S&B blurs the lines with its City-standard work and cathedral town location.
The reverse commute
Hop on a train at London Waterloo and just 40 minutes later you'll pull into leafy Guildford, home to Stevens & Bolton. It's a journey a fair few ex-City lawyers have made over the years; after seeing the perks this 'regional' gem had to offer, they chose to tear up that return ticket. And the firm's clearly still got it: Clifford Chance's joint head of restructuring and insolvency, David Steinberg, recently woke up and smelt the freshly cut grass of Guildford's manicured lawns. Together, S&B's jolly band of home-grown talent and London émigrés have built up this firm's sterling reputation, which encompasses an impressive roster of City-standard clients, like Santander, Lloyds and BP. And how does S&B view itself? “A lot of us would have the view that we aren't a regional firm,” said one trainee, “but then a lot of us would also have the view that we aren't a City firm.” In the end, we think this trainee hit the nail on the head: “I think we're just a firm that happens to be based in Guildford and works for great clients.”
Offering attractive rates to these clients has paid off for S&B: it's seen seven consecutive years of turnover growth, and for 2015/16 posted a very healthy 4% increase to £23.7 million, nudging S&B into the UK's top 100 firms by turnover. Despite this success, trainees couldn't see the firm compromising its well-known regard for work/life balance. “We're certainly trying to grow, but I don't get the impression our culture will change. The firm always aims to promote a good working environment to attract those lawyers from London. If we changed, those people would no longer come.”
Maintaining a personal life doesn't come at the cost of maintaining top Chambers UK rankings: S&B receives the highest honours in the South for its corporate/M&A, banking, IP, and environment practices. While the majority of work is conducted for commercial clients, S&B also scores a top nod for its regional private client offering. In the very near future, trainees will be completing four seats instead of the previous six – a change our sources were generally on board with: “With the six-seat system you kind of have to dive straight in and figure out what's going on – it might be better to spend longer in each department.” A “dialogue with HR” throughout each seat helps to determine where trainees go next. Generally, “HR likes you to sample some core areas, so seats in corporate and general commercial litigation are likely.” Client secondments “are offered on an ad hoc basis,” but we hear opportunities are becoming more frequent. “They really help you to be more commercial in your outlook – your advice becomes more valuable as a result.”
“You're the one keeping an eye on everything.”
In corporate, trainees sample both M&A and private equity deals, but also get to tap into work being handled by banking and tax sub-teams. Key clients here include multinational distribution company Bunzl, brewer SABMiller and T.G.I. Friday's; lawyers advised the latter as it was acquired by Electra Private Equity, a British-based investment trust, for £225 million. Healthcare, leisure, retail and tech are all big sectors here, and you can expect a few cross-border matters as well: the team recently acted for manufacturer Microlease as it acquired test equipment rental outfit Livingston Group – a deal which involved co-ordination across Europe, India, Singapore and Dubai. As a trainee, “you'll really need to know what's happening. You're the one maintaining document lists and keeping an eye on everything.” But sources had also got stuck into some drafting on supporting docs like board minutes. “With those smaller ancillaries I also got a chance to negotiate their terms!” one raved.
S&B's dispute resolution practice boasts several specialist teams – including insolvency, IP and aviation litigation – and also handles international arbitrations. Trainees can complete a general commercial seat, which exposes them to a mix of trading, fraud, bribery and professional negligence spats among others. Sources here had split their time between larger cases and smaller contract disputes: “On these you draft the initial letters before action right through to issuing claim applications to attending settlement meetings – most claims settle before a trial.” A recent breach of contract case saw the team advise mobile tech firm Monitise Create after Formula E terminated a contract to design and build an app for the launch of its latest motor racing series. Those completing an IP seat got a taste of contentious work too: “There were a lot of copyright and trade mark disputes where we had to do research whether a competitor was using our client's designs. That involved a lot of googling and snooping around!”
"We're just a firm that happens to be based in Guildford and works for great clients.”
