Shoosmiths aims to have a truly national presence, and frankly isn't far off.
Milton Keynesian multiplier
Thinking back to what brought them to Shoosmiths, trainees cited a balanced combination of what are usually considered clashing characteristics: genuine friendliness and tenacious ambition. This is perhaps explained by the fact that Shoosmiths – now comprising 11 offices across England and Scotland – has been clear on its aim to become a leading national law firm, while retaining offices that are mostly “small enough to have an intimate feel.” Being more regionally geared than London-centric doesn't mean a lack of clout. Shoosmiths picks up nationwide Chambers UK rankings for its work in retail, product liability, transport, media and entertainment, and health and safety. It truly distinguishes itself in the Thames Valley area however (covering the firm's Milton Keynes and Reading offices), with shiny gold stars for its achievements in banking and finance, corporate, employment, IT, pensions, real estate and real estate litigation. A new Leeds office opens in December 2016.
Another potential paradox at Shoosmiths can be found in “the fact that lawyers here value work/life balance, but we also act for some of the biggest-name clients in various sectors.” These clients include Boots, Poundland, McDonald's, H&M, Ann Summers and O2 in the retail sector; Stagecoach, South West Trains and East Midlands Trains in transport; Hewlett-Packard, Toys R Us and the National Trust in employment; and the executors of the wills of Richard Attenborough and Mary Soames (Winston Churchill's daughter) in private client.
Trainees don't get to choose their first seat, but a few months into the training contract they meet with their office's training principal who “asks you what your first choices are for the next seat and whether you want to change office or do a client secondment." Sources advised: "If you feel really strongly about doing a seat in a certain department, you can meet with someone early on to express an interest.” All respondents had been pleased with the system and were full of praise for the respective training principals.
At the time of our calls the firm had eight trainees in Milton Keynes, seven in Reading (or 'Thames Valley' as the firm calls it), seven in Birmingham, six in Manchester, five in Southampton and four in Nottingham. (Basingstoke and London don't have an intake.) Milton Keynes trainees “flit from MK to Northampton,” so a training contract here is essentially split between the two locations. At the time of our calls Nottingham only had a handful of seats on offer (this varies from year to year depending on business needs) so sources here observed that “we're all going to do all the seats; it's just a matter of when.” They weren't however displeased with this arrangement. When it comes to qualification, once the official jobs list is released, trainees have a week to apply. Following interviews, retention decisions are made. In 2016, 15 out of 19 were kept on.
Real estate remains Shoosmiths' largest practice group nationally, and includes construction, planning, real estate litigation and retail as well as what the firm calls its 'core real estate' practice. In core real estate trainees work “on a variety of matters, from landlord and tenant agreements to larger investment deals, like the sale of a portfolio of commercial properties.” The team recently advised on all real estate aspects of commercial property investor McKay's £86.7 million capital raising and refinancing, bringing in loans from Aviva to increase the group's loan portfolio to £175 million. Trainees get involved in the negotiation of leases and are also assigned their own small-scale acquisitions to deal with under supervision, as well as doing more run-of-the-mill stuff like post-completion tasks.
For trainees, the property litigation seat means “mostly disputes under the Landlord and Tenant Act.” A long-term client is Thomas Cook, for which Shoosmiths manages the litigation aspects of hundreds of active lease renewals, including dealing with statutory notices and representing the travel agent in court. The department also recently advised developer Almacantar in a dispute with a commercial tenant over the £400 million redevelopment of Marble Arch Tower in London. Rookies had spent time knee-deep in court-related documents, “putting together claims forms and serving notices, as well as liaising with the core property team.” Client contact comes early on, as does the chance to handle your own files.
Dealing with ancillary documents is a staple of seats in the corporate department and “as a trainee you spend a lot of time doing company searches and getting to grips with articles of association.” We heard that “the complexity of the work increases as time goes on,” and more than one trainee had capped off the seat by managing signing and completion meetings. “There can be over 100 documents in play,” explained one interviewee, “and as the trainee, your job is to get them all together and make sure the right documents are signed by the right people.” Private equity, M&A, venture capital, banking, tax and insolvency work all crop up here, with deals usually in the tens of millions. One of the very biggest matters the department was recently involved in saw it represent the management team of Compello Holdings during its £113 million debt-funded sale to Sweden's Hoist Finance.
"Unless you're flat out on a deal there's no reason to stay past 5.30pm.”
