have a bigger area where we can all get together – at the moment there's only one fairly small kitchen on each floor.”
This doesn't deter trainees from socialising though. “There's always something in the calendar," said one trainee. "We often do drinks, either spontaneously or planned." The trainee social budget is well invested. “We went to Laser Quest recently, which was fun!” a Bristol source exclaimed. There are football, cricket and tag rugby teams and plans for a netball team too. “We're also entering a triathlon in September as a team!” chirped one sports enthusiast. Finally, the “legendary” summer party brings together the Bristol, London and Reading offices for sports, dinner and an overnight stay. “Last year we were in a country hotel near Reading, and we had a Great Gatsby-themed party – it was great to see everyone dressed up!”
Osborne Clarke's retention rates usually mirror the market average. In 2016 it retained 17 of 19 qualifiers.
How to get an Osborne Clarke training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 15 January 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 15 January 2017
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, Southampton, King’s, 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 1,000-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; there's even a former water polo Olympian. 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
OC's vacation scheme is by far the best route into the firm, accounting for over 80% 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,” 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 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.
A rough guide to Bristol
Interview with new training principal Catherine Wolfenden
Osborne Clarke LLP
2 Temple Back East,
- Partners 203
- Lawyers 534
- Trainees 43
- Contact Zoe Reid, recruitment officer
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Assessment centre comprises of group exercises, psychometric test, partner interview, written exercise
- Closing date for 2018 15 January 2017
- Training contracts pa 20
- Applications pa 1,200
- % interviewed pa 10%
- Required degree grade 2:1, any discipline
- Training salary
- First year: £34,750-£40,000
- Second year: £36,750-£42,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 40%
- Post-qualification salary £48,000-£65,000
- 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.
Like any private practice, legal expertise is at the heart of everything we do. But what makes us distinctive? For a start, you can expect to get involved in truly fascinating work. The variety of our deals and the diversity of our clients provide an exciting and immersive commercial framework. This is a firm where fresh ideas (and the confidence and conviction to see them through) are highly prized, and we’re never afraid to take a view. It is also firm with a coherent commercial vision, with a clear direction, supported by a compelling sense of purpose and identity. Put simply, we’re going places. And you can put our positive, can-do attitude down to sustained success, in terms of both profile and performance.
Finally, there’s our culture. When we asked our recent recruits what attracted them to us, they used words like ‘friendly’, ‘inclusive’, ‘open’ and ‘fun’. To our clients we are ‘approachable’, ‘proactive’, ‘understanding’ and ‘formidable’.
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