The result of a 2013 merger, Penningtons Manches has left its honeymoon period behind with a spring in its step.
Penning a story
Back in the day, well-heeled folk turned to Manches to sort out their matrimonial mishaps. Penningtons, meanwhile, was the go-to firm for wealthy private clients who needed to tinker with their trusts or thrash out estate issues. When Manches hit the financial rocks in 2013, Penningtons stepped in with a merger proposal – the combined firm is now an impressive force in the South East, retaining Manches' regional branches in Oxford and Reading plus Penningtons' offices in Cambridge, Basingstoke and Guildford, along with the London HQ. In summer 2015, all the London folk moved into a brand new building just up the road from St Paul's Cathedral, while Penningtons' original Godalming office was subsumed into the Guildford branch and everyone relocated to “lovely and swanky” new digs in Surrey's county town.
With a history that stretches back nearly 300 years and expertise in serving moneyed individuals (Chambers UK awards top regional spots to the private client and family teams) you'd be forgiven for imagining this to be a rather traditional institution, tinged with English mustiness. But you'd be wrong. Penningtons Manches has a beefy business services section and wins Chambers UK recognition for its retail, IT, corporate, real estate, private equity and professional discipline capabilities. A brief gander at the website, with its sleek graphics and subtle pops of lime green, shows that this is a firm wanting to present itself as a thoroughly modern outfit. Indeed, 2014 saw PM open its first overseas branch in San Francisco, enabling Silicon Valley whiz kids to bring their tech business over to Blighty. Since then, the firm's helped RocketSpace – the tech campus from which Uber and Spotify emerged – to launch in the UK. While some trainees cited the well-known family department as a major draw, others were attracted by the life sciences practice and “involvement in lots of university spin-outs” courtesy of the firm's presence in the 'Golden Triangle' of London, Oxford and Cambridge. A number of sources also noted that “I wanted a firm with a mixture of private client and commercial work because I didn't know which area I wanted to specialise in.”
Five trainees join the London branch every year, along with two in Basingstoke/Reading (trainees belong to both offices), two in Oxford, two in Guildford, and one or two in Cambridge. When it comes to seat selection, everyone submits three preferences before each rotation. Sources recognised that “it's a juggling act for HR and second-years get first dibs,” and while some had hit the jackpot every time, “others hadn't been quite so lucky.” If a seat option isn't available in a particular location, there's sometimes the possibility to head to another office for six months.
On the OUP
The corporate department, made up of 21 partners and 20 other lawyers, focuses on a number of sectors – technology, life sciences, cleantech, private wealth, healthcare, fashion and luxury goods – and handles all manner of transactions, from seed funding start-ups and university spin-outs through to IPOs and private equity investments. Recently solicitors advised New Jersey-based data company Verisk Analytics on its acquisition of another risk analytics company, Maplecroft.net, for £20.3 million. Other clients on the list include water filter experts BRITA and All Saints (the shop, not the band). “I helped on a lot of share purchases for Oxford University Press,” recalled a trainee. “I drafted ancillary documents like board minutes, share certificates and Companies House forms – they were my babies! – but I also got to have input on the share purchase agreement.” Sources also appreciated that “you get to go to client meetings and see how each deal progresses.”
The commercial disputes team advises clients ranging from high net worth individuals to major companies like British American Tobacco and Sony Europe. The group has expertise in IP and IT litigation, financial disputes and work related to India. Trainees reported working on fraud cases, professional negligence and insolvency matters. “I went to a mediation and was involved in a trial right the way through. I also attended hearings at the High Court for a multimillion-pound dispute,” raved one source. The seat demands “a lot of client contact, meetings with counsel and taking attendance notes,” as well as the drafting of witness statements, pre-action letters and letters to interested parties. Trainees also get to grips with smaller matters for big-name clients. For example, “one big client had some dodgy curtains in their offices – we're talking 45 grand worth! – and it was great to be trusted to lead on that case.” What about the bundling? “At the start of my seat there was quite a bit of bundling, but halfway through the firm implemented its new 'Intelligent Office' scheme and all support work was outsourced. After that I only had to produce the first bundle and the index.”
“I wanted a firm with a mixture of private client and commercial work."
Penningtons Manches' personal injury and clinical negligence department comprises seven partners and 25 other lawyers who handle claims relating to road traffic and workplace accidents, brain damage, spinal cord injuries, birth injuries, amputations and burns. “I'd go to client meetings to take attendance notes and then write up a summary statement of the case. Then I'd be in close contact with the client, helping them to get their case off the ground by writing letters of instruction to medical experts and defendants, drafting witness statements, writing chronologies of medical treatments and going to conferences with counsel. I also got to attend two trials where I was taking notes for hours and hours, until it felt like my hand would drop off!” Sources mentioned that the seat demands a fine-tuned time management technique – “you're juggling tasks for lots of fee earners.”
