Got a film that needs financing, music label to buy, or a reputation that needs lifting out of the gutter? Media law firm Simkins is here to help.
Congratulations and celebrations
What do Iron Maiden, Charles Saatchi, Cliff Richard and Pink Floyd have in common? No, they're not a particularly eclectic line-up for Glastonbury. They're all clients of Simkins, founded in 1962 by ex-City solicitor Michael Simkins based on his work for talent agent Leslie Grade. Early clients included Cliff Richard and Albert Finney – the firm still advises both today. Simkins is ranked by Chambers UK for its film, TV, music, publishing, theatre and defamation work, advising businesses and individuals.
“We're a full-service firm,” says managing partner Euan Lawson, “and we offer services like property, employment, commercial litigation and contractual advice – but our client base is focused on the media and entertainment sectors.” And that's not going to change any time soon. Lawson again: “Our strategy is to remain a niche firm and to become the pre-eminent media and entertainment firm in the UK. We would like to grow a bit, but I'm not envisaging that we'll become a mid-market commercial firm.” And this is exactly what attracted trainees: “I knew I wanted to work at a niche media law firm and somewhere quite small.”
“I knew I wanted to work at a niche media law firm and somewhere quite small.”
A rebrand in July 2016 saw a name change from 'Michael Simkins' to just plain 'Simkins' (apparently some clients used to think Michael was still a lawyer with the firm). The first trainee intake joined in 2012 and the firm tells us that since then retention has been pretty good, with both qualifiers kept on in 2015 and one of two retained in 2016. The qualification process is “fairly informal,” an NQ reported. “I was asked by a partner at the end of my third seat if I wanted to stay on and into which department I'd like to qualify. They then went off and had a discussion with the other partners. I was offered a job some time after that. ” There are just four seat options and trainees usually undertake all four; there are occasional client secondment opportunities.
Walking on sunshine
The commercial team is at the heart of the firm's non-contentious media work: film finance, advertising contracts, online compliance, music publishing agreements etc. For example, one trainee “drafted composers' agreements for a big television series and production,” and lawyers have recently advised on the development, production and distribution of World War Two film Alone in Berlin (starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson), political thriller The Truth Commissioner, and documentary Palio (about the famous horse race in Siena). J.K. Rowling's online wizarding platform Pottermore is also a client. The team also works on the commercial aspects of corporate deals. “As a trainee you might be part of an internal team on a bigger deal,” a source reported. “For instance, a publishing client seeking to purchase a music publisher. There may be a very large data room, and we have to do the due diligence on the commercial contracts and look at all the copyright issues. You have to have a deep understanding of how the music industry works for that, as you may be looking back at contracts from the 1950s.”
The firm's corporate work leans towards being predominantly for media clients, while property is mostly for non-media clients – property investors and some private individuals. “It's a fairly conventional property seat,” we were told. “As a trainee you work on lease reports as part of commercial acquisitions – you deal with a high volume of smaller files and are left to run your own matters and get things done.” Corporate work covers media company share sales, film finance and the acquisition of music labels. For example, lawyers recently advised BMG Rights Management on its acquisition of Katrina and the Waves' back catalogue.
Dark side of the moon
Litigation trainees do both commercial and defamation/reputation management work. “Defamation is very fast-paced and you have to think quickly and act quickly,” noted one interviewee. Clients include businesses like Royal Mail and stars like J.K. Rowling, Naomi Campbell and Cliff Richard – lawyers have recently been advising Sir Cliff on reputation issues after the police raid on his home in 2014 in the light of sexual assault allegations. “When clients first come to us they are in the middle of a crisis,” one source reflected. “You need to understand the sensitivities involved.” Another talked us through the process: “Say a sports person is alleged to have done something they shouldn't and we know a tabloid is going to write a story on it. We get in contact with that newspaper and set out the rights of the client, explain why a story is defamatory or false, and look at whether we might need to get an injunction. If the piece has already been published we'll deal with any dispute over whether the defamation constituted serious harm.” It's a trainee's job to “get on the phone with the client to try to understand the situation in detail, pull together the corroborating evidence to show things from their side, and draft the strongly worded letter to the newsdesk.” While work remains buoyant despite the advent of the 2013 Defamation Act (which is supposed to limit the number of libel actions brought) most of Simkins' defamation work is not court based.
“Defamation work is very fast paced and you have to think quickly and act quickly.”
Trainees can get stuck into court-based work on commercial cases. “The clients are usually from the media sector, but we could be acting for them on anything,” a trainee told us. “I worked on a shareholder dispute in the Court of Appeal. I was involved in pre-trial reviews and case management conferences, and did the admin stuff like bundling and serving documents to the court.” The firm recently represented Pink Floyd in a High Court breach of contract battle with a former promoter over a touring exhibition on the group. And two partners, an NQ and a trainee recently successfully defended copyright collective PRS for Music in a Copyright Tribunal case brought by ITV over how much the channel pays for using PRS's music.
Paint it black
Simkins is a top-heavy firm with the roughly same number of partners and associates (plus four trainees). “I've not felt much of a hierarchy,” a source noted, “and I'm accustomed to working directly with senior partners.” All trainee supervisors are partners and “as Simkins isn't a huge firm it doesn't have systems in place which mean you can't approach senior people.” The environment is “very supportive” and “if you need to ask questions people are always there to explain things.” Sources said “each partner has their own style for training you up” and while there isn't much “standalone classroom teaching,” you do “learn on the job.” That said, there are monthly 9am training sessions which all lawyers can attend covering the latest developments in key sectors – trainees sometimes give a short presentation on a topical issue.