A trainee who'd done a commercial seat explained how the work here was different to corporate: “Corporate deals with business-to-business relations, while commercial is more intra-business. It relates to all a business's contracts and any internal advice they may need.” In Shoosmiths' case, the department also handles commercial litigation plus employment, regulatory, competition, technology and media matters. (The first three of these are distinct seats.) Household-name clients abound in this department: Thomas Cook, Pizza Hut, Coca-Cola and ASOS are all on the books. Trainee tasks include reviewing contractual provisions and then advising clients on steps to be taken, carrying out research tasks and a hefty load of both “free drafting and amending precedent documents." Several sources had spent two days a week on a client secondment during half the seat.
The employment team focuses on clients in the higher education, technology, charity and retail sectors. Matter values range from the hundreds of thousands to the millions, though much of the work is (understandably) confidential. However, we can tell you that the team's recent clients include the Open University, South Bank University, the charity Victim Support, and several high-profile individuals. For trainees, the seat is a mixture of contentious and non-contentious work. “We act for and advise employers, and as a trainee you get a lot of client contact. I was taken to a client meeting on my first day. I was just there to take notes, but as my knowledge built up I found I could contribute to research, working with the legal advisers. Eventually I was drafting emails of advice, company handbooks and employment contracts.” The contentious side sees rookies “attend preliminary and remedies hearings related to things like race discrimination claims." Trainees are "involved in tribunal work from the beginning, preparing bundles and liaising with barristers' chambers.”
Designated drivers (of change)
Trainees agreed that while hours can vary depending on which office and seat you're in, “Shoosmiths has a great attitude to hours. Unless you're flat out on a deal there's no reason to stay past 5.30pm.” As this suggests, the corporate seat is known for longer hours with brief periods of regular 8.30pm finishes likely. Even on these occasions though, “everyone's working together and having fun.”
End of the week drinks are a frequent occurrence in most offices. But don't expect caviar blinis served by belly dancers or vodka-fuelled bar crawls (or whatever the City kids are up to these days). Drinks will often be Shirley Temples rather than gin and tonics because “so many of us drive to work.” This doesn't make the firm any less sociable though. A Reading source cited “countless occasions to get involved, like the Christmas party, summer drinks, end of financial year drinks and the ski trip, which is open to the whole firm and is really fun.” Birmingham has a social committee, which helps organise “quiz nights, and 'new Friday' events.” The latter are encouraged across the firm, and – somewhat confusingly – happen on a Thursday (as in 'Thursday is the new Friday'). Milton Keynes sources explained that in their hood these events often take the form of junior networking initiatives: "We find a location and sponsors and organise informal drinks for ourselves and our business contacts.” And there are department socials too: a recent corporate away-day involved “training during the day and a really nice dinner, disco, and open bar in the evening.”
Fill your Shoos
The social side is of course a manifestation of the culture at large. Juniors defined Shoosmiths as a “progressive, driven firm,” and “a really caring employer.” One elaborated: “When I did my vac scheme they were going through a rebrand. Everything used to be blue, but now we use lots of bright colours. I think that shows that these are exciting times for the firm., There have been lots of external hires, especially in Birmingham, and it really feels like firm is going places.” Along with this go-getting excitement, there's also warmth: “It's a cliché, but everyone is friendly here, from the partners to the PAs. The offices are all open-plan, which means there are always people around willing to help out. If someone can see you're too busy, they jump in." In addition, "trainees are often strategically sat next to partners so you can hear them negotiating over the phone as it happens.”
Throughout our calls, interviewees made a point of praising Shoosmiths for giving them the chance to “shape the firm” and be part of its continuing growth. “The CEO and chairman recently went on a strategy roadshow, coming to all the locations and talking about the 'plan for 2020'. It was an impressive event – with a nice buffet – and it made me feel part of the team. Shoosmiths will probably be a very different firm by the time current applicants get here.”
"... at least I have time for a life outside work.”
If nothing else, the offices will be swankier: the Reading base – “right by the station, with plenty of car-parking space” – is undergoing a big refurb. Rumours were rife: “One floor is moving to Basingstoke temporarily, and everyone else is moving up a floor. When the refit's done, everyone will be an 'agile worker' who can move around to different work stations. The plans look amazing.” It's only natural that our Reading sources were excited about their do-over, given that the recently revamped Birmingham digs were unanimously considered “amazing and a sure way of impressing our clients. Everyone loves going to work in Birmingham.” We should point out that, like Reading, Shoosmiths' other outposts are getting a makeover to match the Brummie oasis. MK has already been given the treatment: “We're just opposite The Hub [MK's main restaurant drag],” a source explained, “so there are lots of nice places to take clients, and lots of nice places to go for socials on a Friday night! We also have what we call our 'pocket park' with a little lake.” Sounds idyllic. The Southampton office is in the Whiteley business park, “which sounds dull, but it's lovely. It has recently been redeveloped, so there's a cinema, shops, restaurants, independent cafés and sandwich shops, and even a lake to walk around. The office is just for Shoosmiths, about 100 of us, so there's a bit of a family feel. Everyone has to drive here.” Nottingham's base is on Station Street, which as you might deduce is “just across the road from the station, and really near the station tram stop.”
