South Western to the core, Stephens Scown is proud to stick to its regional roots.
What's the fastest cake?
First rule of training contract interviews: have a handle on the firm's name. Nothing will lead-balloon faster than saying “I really admire Stephens Scown's regional prowess” if you're pronouncing Scown like 'gown': it rhymes with 'cone'. Perhaps the West country's very own 'scone/scon' feud would have been a better phonic guide... no, wait, that will cause more confusion, especially since this debate probably rages between the firm's Devon and Cornwall offices. The firm has bases in Exeter, Truro and St Austell, and while it clearly has a solid grounding in the South West, sources made it clear the firm does not have an expansionist eye: “Other firms have plans to open in London and launch offices abroad. That's great for them, but our focus is firmly on the South West.”
Remaining loyal to its regional roots has proved to be a lucrative strategy for Stephens Scown. Managing partner Robert Camp recently revealed that in 2015/16 the firm's revenue grew by a very healthy 18% to £17.8 million. With such an impressive haul, bonuses doubled to £3,000. But what's interesting is that this bonus isn't just for lawyers, it's for everyone, from the secretarial and admin staff to the partners. This egalitarian reward system stems from Stephens Scown's shift to a shared ownership model; it gives everyone the opportunity to own a bit of the firm and receive an equal share of the bonus. The move, which was announced in February 2016, saw Stephens Scown follow the likes of John Lewis and become the first top 200 UK law firm to make the switch.
“Candidates have to show they want to stay in the area.”
While the firm has rewarded its employees for their hard work, our sister publication Chambers UK has rewarded Stephens Scown with top regional marks in corporate/M&A, rural affairs, private client and family, as well as a high national nod for its mining know-how. These accolades gesture towards Stephens Scown's key sector specialisms: on top of mining and rural services, the firm's also a dab hand at renewables and food and drink mandates. Trainees can sample a mix of them via three eight-month seats, although sources told us the firm takes a flexible approach: “If you're working on something and you want to see it through, you can stay longer. There's no fixed departure date.” First seats are normally assigned to trainees (though their preferences are enquired after when the training contract offer is made), and subsequent destinations are discussed during mid-seat reviews.
At the time of our calls there were five trainees in Exeter, three in Truro and one in St Austell. While it's true that most new lawyers have a local connection, trainees told us that “people are considered even if they're not from here, but they will have to show that they want to stay in the area.” Like many firms, Stephens Scown's looking for those who will be in it for the long haul, as borne out by the firm's historically good retention rates. 2016 saw this trend sustained, as two out of three qualifiers joined the firm's NQ ranks.
West is best
Stephens Scown's family department covers everything from divorces to domestic abuse incidents to adoptions to international abduction matters. Trainees “generally start on divorces to get a taste of the financial side of things and then work up to the childcare cases.” We can't tell you much about the clients due to confidentiality, but we can say that you'll be sure to meet them in person. “You go to lots of face-to-face meetings with clients; there are usually several every week.” Contentious work in particular comes with a pleasing wad of responsibility: “I was in court by myself all day dealing with a consent order. The counsel was there doing all the negotiations, but I compiled the briefs and bundles and made sure all the documents were available, from costings forms to offer letters.”
On the renewables side, Stephens Scown holds a spot on NatWest's renewable energy panel and recently acted for Bath and West – a community energy group – as it developed three solar farm sites worth over £12 million. Trainees who'd sat with the firm's renewables group told us it's “a fast-moving area, so we had lots of training from experts and engineers who came in and told us what to look out for.” Work-wise, sources kept busy by “putting easements into place and dealing with the Land Registry,” but also got to draft “new precedents on energy storage matters, which are very niche.”
The commercial property team represents a lot of housing developers, including Strategic Land Partnerships and Venture Property. It also works on matters related to the leisure industry, agriculture, rural housing, mining and renewable energy. Trainees had run their own smaller property files, dealing with the renewal of leases, deeds of purchase and option agreements. There's also social housing work on offer, and one source told us about their experience working on a site acquisition: “It was quite complicated. The social housing provider we were representing could get the land for free if they met certain provisions when structuring the deal, so I helped negotiate it with the other side.” The firm acts for Hastoe, one of the largest housing associations in the UK; it's brought a number of transactional and contentious matters to Stephens Scown over the last year, worth around £40 million in total.
Under the core corporate/commercial umbrella, you'll find sub-teams specialising in IP/IT, employment and insolvency. While trainees mostly work for the core team, they're also free to pick up bits and bobs from the specialist groups. Clients range from family businesses and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) to national clients like St Austell Brewery and even the odd international name like Aussie exploration company Wolf Minerals; the team's been assisting the latter with the development of a $130 million tungsten mine on Dartmoor. Most other matters fall somewhere in the £1 to 15 million range. A stint in the core team involves “attending client meetings and drafting substantial documents like franchise agreements and agile development frameworks – that was so complicated I thought my brain was going to melt!” Those who'd dabbled in IP found themselves “giving local businesses advice on how to protect their brands,” while insolvency newcomers ran “smaller bankruptcy matters, right from taking instructions from clients to presenting the relevant documents in court.”
Why Stephens Scown? “Everyone is really relaxed, fun and friendly,” insiders answered. “We are different to other firms; people are keen to let you know you've done something well.” Yes, yes, but we hear that from trainees all the time, so what's different? Well, put simply: postcards. The offices are stocked with them, they radiate messages like 'you've been a star,' and they're regularly sent to show appreciation for hard work. “They also come with a tear-off reply section, so you can send one back!” Trainees also found there was plenty of time to be social: most clock off around 5.30pm, leaving time to enjoy “mid-week pilates, art classes, the knitting club, and choir practice in both the Exeter and Truro offices.” There are also end of the month cross-departmental drinks, which often take on a seasonal theme: for instance, Pimm's and strawberries and cream for Wimbledon.