Many a senior executive presented with a high-profile dispute turns to the employment team at Penningtons Manches. Solicitors also handle regulatory, immigration and data protection work. Well-known clients include upmarket furniture stores Heal's and Conran, Eurotunnel and Burger King. “I got involved in the corporate due diligence side of a deal in which a company was selling a load of small convenience stories. I investigated the employment elements of the deal and then drafted a report.” Rookies also help out with “changes to handbooks and the drafting of employment contracts.” Another recalled working for academic institutions on “complex employment disputes relating to disability issues.”
“I've definitely had times where I've been like, 'what the hell?'.”
The private client team specialises in cross-border estate planning, tax planning and dishing out fiduciary advice to family businesses. “What I loved about this seat was the amount of client contact,” gushed one trainee. “Sometimes I'd be in meetings with colleagues and clients three times a day. It was great to see matters related to lasting powers of attorney or wills run from start to finish. I'd draft an attendance note, the will or codicil, and the letters of correspondence. Then I'd see the client again when they came in to sign the will.” Another told us: “I drafted a power of attorney for a lady in a nursing home who'd recently had a stroke and there was a bit of a wrangle over whether she had capacity.” Trainees also delve into “research on obscure tax questions, especially matters related to the taxation of offshore trusts.”
Over in the family team, trainees' time is occupied by divorces, prenups and child abduction and arrangement matters. “I attend hearings at the Central Family Court, the High Court and the Court of Appeal,” boasted one. Typical tasks include “preparing Form H – the costs estimates – and drafting Form E, the financial statement which has to be provided during a divorce process.” Fledgling solicitors can also expect to “have a go at drafting divorce petitions, prepare instructions for counsel, and research recent cases. Family law changes rapidly and it's the trainee's responsibility to give a presentation on recent case law at the monthly team meeting.”
“Some supervisors are more hands-on than others,” conceded trainees, although they were pleased with the level of support overall. “I've definitely had times where I've been like, 'what the hell? I don't know what to do!' but I've never been made to feel stupid when I've asked questions.” In addition to mid-seat and end-of-seat appraisals, most reported having an informal fortnightly catch-up with their supervisor – “it's a good way of reflecting on where you're at.” Penningtons Manches' offices are all open-plan, except Oxford, where trainees share an office with an associate.
Many of our trainee sources told us they're able to head home by 6.30pm on an average day, though this varies depending on office and seat, with slightly longer hours in family and corporate. “I've occasionally stayed until about 11.30pm,” said one source, reflecting the experience of others, one of whom added: “The deadlines give you an adrenaline rush, which means it's actually quite fun!” Interviewees agreed: “Penningtons is known for its decent work/life balance and that's part of why people are attracted to the firm. The firm cares about us having a life outside work. When you're working hard it's important to have other things on the horizon.”
Every office has a sports and social committee that organises events “every six weeks or so – drinks at a nice bar, a curry night, a theatre trip, a cookery class or a pub quiz. It's good fun and you get to mingle. There's usually a good turnout of senior people too, not just trainees.” Those in Basingstoke recently enjoyed “loads of Chinese food” in honour of Chinese New Year. Sports-wise, we heard that there are football, hockey and netball teams, while several sources in Oxford and Guildford mentioned a sponsored dragon boat race. If such strenuous exercise isn't your thing and you'd rather stuff your face with sweet treats then you can enjoy “elaborate” Easter cakes in Oxford or participate in Guildford's bake-off. Londoners noted that “the trainees tend to grab a drink on Friday evening,” but in locations like Oxford the out-of-town business park location makes spontaneous socialising a bit more tricky – however, “the office does have very good parking,” we hear.
“You're very visible so you have to be prepared for that.”
So how are things three years on from the Penningtons–Manches tie-up? According to trainees, the legacy firms have well and truly meshed together. “When I first started, a year after the merger, you could tell who'd come from which firm. Now it's much harder. Moving into one office has helped of course!” Across offices, rapt trainees described the culture as having “an amazing balance between professionalism and being friendly and supportive. For example, I love the fact that there are frequent team meetings to share knowledge, in which partners talk about their specialisms.” Naturally, there's a formal hierarchy, but “people use their powers for good and made an effort to make you feel welcome. Overall, there's an enthusiasm to help each other.”
What makes a PM trainee? “The small intake in each office means you're very visible so you have to be prepared for that,” one proffered. Another added: “We come from different backgrounds and have different interests but none of us are the type of people who think very highly of themselves or brag a lot.” Asked about their prospects of staying on at the firm, most sources seemed fairly confident. “There's always going to be uncertainty but the firm is good at being transparent about the process. You get the sense that they want to keep their own.” Second-years apply for NQ spots with a CV and covering letter. In the end, ten out of 13 stayed on in 2016.
