"We're a bit like one big family," declared trainees at this South West firm, which mixes commercial with private client, and gives everyone a stake in the business.
“Work for the UK's number one law firm,” Stephens Scown's website says. A bold claim. Yet, as we write this after a sweaty commute on the Piccadilly Line, and we drool over the scrolling images on the firm's website of Cornish beaches, rugged cliffs and camper vans, we're already wondering where to apply (the website, obvs). But this claim deserves some scrutiny before you sign up: what does number one mean? A glance at the Chambers UK rankings shows a sturdy and growing force in the South West, picking up top marks in the small and medium enterprise category and family law, and generally showing a good spread of ability across commercial and private client law. But there are firms in Chambers UK with many more rankings, so let's move on to the money: an 8% revenue rise to £19.35 million in 2016 saw the firm almost reach its £20 million target four years earlier than planned. Still, this isn't the highest grossing firm in the UK, so what next?
Let's remember that the legal profession is a little obsessed by big numbers, but it's not all about size, as we hope you've gathered from reading this guide. Law firm culture and lawyer contentment is everything, and if we take trainee satisfaction as your metric, Stephens Scown has is by the bucket load. Our sources went to some trouble to let us know how "happy" they are, how "the partners are so approachable," and that "they pick genuinely nice people." But take note: this is not a lifestyle firm. Hard work and thirst for early responsibility are basic requirements.
We generally find that firms with niche practice focuses and less mainstream sectors tend to produce happier lawyers. Stephen Scown's focus on key sectors – charities, marine, creatives, food and drink, leisure, mining, energy, for example – could explain why trainees were so engaged. Then there's the novel, John Lewis-style business structure where everyone owns a bit of the firm, which does a fair bit for morale. This was, in fact, one reason why Legal Week gave the number one UK firm spot to Stephens Scown – that and its investment in the local community. With offices in Truro, St Austell and Exeter, the firm's regional identity is its most obvious character trait, and applicants should be serious about a career in the West Country.
“I arrived and was given ten files to work on.”
Unusually, Stephens Scown's training contract is split into three eight-month seats. Trainees are assigned their first seat, but do have the opportunity to state preferences before they join. Most of our interviewees found that they had more choice over their second and third seats. The system seems quite informal: "I just had a chat with the partner in the department I wanted to go into,” reported one. Especially for a firm the size of Stephens Scown, there are some excellent seat opportunities, like renewable energy – normally the preserve of City firms – and private client, which in London is viewed as quite an exclusive gig.
"I love it," reported a trainee in the family seat. "But," countered another, “it's the most difficult and demanding seat – I arrived and was given ten files to work on.” The family department deals with divorces, disputes over finances, assets and domestic abuse. This kind of work can be a test of your personality, but thankfully “you are in constant dialogue with your supervisor as everything goes through them." Face-to-face client meetings occurred as regularly as once a week and trainees were often “the first point of contact with clients over the phone; we were speaking to them several times a day.” As the seat is primarily litigious there were lots of opportunities to go to court, initially just to observe but “at the end of my seat I was meeting clients on my own with counsel. I knew the matter inside out and the barrister would have to rely on me to feed them the relevant information.”
Real estate sees lawyers working with brewers, property developers, the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and even the French international mining company IMERYS. There is frequent cross-over with planning and environmental work, such as the firm's advice to Wolf Minerals on a host of environmental concerns including the successful countering of protected species prosecution from the EA. A lot of trainee time is broken down by discrete tasks on larger projects, like looking into “tax issues or researching new legislation – there’s a lot of drafting of reports.” But there's still decent variety; we heard of a trainee looking at charities constitutions and another advising on disputes in "upmarket caravan parks." By comparison to family, “face-to-face client contact was less frequent; I probably saw clients three or four times throughout the seat,” but emails with clients were daily. Our sources liked being “given some responsibility" in this seat: "we're given freer rein over things” like sales and purchases of small pieces of land.
“This is a remarkably friendly place with egalitarian feel."
