RPC trainees get a good mix of commercial and insurance experience, alongside the chance to be part of an experimental journey into 'the law firm of the future'.
Perspiring to greatness
What do you do when you're an insurance-heavy law firm based in a dated office block in Holborn with a bit of a posh name that hardly rolls off the tongue? You take drastic action, that's what: move to sleek new open-plan digs by the Tower of London, develop the commercial side of your practice, and shave Reynolds Porter Chamberlain down to 'RPC'. Oh, and introduce flexible working and increase maternity leave, tell everyone they can wear jeans and trainers to work, throw a “health and wellbeing festival” by sticking a Bikram yoga tent in the cafeteria and handing out free apples, and hire “an expert on what the world will look like in 2030” to host meditation sessions for all your staff. And Bob's your pretty old but still distinctly young-at-heart uncle.
It's all true of RPC, right down to the yoga tent. Backing up a bit, ten years ago RPC decided to expand and invest in developing its practice away from low-value insurance work to start competing with London's commercial big dogs. Alongside top marks for professional negligence insurance, it now has top Chambers UK rankings for lower mid-market corporate and real estate work in the capital. UK-wide, it's recognised for defamation/reputation management among others.
"Not so large you feel anonymous, not so small you see the same people."
Trainees saw RPC as a happy medium between bigger, tough-love City outfits and smaller, more intimate West End firms. They told us: “The trainee intake is a good size: not so large you feel anonymous, not so small you see the same people over and over again.” The vast majority of respondents were also satisfied that “the seat allocation system works well, and most people get what they want.” At each rotation, trainees submit three options: an insurance seat, a commercial seat, and a third which can be either. These aren't ranked one to three; they're equally weighted. Everyone must complete at least one insurance seat and at least one non-contentious commercial seat. RPC also has a Hong Kong office and one trainee per rotation can do a seat here. Client secondments are more frequent with regular jaunts on offer to AIG and Carillion, plus some organised on an “ad hoc, last minute” basis. All interviewees with secondment experience had enjoyed the in-house stint. In the past the firm has also offered the option of doing a seat in the Bristol office, but this is no longer on the cards for the time being.
Boom, bang, crash!
The insurance department is the firm's oldest and largest. Clients include industry big shots QBE, AIG, Axis, RSA and Hiscox. Property insurance is a big part of what RPC does, while other insurance specialisms include energy and IT. Besides domestic work, lawyers have recently advised on international cases related to Brazil, Pakistan, Australia, Ghana and Poland. Understandably, many of the juiciest matters are confidential so we can't share them with you, but some are public knowledge: for example, RPC's team acted for the reinsurers of multinational mining company Anglo American after they were sued by South African miners who contracted the lung disease silicosis from the dust in the mines. Spring 2016 was a busy time for the department's corporate subgroup, with three major deals closing in ten days: lawyers advised Lloyd's insurer Chaucer on establishing a special-purpose syndicate with AXA; assisted with the acquisition of insurers ANV by AmTrust; and then rolled up their sleeves for the buyout of specialist Lloyd's broker Lonmar.
Within insurance there are five seats trainees can gain experience in: construction, general liability and medical, professional and financial risk, property and casualty, and property and casualty international. Construction insurance is also referred to as construction litigation and like most of the other insurance seats is considered a contentious seat. “Our clients are construction professionals, protected by professional indemnity insurance, and their insurers,” a source explained. “A lot of the work involves banks trying to sue surveyors – our clients – for negligently over-valuing their property portfolios.” Trainees praised the fact that at the start of the seat “work is handed to you with very straightforward, clear instructions, but by the end you have much more responsibility, drafting multiple witness statements and interviewing witnesses on the phone.”
"It's interesting for us as insurance-side lawyers to have to balance ethical and commercial perspectives.”
A seat in general liability sees trainees doing “basically personal injury work." RPC acts for insurers and the insured "for example against someone who is insured by their company's health and safety policy. Cases usually involves things like limbs severed by machinery in the workplace and allegations that this was somehow caused by the employer not following the rules.” One source reflected: “Because the injuries have a huge impact on the victims, it's interesting for us as insurance-side lawyers to have to balance ethical and commercial perspectives.”