“Try and get some industry experience.”
Trainees gave positive feedback about the overall working culture at Simkins. “There's an aversion to having a corporate culture of aggressively wanting to work all the time.” Regular hours for trainees are 9.30am to around 7pm, though you might occasionally stay till 9 or 10pm when trials loom. There's time for socialising too with monthly firm-wide drinks often with a theme (for example, 'Oktoberfest'), and the firm's younger lawyers like to head down to the nearby Resting Hare for a drink on the odd Friday. Simkins' Bloomsbury office is located on one floor and has a rotating art exhibition; the firm also organises regular cinema screenings.
Based on the backgrounds of our interviewees we'd say some kind of experience in the media sector is common among successful applicants. The firm assures us it does not automatically disregard applications without media work experience on them, but a demonstrable interest in the areas Simkins works in is a must. “At the end of the day it's important to understand how a client's business works,” a source told us, and one good way of doing that is “to try and get some industry experience.”
Simkins' application process involves an application form and interview... and then a full week's work placement with assessments throughout and a final interview. Phew! That's quite a challenging process. Click on the 'Bonus Features' tab above for more details.
How to get a training contract at Simkins
Training contract application deadline (2019): 31 May 2017
To apply you'll first need to email [email protected] for an application form. This covers personal details, academic background and practical experience, as well as why you want to work at Simkins and why you think you'd be a good lawyer. There are some competency questions too. For example, you might be asked about a time when you faced a difficult situation and how you overcame it.
“We give applicants the opportunity to personalise the application form,” says training principal Paddy Gardiner. So you should let your personality shine through but also demonstrate that you have researched the firm, know what work it does and have an interest in being involved in that work. If you want to talk about the areas of law the firm works in you can, but make sure you know what you're on about.
The 200 applications received are whittled down to around 30 who are invited for an interview. The interview is with two partners and HR manager Sally Richardson. “We go through their application,” says Gardiner. “That is the backbone of the interview. We try to have a conversation rather than ask formulaic questions.” The interview lasts 45 to 60 minutes and you can expect to be asked some icebreaker questions about your degree, what stage you are at in your studies, and what other firms you are applying to (Simkins wants people who are aiming for specialist training, rather than those applying to a scattergun range of firms).
Gardiner says that the interview “might get into some legal questions if someone steers the interview in that direction. For example, in recent years we have had discussions with candidates about their dissertations in particular areas of law.” Interviewees are also asked to discuss a topical subject. In 2016 these included the consequences of Brexit and the UK tax regime. “I was asked about controversies at the BBC,” a trainee recalled from their interview, recommending that it's a good idea to have “a general awareness of what's going on in the media sector.”
Work placement week
Six candidates come through the interview process onto a week-long work placement, which in 2017 takes place from 7 to 11 August. You “sit with a partner or an associate and are given various small bits of work to do,” and the week is busy with assessments and social activities.
The assessments you'll face include a presentation, written exercise, oral exercise and panel interview. Candidates are paired up and given their presentation topic on the Monday morning – it's usually on a topical issue with a legal angle relevant to Simkins' areas of work. On one day you can expect to be given a piece of legal analysis to write and hand in by 5pm. On another you'll be asked to orally present your views on a scenario you're presented with. Finally, there's a panel interview with three partners (different to those from the first interview). “This interview is more wide-ranging and may include some discussion of legal topics or some questions on experience and motivation, as well as further exploring an applicant's personality,” says Paddy Gardiner. There's also a big social during the week – for instance, bowling at Bloomsbury Lanes – which the whole firm attends.
It all sounds like a rather intense week to us, but on the plus side even if you don't get offered a training contract you've gained a week's work experience.
We mentioned in the True Picture that media sector work experience is common among those who successfully gain a training contract at Simkins. But it's not ubiquitous. The reason relevant work experience is valuable is that it gives you knowledge and insight into how the media sector and media personalities operate. If you can gain this knowledge and insight without sector experience – for instance through academic research or volunteering – good for you.
One of our interviewees gave some good advice on this: “I spent a lot of time when I was applying keeping on top of the media news – Simkins' website has some really good articles written by their lawyers on topical issues and I used these as a springboard to look into different issues and areas in more detail.” In other words: don't just research the firm when you apply. If you're really interested in the work it does you'll be expanding your knowledge of issues and trends in the media sector all the time.
Gaining legal work experience is important too. “We certainly don't ignore people because they do not have media work experience,” says Paddy Gardiner. “If someone looks like they've had good work experience not in media – for instance experience in a law firm or a mini-pupillage – we will look at them further. We are also very open to recruiting career changers as the previous skills they've gained can be very useful.”
What else? Picking the right modules on the LLB or LPC is important – media law and IP are the key ones. In terms of academic background the four current trainees come from a mix of well-regarded universities: Bristol, KCL, St Andrews and Cambridge – their bios are on the firm's website if you want to find out more.
7-12 Tavistock Square,
- Partners 18
- Assistant solicitors 16
- Total trainees 5
- Contact Sally Richardson, HR manager, [email protected]
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Initial interview with trainee recruitment partners and HR manager, followed by an assessment week covering a range of skills tests and the opportunity to work-shadow lawyers
- Closing date for applications 31 May 2017
- No of training contracts pa 2
- Applications pa c. 200
- % interviewed 18%
- Required degree grade Minimum 2:1
- Training salary
- First year: £32,000
- Second year: £35,000
- Holiday entitlement 22 days pa
- Post-qualification salary not disclosed
- % trainees offered job on qualification 80%
- Overseas/regional offices London only
Main areas of work