“The corporate/commercial seat through the Brexit process has been very interesting, listening to the challenges clients are facing,” reflected one trainee. “We have our big transactional clients but the main volume of work is on a smaller scale.” The department typically advises a mix of SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) in the locality, such as Social and Sustainable Capital, an investment fund for social enterprises and charities, and M&D Developments, which the firm helped to purchase a hotel and golf course in Suffolk. Trainee tasks here read from the standard corporate menu: “asset sale and purchases, shareholder agreements, shareholder disputes, board minutes for simple transactions, management buy-outs – all of which involved a lot of drafting.” As a trainee, your client contact is on a par with real estate: “You are not sheltered away from the clients. I've been able to take a prominent role in client meetings and calls, partly because my confidence grew, but also because I know the files inside-out."
Trainees in commercial disputes had “dealt with aggrieved beneficiaries, and landlords, tenants and businesses with property disputes,” although this range isn't exhaustive. Clients range from Plymouth-based Underhill Engineering, Devon-based Radio Exe and St Austell Brewery, to Cool Earth Action, an international NGO working to prevent deforestation. Our sources in this seat had done a lot of hands-on tasks: “legal research, answering client questions and drafting court proceedings.” Some of our sources had got involved in “things like mortgage repossessions on behalf of landlords.” This sounds like it could get confrontational, but trainees happily reported that the debtors they were approaching “tended to be farmers so they were quite polite.”
"Our managing partner bought us ice cream this morning," – a minor gesture in itself, but when was the last time a City MP dished out the Fab lollies? (We hope to be corrected). “This is a remarkably friendly place with egalitarian feel; its quite family-like,” we were not shocked to hear. The open plan offices in Exeter and Truro, and the “sort of open plan” style in St Austell contribute to this. And while some firms might make claims at being "egalitarian," their partners always own the business and the profits; by contrast, Stephen Scown's shared-ownership scheme is quite rare, and we suspect has a dramatic and positive effect on firm culture. Hierarchy and the natural order does exist, of course: “the head of family is still the head of family but she is incredibly approachable.”
Our interviewees reported arriving between 8.30 and 9am and left before 6pm, while 8pm was considered a late one. For staff this leaves plenty of time for roaming the coast in a camper van and doing cider tastings. Formally, the firm puts on a good round of networking events along with Friday drinks trolleys, various sports events and a summer and Christmas party. Informally, " you'll find people in the pub every Friday.”
“Because the firm is in a debt-free position you do feel there is a robustness here,” reflected one of the trainees, who all generally felt confident about their long-term prospects, and overwhelmingly wanted to stay at the firm. That said, “the NQ process has not been 100% clear,” people felt. “They have spoken about it and they want to offer trainees a seat on qualification but what you need to do and where it will be is less clear.” There was a sense that your chances improve if you arrange “meetings with the partners to discuss whether there is any vacancy for you.” In 2017, two out of three qualifiers stayed on, but all were offered a position.
The current gang of trainees have entered a band into the Law Rocks competition.
How to get a Stephens Scown training contract
Training contract deadline: applications are considered on a rolling basis
Applications for training contracts and vacation schemes start in the same way, with an online application and interview. That's because candidates need to apply for a training contract to land a vac scheme. Stephens Scown typically receives around 300 applications each year – roughly 10% of candidates opt to apply for a vac scheme too.
The online application is “quite in-depth,” according to partner Hilary Pitts: “It covers the basics like academic results and work experience, but also poses some essay-style questions like 'Why do you want to work for Stephens Scown?', 'What are your strengths and weaknesses?' and 'Why do you want a career in the South West?'” There is a word limit, so Pitts advises applicants “not to go overboard. It's important to put your personality across, but that doesn't mean putting too much in.” Spelling and grammatical errors are also a no-no: “At the end of the day, we're selling a service to clients with exacting standards, so if there are mistakes in your application, it won't go down well.”