The property and casualty subgroup “covers anything from physical damage to property to intellectual property rights. There's even a separate energy-related practice and a new cyber-insurance unit.” We heard from a source who had “mainly worked on one negligence case. I had so much contact with experts and counsel during the mediation and was given free rein to liaise with the client.” Another reeled off examples of the smaller matters trainees might work on: “School fires, explosions in warehouses, jewellery and diamond heists...” All sounds very dramatic!
The commercial side of the action at RPC is pretty broad too: trainees can gain experience in commercial disputes, corporate, employment, real estate, construction and projects, and MIPTOC (media, IP, technology, outsourcing and commercial contracts). Time in corporate can mean doing a seat in M&A, corporate banking or corporate insurance. In the M&A subgroup, trainees can expect to see “anything non-contentious to do with a company: company secretarial work for a plc, for example, as well as classic mergers and acquisitions. Our deals aren't worth billions though – they're mid-market.” Corporate clients include insurer AIG, private equity investor Bridgepoint Capital, and a UK subsidiary of Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Corporate banking is “a small team, which means loads of responsibility. We act for borrowers or private equity houses, rather than the big banks like NatWest or Barclays." A source told us: "I completed a conditions precedent checklist for a refinancing, and I sat in on conference calls in which magic circle firms were acting for the banks opposite. I also reviewed financial documents and sales and purchase agreements for M&A deals.” Sources did caution that “there don't seem to be as many opportunities to qualify into banking compared to other departments.”
Commercial disputes is one of the largest teams at RPC if you factor in the specialist subgroups like tax, employment, real estate, and banking. The last of these, which is Chambers-ranked, was recently involved in Bank of St Petersburg v Vitaly Arkhangelsky, a £30 million Chancery case over personal loan guarantees given to the bank by said Russian entrepreneur. Other clients include Sports Direct and EY (formerly Ernst & Young). Several of our interviewees had experienced a case going to trial, “which is the most amazing experience!” One was “involved in all the prep, assisted in putting together trial bundles, liaised with counsel and went to court.” Another “joined just after witness statements had been submitted and was involved in the tail end, dealing with expert reports and attending trial for a good few weeks.”
A seat in intellectual property gives trainees both contentious and transactional experience. On the former front the firm recently acted for luxury champagne house CLR in a successful trade mark infringement claim. Other clients include the Daily Mail, Waterstones, Selfridges and Google. Media is something of a focus and the team recently advised the BBC in a trade mark dispute over The Gamechangers, a TV movie about the creation of Grand Theft Auto which starred Daniel Radcliffe. “Clients are at the top of their game and it's quite exciting,” sources purred, though they did admit that “you don't get as much responsibility as in insurance. But still, when cases go to the High Court you do liaise with clients to help them prepare.” Trainees may also get the chance to deal with smaller domain name disputes themselves.
"I almost dread December... because there are so many parties!”
Around 70% of all RPC's work is litigation and when trials rear their heads hours “can be gruelling.” Market and case-related ups and downs mean hours vary in all seats. For example: “Insurance means an early start, a really busy day, but a 6pm finish; tax can mean working a lot of weekends and evenings; in corporate you can have a dreamy time working 9am to 6pm, or be totally swamped; in competition I met my friends every night in the pub at 6pm; commercial disputes' hours are gruelling, but more than worth it for the experience.” All agreed that “the firm is generally accommodating and senior lawyers give you notice of long hours where possible, and they are appreciative.”
Asked about RPC's social calendar, one trainee forwent the niceties: “We recruit people who want to work hard, but also want to go down the pub." Another added: “I almost dread December... because there are so many parties!” Phew. “There's a trainee Christmas dinner, team Christmas dinner, and house celebrations.” Like Hogwarts (and posh public schools) RPC splits its people in three 'houses': Reynolds, Porter and Chamberlain. The houses are used as a pretext for partying and healthy competition. One source confided that “there's also a big insurance party for clients. Trainees aren't invited but you can volunteer to help out then just grab a bottle of wine and disappear into the party. The canapés are yummy!” You can also join the ski trip, talent show, quiz night, choir or book club. Or all of them!
