Two law firms, both alike in dignity, decided to merge. Enter Shakespeare Martineau.
What's in a name?
In spring 2015, the legal stage was set for a massive Midlands merger. Brum-based firms Shakespeares and SGH Martineau wooed in haste, but they didn't wed at leisure. By summer, the two had consummated their combination, creating a top 50 firm with 700 staff, 150 partners and an annual income of £75 million. Shakespeares already had an appetite for growth and a rep for wearing its expansionist heart on its sleeve – in 2013 it hooked up with Leicester-based planning specialists Marrons and social housing experts Newsome Vaughan, located in Stratford and Coventry. Law firm amalgamations are often the bedfellows of efficiency savings and transitional arrangement, and this case was no different: the legal press reported on a bout of support staff redundancies after the merger and a continuing discrepancy means legacy Martineau trainees are paid more than ex-Shakespeares folk.
But let us sit upon the ground and hear stories of what trainees had to say of this most happy coupling. Those in the East Midlands offices (Leicester and Nottingham) told us that “the merger didn't really affect us here, whereas in Birmingham and London people suddenly found themselves sitting next to strangers.” (SGH Martineau only had offices in these two locations.) Overall, trainees were sanguine. “There are inevitably going to be some rocky moments – after a merger there will be economies of scale,” said a source knowingly. “It will take some levelling out but in general the merger has been a very positive thing. It's exciting to work at an ambitious firm. There are more opportunities, and there are more areas of practice and more clients to get involved with.” Trainees reckoned that “the legacy firms' cultures fit together well: both Shakespeares and SGH Martineau were sociable, hard-working places.”
When it comes to the work, Chambers UK certainly shows that the firm has strengths in a bubbling mixed brew of areas. It receives rankings across the Midlands for fields including real estate, corporate, private client, family law, professional negligence and litigation, while at a national level the firm is top-ranked for its higher education and personal insolvency work. At the time of our calls there were 11 trainees in Birmingham, six in Leicester, two in Nottingham and one in London. Those in the East Midlands are based either in Leicester or Nottingham but can expect to complete stints in both offices. (Related travel expenses are paid for by the firm.) Sources were chuffed with the selection of seats on offer – “there's a broad range, from banking to private client, and corporate and family” – and flagged up the commercial/IP and property seats as particularly popular pit-stops.
To solicit, perchance to dream
The property department accounts for around a third of the firm's turnover and acts for commercial developers, investors and retailers like Farmfoods, Anglo Beef Processors and St Modwen. On the residential side, it works for major house builders that specialise in student accommodation and care homes. Well-known names like Barratt Homes, Persimmon and Crest Nicholson are all on the books. Trainees who'd sat in commercial property sampled “everything from development work to landlord and tenant matters.” One recalled: “I handled underlease renewals and Land Registry applications. I also registered transfers, updated titles, and dealt with stamp duty issues.” Research tasks and drafting documents like option agreements are also on the cards, along with support work for the corporate department.
Asked about their experience in the corporate team itself, sources told us: “It's a drafting-heavy seat – I worked on shareholder agreements, debentures, board minutes and resolutions.” Other tasks include “filing things at Companies House, setting up data rooms, collating documents, organising disclosure meetings and doing due diligence.” One trainee proudly proclaimed: “I was fortunate enough to be able to take part in a major deal, a £65 million disposal.” This is indeed the typical size of a large deal at the firm. For example, Birmingham solicitors recently acted for shareholders of the Midlands' HL Plastics on the £95 million sale of the company to Texas-based Quanex Building Products. Meanwhile, over in the East Midlands, lawyers advised Shield Engineering on its £5.8 million acquisition of Alumasc Precision Castings.
“Since the merger there's been a huge change in that there is a lot of talk about focusing on people.”
The dispute resolution team is known for its expertise in the energy and higher education sectors. Clients include National Grid, nPower and the University of Warwick. In addition, lawyers recently acted for housing developer Harding Homes in the High Court, as it pursued a negligence claim against the company's former solicitors. Trainees completing a seat here get stuck into drafting letters of claim, applications, instructions to counsel, witness statements and pleadings. A source recalled “attending around 20 mediations and assisting on large commercial disputes including an injunction – there was a lot of running around booking court appointments.” Doc review and research are also on the cards.
In Leicester, the clinical negligence team deals with matters related to birth injuries, treatment in care homes, gynaecological issues and dentistry. “There's not a great deal of face-to-face client contact, but there's a huge amount of telephone contact,” noted one trainee. “I also write a lot of correspondence to clients and draft pleadings, court papers, claim forms and witness statements.” A stint in the commercial/IP team entails “reviewing and drafting general contracts for clients.” On the IP side, the work includes “dealing with disclosure and preparing documents for hearings.” Clients include logistics company Rudolph & Hellman and telecoms outfits Azzurri and Vodafone.
Is this a trust deed that I see before me?
Over in private client, “there's never a dull day.” As you'd expect, the team works for high net worth individuals on matters to do with wills, trusts, probate and the Court of Protection. Trainees draft wills, powers of attorney, trust deeds, letters of advice, probate paperwork and tax returns. In the family department sources told us they had “assisted on several large divorce cases and children proceedings, drafting pleadings and preparing financial documents like Form E.” Trainees were also pleased to note that “there's quite a lot of client contact, although the nature of the clients means you're not responsible for running any of the meetings.” On this point, it was noted that compared to the other departments family is “a bit more old-school.”