Real estate trainees are assigned either to do commercial real estate or property disputes and construction (plus some planning). The department serves a range of corporate occupiers, developers, investors and lenders. Among them are Octopus Healthcare Development, Store Property Investments and airline Emirates, which the firm furnished with a new lease and licence as it refurbished its VIP lounge at Heathrow Airport. Commercial real estate trainees told us that even the larger deals provide variety: “I was responsible for assigning leases for about 60 properties, but I did a bit of everything: managing documents; working in the data room on due diligence; and going to various meetings to discuss warranties.” Meanwhile, on smaller transactions: “I was less micro-managed. I served as the client's point of contact and drafted five leases for them. My supervisor was comfortable with me chatting to the client on my own, and I got to know them really well.”
Surrey not Surrey
Trainees were adamant: “Everyone is just really friendly. The doors are literally always open and it helps to share an office with your supervisor. That ongoing conversation helps you to be more aware of everything.” They did stress, however, that “you need to be hard-working – this is an ambitious firm and you can see that from our consistently rising revenue.” While the hours don't match the intensity of those at many Square Mile firms – most trainees get away by 6.30pm – some had experienced a few exceptional spells. These tended to be clustered in corporate, where one trainee reported “leaving after 11pm for a week-long block.” Thankfully, later exits do come with a firm-provided meal and a cab ride home, plus “you're never here alone – they don't leave you to rot!” On the whole, trainees agreed that “we're looking for people who have a sensible approach to work and want a life outside of it – not a fired-up City slicker who would rather have worked in London.”
They might treasure a life outside of the office, but S&B's lawyers are still willing to share some of it with their colleagues. “Guildford has got probably the highest concentration of country pubs anywhere!” guestimated one trainee, so organising get-togethers usually requires minimal effort. This source gave us a taste of a typical social calendar: “Trainees go for lunch and drinks with associates on a Friday, and then there are drinks on the last Thursday of the month, which really helps all the departments to mix. We also do some more exciting team events, like going to Bounce with the corporate lot.” A fair whack of time is devoted to charity fund-raising events, where partners roll up their sleeves and help to banish any semblance of hierarchy: “We did a 'give and gain' day and built a fence for a retirement home. For Children in Need, the partners put themselves in stocks so we could throw sponges at them!”
In 2016, S&B once again did well on the qualification front and retained four of its five second-years.
How to get a Stevens & Bolton training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
Applications and assessments
S&B receives approximately 150 applications for its vac scheme, plus another 500 direct applications for its five available training contracts. HR sources at the firm tell us that they're seeking applications that show “good grammar and language skills, and the ability to communicate concisely.”
The assessment process for a training contract is “straightforward and designed to give each person an opportunity to be themselves, find out about the firm and meet our existing trainees,” our HR sources explain. Candidates kick-start the process by completing an online application form. Those who impress are invited to attend an interview with S&B's training partner and the head of HR. Ace this, and you'll be asked to complete a Watson Glaser critical reasoning test. From here, candidates are asked to attend a second interview, this time with a selection of partners.
If successful, S&B will sponsor your law school education, and provide you with a maintenance grant of £6,000 per year.
Candidates from both law and non-law backgrounds are encouraged to apply. However, you'll need at least 340 UCAS points (and at least one A at A level), as well as a 2:1 degree or higher – those who are still at university need to be on track to achieve this.
You'll also need to show that you have the right qualities to work at S&B. Recruiters are particularly on the lookout for those who can demonstrate the following: superb communication skills; a team player mentality; adaptability; the ability to manage competing deadlines and projects; drive and ambition; intelligence; attention to detail; business interest; and enthusiasm to be a lawyer and to work for S&B.
S&B offers a total of ten places across its two vacation schemes. One takes place around the Easter break and the other in early summer. Each lasts a week and participants are paid after they have completed the scheme.