Referring to the ski trip, one trainee commented that “it says a lot about a workplace if the people want to spend their holidays together.” This reflected the general consensus, with trainees reporting that RPC is a “relaxed, open place, where everyone's valued, and everyone gets a chance to have their say. We have town hall-style meetings with the managing partner and anyone can submit anonymous questions.” All our sources agreed that the firm is “trying very hard” when it comes to diversity too. We note that 59% of current trainees are female and 72% went to state school, so perhaps it's no surprise that one interviewee told us jokingly: “I get the piss taken out of me all the time for being posh!” since poshos now appear to be in the minority.
RPC's NQ salary is officially merit-based. In practice, trainees say, “the basis of the performance-based element hasn't been disclosed,” and training principal Simon Hart adds that “NQ salary levels reflect the markets in which the relevant practice groups operate.”
How to get an RPC training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
Trainee hopefuls at RPC need a minimum of eight high-grade GCSEs, three high-grade A levels, and an achieved or predicted 2:1 degree. Beyond this, graduate resourcing manager Ellinor Davey tells us, the firm is looking for intelligent, ambitious, personable and commercially aware people who are natural leaders and good communicators.
Davey informs us that “it's not unusual for some of our trainees to have come to us later in life –we have some who were previously in the army, professional services and skippering yachts.” She advises applicants to not discount any previous work experience too quickly: “A Saturday job working in a shop, for example, can be used to demonstrate your customer and client services skills, communication capability, team work and reliability.” That said, legal work experience is compulsory to get a look in here. As Davey explains: “You need to show you have a real interest in working for a law firm, and prove that you can seek out opportunities and operate in a commercial environment. Legal work experience can include work shadowing, open days and pro bono activities, as well as placements in a law firm.”
Both vacation scheme and direct training contract applications start off with the same online form. One of the questions asks for evidence of an applicant's research on RPC. According to Davey, “this is where candidates really have the opportunity to show their understanding of RPC and demonstrate the level of research they've done about the firm, rather than talking about why they'd be a good fit. That's not what we're looking for here. It's very important to us that candidates are motivated towards a career with RPC, not just law in general.”
In 2016 RPC received 700 direct applications for training contracts. Generally the firm selects around 250 applicants to complete an online verbal reasoning test and screens their applications once more after that. We're told the recruitment team pays particular attention to a candidate's answer to the form's commercial question. “Their answer should be logical, persuasive and concise, and ideally look at the wider implications of the issue,” Davey says. Around 40 make it to one of the firm's assessment days.
The assessment day includes a discussion exercise, a written exercise, and an interview with a partner and a member of HR.
“The interview has quite a commercial focus,” Davey reveals. “Candidates won't get any case law questions, though – we get such a wide array of applicants at different stages in their education and careers that it wouldn't be fair.” She advises candidates to “stay calm and composed” during the interview, and to come prepared with answers to standard interview questions like 'Why do you want to work here?' “You have to sell to us why you want to work here and present a really convincing argument,” head of brand and marketing services Ed Fitzgerald adds. “Be sure you look at our graduate manifesto before you come. This illustrates the kind of candidate who thrives at RPC.”
The day also includes a trainee-led tour of the firm and an informal lunch with partners and associates, plus a Q&A session with a partner and a trainee.
In 2016 the firm received 800 applications for its 24 vac scheme spots on offer. The vacation scheme application process is “similar to the training contract application process,” Davey tells us. Applicants complete the form, and those who impress go on to take a verbal reasoning test and attend an assessment day at the firm. From here the firm chooses its vac schemers.
The firm runs a few two-week placements each year. Attendees spend one week each on the insurance and commercial floors, getting exposure to trainee-level work. “The firm really makes an effort to give you an accurate picture of trainee life,” said a current trainee. “I was surprised by how similar the first few days of my training contract felt to my time as a vac schemer.” Some participants even get to attend court and client meetings. They also complete what Davey describes as “a business project about developing the firm and how it runs.”
On the social side are networking events, ping-pong tournaments at Bounce, a mixology class, a bowling night, a treasure hunt across the city and a clueQuest challenge. On the last day of their placement vac schemers have an interview with a partner and a member of HR.