The banking team acts for various banks including Santander, HSBC and the Swiss-based Habib Bank. Islamic finance work forms a significant part of the department's undertakings along with real estate finance. The team also acts for several crowdfunders. Trainees sampling life in banking spend time “reviewing and agreeing securities for banks and building societies.” Of course, “some mundane admin tasks are unavoidable” but as a trainee “you're heavily relied upon, as there's a very high turnover of work.”
Trainees felt well supported during their salad days as solicitors. “Supervisors regularly check on your workload and the open-plan layout of the office invites you to ask questions naturally. Obviously you need to approach someone with a question at the right time though!” An interviewee remembered that “there were times when I was told I could attend court hearings even though it was of no direct benefit to the case. I was encouraged to go for the experience.” Trainees have an appraisal in the middle and at the end of each seat. In addition, sources were pleased to note that “we have fortnightly trainee meetings with HR – that's a forum where we can raise any concerns.” Interviewees observed that “since the merger there's been a huge change in that there is a lot of talk about focusing on people.” And it's not just talk. The firm put its money where its mouth is and launched an 'academy programme' for all lawyers that “provides brilliant training modules on things like organisational, negotiation and presentation skills – they bring in really good motivational speakers from the sports and business worlds.”
"It's achieved a lot through mergers, growing from a small high-street practice into a big national player."
On the subject of hours, interviewees agreed that “there can be different expectations in different departments – generally corporate demands longer hours.” It all depends on the work flow too. While some had had a very quiet time in a certain team (“on the whole, I started at 9am and finished at 5.30pm”), others who'd done the same seat endured tougher schedules in the run-up to a deadline. “I was in the office until 2am or 3am for a week straight,” one source told us. Trainees said 8.45am or 9am to 6.30pm was a normal day. East Midlands trainees flagged up the fact that the need to travel from out of town to a particular office can add a couple of hours or more to the working day. “My commute was an hour and 15 minutes, which is the thing I found most tiring.”
An ex-Shakespeares trainee characterised the firm as ambitious – “it's achieved a lot through mergers, growing from a small high-street practice into a big national player. Certainly that's the tune that a lot of the partners and the chief executive sing, reminding everyone how big we are and how far we've come.” Fortunately, people aren't letting the ambition go to their heads, Macbeth-style: “Everyone's down to earth here and generally very approachable – I've come across very few difficult characters.”
No more cakes and ale?
At the time of our calls, the trainee social scene was just starting to get going again after the merger. Sources said: “There's always room for the firm to do a little bit more” on the social side, though trainees do have control of their own social budget. In Birmingham it's “used to pay for us to go to the Junior Lawyers Division ball and for other food or drink-related activities.” We also heard tell of bowling outings and quiz nights. CSR committees are active across locations, sorting out things like boat parties, bake-offs, indoor picnics and sporting competitions for charity. Most notably, there was a boat race in Leicester during which “one of the senior people dressed up as a banana.” (No, we don't understand why either.)
In Birmingham, the merged firm has its marital home in the legacy SGH Martineau offices, slap-bang in the middle of the city's legal and business heart on Colmore Circus. “There are nice posh lifts and marble floors and all that malarkey. It's right in the heart of Birmingham so there are restaurants and bars right on the doorstep.” Over in Leicester, there are two bases. The main office is “right in the city centre and very modern” while the Meridian building is “next to the motorway, which is good for clients coming in from out of town. It's a bit more dated than the other office but the parking is very useful!” The Nottingham digs are located “close to the train station and are nice and well kept with a concierge on the front desk.”
“It's going to sound really cheesy, but..."
What makes a Shakespeare Martineau trainee? “It's going to sound really cheesy, but I literally just thought of the three words of our tagline that are plastered everywhere: 'spirit, talent, enterprise'. The firm looks for people who will fit in at an ambitious firm and help drive the firm forward. People here are helpful to their colleagues and easy to work with.” Others reckoned that “you need willingness to learn – you're not going to enjoy every seat equally, but you need to be enthusiastic and get stuck in.”
When it comes to qualification, there isn't much pomp and circumstance. “There isn't a single NQ jobs list that comes out – jobs are advertised on an ad hoc basis and you can choose which you apply for.” Inevitably, this has caused a few issues: “Some people apply for jobs which they wouldn't have gone for if they'd known another job would become available.” However, interviewees pointed out that “this is the first year after the merger and moving forward the system will be more structured.” In 2016, the firm retained ten out of 14 qualifiers.
We don't know if the firm's founder was a relation of the illustrious bard, but though we've done it above we advise against any attempts at witty Shakespearean references on your application.
How to get a Shakespeare Martineau training contract
The Birmingham legal scene
- Partners 128
- Assistant solicitors 157
- Total trainees 19
- Total staff 835
- Contact For queries contact [email protected]
- Method of application Apply via our online application form at www.shma.co.uk
- Selection procedure -Oneday assessment centre, followed by an interview for the final round.
- Closing date for August 2017 application 31 July 2017 for training contracts to start in September 2018
- No of training contracts pa 10
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary (regional)
- First year: £22,000
- Second year: £24,000
- Holiday entitlement 27 days per annum (plus bank holidays)
Main areas of work