A quick note on remuneration: Shoosmiths' NQ and trainee salary has just been raised, but pay was still a slightly contentious topic among our interviewees (who we spoke to before trainee salaries were increased). Sources recognised there was a trade-off to be made: “Maybe we're slightly underpaid, but at least I have time for a life outside work.”
If you're looking for a fine firm to train at away from the UK's biggest legal hubs then Shoosmiths is well worth looking at.
How to get a Shoosmiths training contract
Insight evening deadline: 30 November 2016
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 28 February 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 30 June 2017
In recent years, Shoosmiths representatives have attended law fairs at the following universities: Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Dundee, Exeter, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Northampton, Nottingham, Reading, Strathclyde, Manchester, Southampton and the BPP and University of Law campuses (Birmingham, Guildford, London and Manchester).
The firm strongly encourages potential applicants to meet their lawyers at law fairs, insight evenings and other events. Go here to find out when and where these take place.
On an average year the firm receives around 2,000 direct training contract applications, plus another 750 for its vacation scheme. All applicants fill out the same online form, which requires their GCSE and A level results, and their undergraduate degree modules and final grades (if studies are complete). Shoosmiths is looking for a minimum of CCC at A level and any degree or equivalent. There's also room to log work experience. Shoosmiths isn't prescriptive on this front; at a general level, recruiters are looking for the kind of commercial skills acquired by handling customers or clients, and from working under pressure.
The application form rounds off with a series of competency-based questions that require candidates to describe occasions where they've worked well in a team, taken on leadership roles and so forth. “We're not looking for people who have climbed Everest!” HR director Louise Hadland is quick to point out. “We like normal people who can build relationships and who enjoy working collaboratively – that really comes back to Shoosmiths' philosophy and the values we have here.”
Completing a vac scheme is a good entry point into Shoosmiths – around half of the firm's trainees have completed one. Placements last for a week and are available in the Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Milton Keynes, Reading, Southampton and Edinburgh offices. Seven or eight positions are up for grabs per office, and there are no more than three vac schemers in one location at a given time.
Vacation scheme spots are awarded based on the strength of a candidate's online application. Note that candidates are not allowed to solely apply for a vac scheme; they must be gunning for a training contract too.
Participants are assigned a trainee buddy and spend their visit in a single department – they have a chance to express a preference for where beforehand, but the firm makes no guarantees. Business development and skills sessions, as well as social activities and a mini-project, supplement any live work. The mini-project culminates in a presentation delivered at the end of the week and is assessed by the office's training principal, HR manager, and usually another partner. Finally, there's an exit interview, which helps determine whether to invite a vac schemer to attend an assessment day for a training contract.
The firm asks around 100 direct training contract applicants to attend one of four assessment days – all of which take place at Shoosmiths' Birmingham office in July.
Over the day candidates complete a written task and a group exercise. Both are linked to a scenario. In previous years, this has focused on the value of client service and the importance of business development within a law firm.
Hadland has this advice for impressing: “Act professional and be friendly. We want to see a candidate's personality shine through, so we want them to relax. We're not looking for the loudest voice in the room, but we are looking for those who are assured and confident in a group environment.”
An interview with two partners concludes the day. This is done 'blind', meaning that partners won't have looked at a candidate's application form beforehand, and involves a presentation candidates have already prepared. Current trainees recalled much of the interview being tied to the competency questions posed on the application form. As one explained: “The partners want to make sure they're recruiting in line with Shoosmiths' values, especially those connected to working collaboratively, so they pick up on those points relating to teamwork and initiative.”
To be a lawyer in the Thames Valley
- Partners 150
- Total staff 1,550
- Total trainees 44
- Contact Samantha Hope
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Application amd assessment day
- Closing date for 2017/2019
- Summer vacation placement (2017): 28 February 2017
- Training contract (2019): 30 June 2017
- No of training contracts 25
- Applications pa 1,600+
- % Interviewed 10%
- Desired degree grade Any degree
- Training salary £26,000/£27,000
- Holiday entitlement pa 23 days + flex
- Post-qualification salary £40,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2016) 85%
- Offices Basingstoke, Birmingham, Edinburgh, London, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Northampton, Reading, Solent (please see our website for locations we are currently recruiting to)
Main areas of work