The firm runs one open day for applicants who don't get a place on the vac scheme. “Our vacation scheme is very competitive, so we offer open day places to candidates who narrowly miss out,” Davey says. “It's a great way for them to gain experience and get further insight into RPC.” Usually these include an assessed group exercise and on-the-spot feedback, and afterwards candidates are invited to make a training contract application.
Interview with training principal Simon Hart
Student Guide: Are there any highlights from the past year that you would like readers to know about?
Simon Hart: In terms of the business, I would highlight a handful of developments. The first is our new joint venture with a Singaporean law firm, Premier Law. We already have an office in Singapore, but this gives us a local law capability too, allowing us to offer a wider range of services and giving us a stronger platform to service client needs across Asia.
A second point is that in February/March last year we set up RPC Consulting, which now employs over 40 people. The Consultancy was then boosted by the acquisition of insurance software business Marriott Sinclair. RPC Consulting has grown significantly since its inception and has diversified RPC's overall business.
Third, there has been a lot of work going on internally, with what we have called 'Task Force One.' This has looked at how the workplace will evolve over the next five to ten years and what people will want from their workplace in the future. The project includes looking at things like flexible working, mental and physical health awareness, and maternity and paternity support. Alongside developments in the business, we have continued to be involved in some of the most significant cases in the Courts this year.
SG: How do you see RPC evolving over the next few years?
SH: We have a strategic framework, but we are not constrained by a specific strategy. We are a fairly agile, adaptable organisation and we work hard to keep it like that. There are no new office openings on the horizon at the moment, and we don't have a plan to plant our flag in every jurisdiction. We have offices in Singapore and Hong Kong from which we can service Asia. We are also part of the TerraLex network which gives us access to high quality firms across the world; we have very good relations with a whole variety of law firms in major commercial jurisdictions. The flexibility that such a combination offers works well for us and our clients.
One of the things we feel we have done well over the last five years is grasping opportunities as they come up. For example, five years ago having an insurance consulting arm – as we do now – was not something that was on our radar, but we seized the opportunity when it came along. We now intend to grow the broader professional services side of the business.
SG: In recent years the firm has crafted a more progressive image for itself. How do you ensure that the image goes right to the heart of the firm's culture?
SH: The commitment to being progressive is a long-term initiative. It has to be driven by the culture, and can't just be sprung from a single project. We have always been keen to be at the forefront of development – we have been working in an open plan environment for 10 years, long before most other firms considered it. 'Task Force One' and other workstreams are about creating a workplace which will be relevant and embody that progressive spirit over the next decade – not just in terms of physical surroundings but in terms of the relationship between the firm and those who work here. The whole partnership has endorsed the process and the approach permeates much of what we are trying to achieve. We are not there yet but we are committed. One aspect has involved putting in place support and advice for lawyers coming back into the workplace after maternity leave and looking at ways we can adapt in order to address their needs. This embraces both internal and external support.
SG: You recently had a 'director of futures, strategy and animation' at RPC. What are the benefits of having someone in this role?
SH: It is always good to have people in the business who are not lawyers and who come at things from a different perspective. We wanted to explore with a non-lawyer what the workplace of the future should look like. The role was intended to stir things up a bit and help us to design initiatives which we might not otherwise introduce. We learned a huge amount from that project and expect to work more with that person on a consultancy basis in the future.
SG: We understand that RPC has relaxed its dress code. Why?
SH: There has been a revision, not revolution. We want our dress code to reflect the type of people we want to employ, so we are going in a more relaxed direction. It is not about telling people what to wear; it's about trusting people's judgement. We trust that people will be dressed appropriately if they are going to court – you wear a suit for that, but if you are meeting with certain clients then you do not necessarily have to do so.
SG: Quite a lot of RPC's work comes from the insurance sector, which has a reputation for being 'laddish' or at least male-heavy. Does this pose a challenge to RPC's aim of forging a diverse and inclusive culture?