Vac schemers spend their visit in a single department, accompanied by a buddy within the team. They also attend presentations on the firm's practice areas over the course of the week. Within their assigned team, attendees tackle work on live matters. “I was right in the thick of things, not tucked away in a corner,” one of the firm's current trainees recalled. This is supplemented with exercises set by the firm's professional support lawyers – for example, drafting a witness statement. Sources also highlighted that there's ample opportunity to meet partners, ask questions and learn more about working at the firm.
A beginner's guide to Guildford
There's more to Guildford than a convenient commute into London. Click here to find out what's on offer.
Interview with managing partner Ken Woffenden
Student Guide: What should readers know about your strategy and what the firm wants to achieve in the future?
KW: At the heart of our strategy is ensuring this is a really great place to work. That's particularly relevant to trainees. We're already one of the top firms in the South East in terms of financial performance and can offer highly competitive pay rates [first-year trainee salary is £32,000, on a par with smaller commercial firms in London], which we need to do to attract and retain top quality people.
We're also investing heavily in learning and development, especially our training programme. We do our best to run a happy ship. We rarely lose people to other law firms, which we think is indicative of how much people enjoy working here.
SG: What can you tell us about the firm's client base?
KW: Although many of our clients are based in Guildford and Surrey, we also act for a large number based in London and right across the South East and elsewhere in the UK, as well as overseas. Even though we don't have foreign offices, we have a large number of foreign corporate clients referred by friendly independent law firms based elsewhere in Europe, the US and Asia.
SG: What sort of secondment opportunities does the firm offer trainees?
KW: We're conducting an increasing number of secondments for junior associates and those on a training contract, as they're a great experience for young lawyers. The firm doesn't have the capacity for our lawyers to undertake a large number of secondments at any one time, but we are planning to increase the opportunity to do so, as and when business needs permit.
SG: How do you view your competitors, and what makes you different from them?
KW: Many of our competitors in the South East operate from several sites. We deliberately have not gone down that route. We operate under one roof, which is great for team spirit: everyone knows each other, and we have cohesion and a common purpose. Moreover, because we don't have overheads for several offices, we're able to save money and invest more into the firm and its people.
SG: How would you describe the working environment at Stevens & Bolton?
KW: Everyone at Stevens & Bolton works hard, but this is a collaborative, friendly, open and supportive place. We want to attract top-quality people who may otherwise choose to work at big City firms, and we know we can only do that by offering not just a competitive salary but a really great working environment where people are properly looked after. Retaining top-quality trainees and talent is just as important as attracting them in the first place.
SG: What kind of applicants are you hoping to attract?
KW: I would encourage applicants who are not solely motivated by money and want a happy and high-quality training experience to consider us. If you want to enjoy going to work and not having to work relentlessly long hours or to be a small cog in a massive wheel, then consider us. We offer a good work/life balance and high-quality work for many household-name clients. We're a firm that will really look after you. If you don't want to work in a big City firm environment but do want a high-quality training experience, then we are an excellent alternative firm to consider.
We are very heavily subscribed for in terms of applications from bright students at good universities who are predicted to get good results. We're always pleased at the number of high-quality applicants. Stevens & Bolton is a popular choice. I think sometimes we hide our light under a bushel, and when people discover us they're pleasantly surprised. I'd encourage students thinking of a training contract not to assume any stereotype or make a hasty decision. Scratch below the surface of the firm to look at the clients, financial performance, and the quality of the people and working environment. We're an interesting alternative, and we’re confident applicants will be pleased with what they find here.
Stevens & Bolton LLP
- Partners 40
- Total staff 207
- Total trainees 10
- Contact [email protected], 01483 302264
- Method of application Online www.stevens-bolton.com
- Selection procedure Two interviews and cognitive reasoning test
- Training contracts pa 5
- Applications pa 500
- % interviewed 10%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Applications welcome 1 December 2016 to 31 July 2017
- Training salary £32,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- Overseas/regional offices Guildford only
Sponsorship and awards