The trainees we spoke to were a mix of Oxbridge, other Russell Group and non-Russell Group graduates.
How to get a Penningtons training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
The application form
The application process at Penningtons starts with an online form, which prompts candidates to fill out their education history and work experience, and answer questions covering: extra-curricular activities, personal challenges they've overcome and Penningtons' strategy. Graduate recruitment manager Helen Lewis tells us that “we look equally at legal and non-legal work experience, so it really is worth adding in shop and pub jobs too.” She adds that “when it comes to grades, we expect at least AAB and a 2:1, but candidates can make up for problems with a really strong application form.”
Nailing the covering letter is “critical to someone's success – it's the key section I really look at,” says Lewis. “In a perfect covering letter I'd get a feel for their character, and be able to judge how much they want to work for us and want to be involved in what we have to offer. I want to see they've done their research, and aren't just applying to us as a second-tier behind the magic circle.” Lewis explains that good reasons for applying could include an interest in a particular practice area or admiration for specific lawyers at the firm and what they've managed to achieve.
She continues: “Because we give trainees a lot of responsibility and client contact, we look for people who are comfortable with being given that level of responsibility straight away.” Recruiters are therefore on the lookout for any previous activities – like leading a team or organising an event – that demonstrate a mix of confidence and good people skills.
Penningtons attracts around 700 applications for its vacation scheme, and another 700 for the training contract. The firm filters candidates via assessment days, which host 12 applicants at a time. They undergo two interviews: one with Lewis and another member of the HR team, and one with Lewis and a partner.
Candidates are also set a written exercise, a presentation exercise, and the Watson Glaser critical thinking test. “They've only got three and a half hours to show us what they can do,” says Lewis, “so it's important that they remain in control and organise themselves. It can be really obvious if people are falling apart and asking silly questions.”
Penningtons' vacation scheme lasts for one week in July. Schemes are available in London, Basingstoke, Cambridge, Guildford, Oxford and Reading. There is room for 40 candidates in total.
Vac schemers sit in one department for the week, and express preferences for which one before they arrive. They're mentored by a trainee, and complete a mixture of real work under supervision, as well as a number of exercises. One of these involves researching a report on another area of law covered by the firm and doing a presentation on it.
Lewis has this advice for future vac schemers: “Professionalism is key. Treat it as a week-long interview and do the absolute best you can. Look enthusiastic, ask appropriate questions without pestering people, pay attention to detail in your work, and treat everyone – whether partner, trainee or secretary – with respect and enthusiasm.”
These are held during Easter and primarily aimed at those hoping to complete a vacation scheme the following year i.e. first-year law students and penultimate year non-law students. The day is spent meeting the graduate recruitment team; getting to know the firm's practice areas in more depth; and chatting with the current trainees to find out why they chose the firm and what they make of their training experience so far.
Interview with chief executive David Raine
Penningtons Manches LLP
125 Wood Street,
- Partners 110*
- Assistant solicitors 173*
- Total trainees 25*
- * denotes worldwide figures
- Contact Helen Lewis, 020 7457 3000
- Method of application Online form via firm’s website, interviews, presentation, written assessment and critical thinking test
- Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 12-15
- Applications pa 800
- % interviewed pa 5%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary (2016)
- First year: £33,500 (London)
- Second year: £35,500 (London)
- Holiday entitlement 24 days
- Post-qualification salary (2015) £54,000 (London)
- Regional offices Basingstoke, Cambridge, Guildford, Oxford, Reading
Main areas of work
Our business services division advises on the full range of corporate and commercial matters including joint ventures, M&A, IT, IP, corporate tax, dispute resolution, business immigration and commercial contracts. We advise on the full range of commercial and residential property matters, including landlord and tenant, conveyancing, construction and property litigation. We help individuals with advice on tax and estate planning, wills, trusts and probate, family law, clinical negligence, personal injury and capacity issues.
There are occasions when you might be offered a seat in a different office or on secondment with a client. Normally, however, trainees get immersed in the work and culture of their own office, but come together with all the trainees on a regular basis and with the whole firm at sports and social events. The firm ensures a varied training programme is given, avoiding too specialised an approach before qualification. Nonetheless, the experience gained in each practice area gives you a solid foundation, equipping you to embark on your chosen specialisation at the end of your training contract with the firm. Penningtons Manches knows its trainee solicitors are happiest and most successful when busy with good quality and challenging work. The value of giving its trainees responsibility and allowing direct contact with clients is recognised. However, experienced solicitors are always ready to give support when needed.