SH: We do have a strong tradition of working with the insurance sector and that has remained a core part of the business as the contentious and transactional commercial group has grown alongside it. I personally don't work in the insurance sector, but my own perception – and that of many of my colleagues – is that while the stereotype you identify might have existed in corners of the sector 15 to 20 years ago, a lot has changed in in the last five to ten years. The style of doing business has changed. We have a lot of very successful female lawyers in our insurance practice, and there are many successful female businesspeople in the insurance sector in general. The direction of travel in the insurance world is entirely consistent with an open and inclusive culture. Indeed, those law firms that have not changed and do not foster such a culture are unlikely to thrive in the insurance sector of the future.
SG: Has the overseas seat in Hong Kong become a permanent fixture? Last year you said you were testing the water.
SH: We have just sent a trainee to Hong Kong for the third time and it is working well. I am satisfied that the trainees are contributing to that office from both a business and cultural perspective while getting the training they need. The trainees who go to Hong Kong (and those who come from Hong Kong to London for six months) play a really important role in maintaining the connection between London and Asia.
SG: Is the Bristol office still not taking on trainees?
SH: The situation with regards to Bristol is still the same – we are not recruiting trainees there at the moment. On a broader recruitment note, over the last year we signed up to the RARE recruitment system, which we used to select candidates for this year's summer scheme. While we are still looking for people who demonstrate the same ambition and potential skill sets, we have found that we are now offering interviews to people who might not have popped up onto our radar without the help of the RARE system. It is early days but I am proud of what the firm is trying to achieve on this front.
SG: We heard that RPC has changed the way it assesses its vac schemers?
SH: We have recently refreshed the process for selecting those who complete our vacation scheme. Now the process more closely reflects the criteria we set for obtaining a training contract. Getting a summer scheme position has got tougher, and deliberately so: the objective is to recruit more of our trainee intake via the summer scheme. As part of these revisions, we introduced an assessment element on the summer scheme. Our first candidates have just been through their two weeks with us and the changes have worked. I was very clear that I didn't want the changes to impact the candidates' ability to find out what being a lawyer is like. It will always continue to be clear to those on the summer scheme when and on what they are being assessed.
SG: Can you tell us more about the firm's merit-based compensation system for NQs?
SH: Our NQs are not paid the same across the firm. NQ salary levels reflect the markets in which the related practice groups operate. That makes commercial sense and it reflects what our clients would expect.
Tower Bridge House,
St Katharine's Way,
- Partners 81
- Associates 202
- Total trainees 37
- Contact Trainee recruitment team, www.rpc.co.uk/manifesto
- Method of application Online selection procedure First interview face to face, presentations, written exercises, aptitude tests, case studies
- Closing date for 2019
- Training contract: 31 July 2017
- Vacation scheme: 31 January 2017
- Training contracts pa (London) 15
- Required degree grade (London) 2:1
- Training salary (London)
- First year: £37,000
- Second year: £40,000
- Post-qualification salary Merit-based
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2016) 67%
- Overseas/regional offices Bristol, Hong Kong and Singapore
Headquartered in a state of the art site in the City of London, we also have stunning offices in Bristol, Hong Kong and Singapore. Our open plan, collaborative working environment – where knowledge is easily shared and access to partners an everyday reality – is designed to bring out the best in our people and to ensure that the service we offer our clients is second to none. And it is.
We provide top quality legal services to global businesses across a wide range of industry sectors and practices, including insurance, commercial litigation, construction, engineering and projects, corporate/M&A, IP and technology, media, real estate, employment and pensions, outsourcing, regulatory, tax and competition.
In 2015 we were named as best legal adviser by Legal Week and Law Firm of the Year at the British Legal Awards. In 2014 we were twice named Law firm of the Year at The Lawyer Awards and the Halsbury Legal Awards having been nominated four times before over the previous 18 months. We also won Competition and Regulatory Team of the Year 2015 and Commercial Team of the Year 2014 at the British Legal Awards as well as Competition Team of the Year at the Legal Business Awards 2014. In 2013 we picked up gongs as Best Tax Team in a Law Firm and Best Trainee Recruitment Campaign. And, in 2012, we won Insurance Team of the Year at The Legal Business Awards and Corporate Team of the Year (midcap) at The Lawyer Awards, as well as Service Provider of the Year at the British Insurance Awards; we have also been voted by the Financial Times as one of the most innovative firms in Europe.
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