Via its 'Love Where You Live' campaign, Stephens Scown is making it clear there's no place it'd rather be. “The office is full of people that could work in London firms if they wanted, but they decided they wanted to be here, and we're celebrating the reasons for that.” Hence why the firm's lawyers have listed some of their favourite South Western haunts on their website profiles. A quirkier aspect of this marketing strategy involves a “1972 bright orange Type 2 VW campervan,” which is emblazoned with the campaign slogan. Clients, lawyers and staff all get the chance to win a road trip in it to sample the regional delights on offer. “A lot of firms would opt for a Mercedes to publicise themselves,” one trainee suggested, “but not us. We're more accessible and it's a good way to show who we are to the community. Also I can pretty confidently say that we're the only law firm with a campervan, which is mega lolz!”
All new starters have to spend their first three to six months at the firm as a paralegal, usually in the department they'll spend their first seat in. “It gives you a running start at the trainee role, otherwise you'd be dropped from a great height!”
How to get a Stephens Scown training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 30 April 2017
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 Catherine Mathews: “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 Mathews 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. Mathews 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.”
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 Mathews. “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 Mathews. “Inevitably, a lot of the applications we receive are from people local to the area, 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 & 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,” Mathews 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 Mathews have any 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,” Mathews 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,” Mathews reveals. These are tied to the family 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 Mathews 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 Mathews.
Doing business in the South West
Interview with training partner Liz Allen
Student Guide: Are there any highlights from 2015/16 that our readers should be aware of?
Liz Allen: There have been a couple of significant things actually. The firm has had its best ever financial year.
We've also now adopted a John Lewis type shared ownership model. We've always taken the view that we want to make people as involved as possible in the firm, giving them the opportunity to have a share in the firm. And if it's the people who have helped us to get to this point, then everyone deserves to get a slice of the action. The bonus for our 2015/2016 financial year was £3,000 (pro rata for staff working reduced hours) for everyone from support staff to partners who had completed a successful probationary period and were employed from 1 November 2015.
Even though we are a full-service firm, we have a strong presence in certain specialisms such a food and drink, renewables, mining and rural work. In the last month or so, we've launched a new marine sector specialism. We're surrounded by the sea so the practice is doing very well. It's run out of the Cornwall office but we refer all clients there. We're not pretending to be international shipping lawyers, but we deal with all businesses that are connected to the sea, from yacht brokers to builders to marine operators.
On a lighter note, the past 12 months have seen our office choirs do particularly well. We have a Cornish choir and a Devon choir. They're called the Rolling Scowns and the Scown Roses. They're both really well attended. No one has to audition –anyone can join and sing. It's a good way to get to know people and to integrate our work teams as well. A lot more people know one another now thanks to their involvement in the choir. We also supported The Wurzels at the Devon County Show, which was great fun.
SG: Can you talk us through the firm's business strategy?
LA: Our history started in Cornwall. We don't want to play up the South West element of our work too much though, because people should be aware that we get lots of national work as well. For example, one of our key clients is Woolf Minerals and they're Australian. But having said that, we come from the South West and we love being here. It's an extremely attractive area of the country; the Met Office recently relocated to Exeter, for example. There is industry here.
We have a national presence already, specifically in mining and minerals. Our mining expertise on both a domestic and international level dates back to the 1920s. Now new niches have sprouted, like renewables.
SG: How can a candidate really impress at interview and do they have to have a specific local connection?
LA: We get applications from candidates from all over the country. Many do have a local connection which is understandable, but we consider applications regardless of location as long as they demonstrate a compatibility with our values. We're looking for really enthusiastic individuals with an interest in business development and marketing. They have to be commercially aware. So to demonstrate this we look for a certain amount of work experience to show commitment to the practice of law. It's rare for us to take someone on who doesn't have any experience at all. But that's not to say you need to know absolutely everything there is to know about the law, because we provide training. However, it would be foolish not to do any research into who we are and what our practice is.
Also we want people who will fit in with our culture. It's quite unusual. For example, we have the 'Love Where You Live' campaign as well as our 'Positive Postcards', which stem from the fact that we are all supportive of each other. It's because of this that we feel our growth has been substantial over the past few years.
SG: What advice would you give to people who are considering entering the legal profession?
LA: Try to get as varied an experience as you can. Don't have preconceived thoughts on the area of law you want to do. Be a human sponge during your training contract and absorb as much as you can as you don't get that same opportunity again later in your career. We are not centred on high volume/high turnover work. We are more bespoke, so we feel that you can get the best quality exposure here.
Stephens Scown LLP
- Partners 50+
- Fee earners (incl partners) 168+
- Trainees 20+
- Contact Emma King, graduate recruitment officer, [email protected]
- Method of application Online application
- Selection procedure Panel interview and assessment day
- Closing date See website for details
- Training contracts pa 11
- Applications pa 350
- % interviewed 20%
- Required degree grade 2:1 or equivalent
- Training salary Regionally competitive
- Holiday entitlement 25 days, plus bank and public holidays
- Post-qualification salary Regionally competitive
- % trainees offered job on qualification 100% in past year
- Offices Exeter, St Austell, Truro
We take great pride in our corporate responsibility and our commitment to the local communities in which we work guides our approach to business. Our people worked with around 60 different fantastic local charities and causes last year.
Interesting fact – We have our very own campervan which is never far away reminding people 'Love Where You Live'!