Work experience is “really key,” but the firm seeks a certain type of experience. Pitts clarifies: “We see many applicants who've shadowed a barrister or conducted legal aid work in a high-street firm, but what we're really looking for is experience in firms like ours, in terms of service offering and market positioning.” When it comes to non-legal work experience, “it's good to put it down, but only if you've learnt something relevant from it. Some people put down their bar work over the summer holidays, and that's not really going to impress. Instead, we're keen to hear about organisational and management positions. Work experience with law firms shows us the applicant is interested in a legal career”
A minimum 2:1 degree in any subject is required, though “there isn't a rigid policy” when it comes to university background. “We're looking for people with a bit of personality and spark,” says Hilary. “We need people who aren't just going to sit at their desk and keep their head down; we're looking for the next generation of the firm's partners.”
Despite the firm's grounding in the South West, “you don't need regional links to apply,” according to Hilary. “Inevitably, a lot of the applications we receive are from people local to the area or who have attended local universities, but we have hired people who have no regional ties at all. Of course, it's good to show a desire to live and work here, though.”
Interview and vac scheme
Between 20 and 30% of vac scheme applicants then go through to the interview, which typically lasts for around 60 minutes. “The interview is with me, a partner from Exeter and a partner from a Cornish office,” Hilary Pitts explains. “We interview for all vacancies across all offices – it's centralised.” This panel is likely to use a candidate's application form as a springboard for discussion, but will also assess overall commercial awareness plus contemporary knowledge of both the legal profession and the South West marketplace. “We're always looking for that awareness – we aren't just looking for people who went to uni and got their law degree.”
Does Pitts have any other tips? “Quite often you read an application and think 'wow, they sound so exciting', but when they come in they don't come across as well as expected. We allow for nerves because it's an anxious time, but it's definitely okay to crack a joke and smile if it's appropriate. We're a serious business but a friendly firm.” Be sure to research Stephens Scown thoroughly, as “we do test candidates on what they know about the firm. We want to feel like they're interested in coming to us specifically.”
Candidates who ace the interview and wish to participate in the vac scheme will be offered a place. The vac scheme usually lasts for a week. “It all depends on what candidates are looking for,” Pitts tells us. Vac schemers spend time in at least two teams, and complete “real tasks, so they have a chance to learn something – they don't just get stuck with the photocopying.” The scheme also includes an assessment day (as described below). The vast majority of candidates seek a training contract via the direct route instead of coming through the vac scheme.
After the online application and interview, successful direct applicants are invited to an assessment day. “We set them two tasks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon,” Hilary Pitts reveals. These are tied to the family, commercial, real estate and dispute resolution teams. “In the family team, candidates have a financial task, so it involves figures and tests their attention to detail. In dispute resolution, it's research-based and they prepare a letter of advice for a client.” Candidates aren't given advance notice of the tasks, but Pitts assures us that they are allocated “a good chunk” of time to complete them. “My advice? Don't rush them. Some candidates complete a task in half the time because they think they need to do it quickly, but sometimes they don't do it justice.”
On average, seven training contracts are offered each year. “But we don't have set intake dates because we recruit on a rolling basis,” says Pitts.
Doing business in the South West
Stephens Scown LLP
- Partners 55+
- Associates 25+
- Total trainees 23
- UK offices Exeter, Truro, St Austell
- Graduate recruiter: Emma King. [email protected]
- Training partner: Liz Allen, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 11
- Applications pa: 350
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: 320
- Vacation scheme places pa: Variable
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: Rolling recruitment
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: Rolling recruitment
- Vacation scheme applications open: January 2018
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: March 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: Regionally competitive
- Second-year salary: Regionally competitive
- Post-qualification salary: Regionally competitive
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
We’re a law firm with a regional focus, but all the benefits of a big city rival. Passionate about the South West, we specialise in industries common throughout the region – green energy, food and drink, tourism, mining and more. But we also help businesses with a whole range of corporate and commercial affairs, as well as having a major private client and family law practice. We have band 1 Chambers rankings across four practice areas. We take great pride in our corporate responsibility and our commitment to the local communities in which we work guides our approach to business.
Main areas of work
• Truro: corporate, dispute resolution, family, real estate, planning.
• St Austell: private client, real estate, family, dispute resolution.
Visit our website and have a look at some of our current trainees which will give you a great insight into what is on offer and check out our monthly blog for hints and tips as well as details of what our current and new trainees have been up to!
University law careers fairs 2017