Wave the City grind goodbye but not its quality of work: Guildford-based S&B offers a decent compromise.
It's never too late to say Surrey
Stevens & Bolton is a single-site firm in picturesque Guildford, a mere 40 minute train ride from London Waterloo. Despite its scenic Surrey setting, our sources “wouldn’t describe S&B as a regional firm: we get City-level work and we see London firms as our main competition.” With top-notch clients like US restaurant chain T.G.I. Friday's, brewing giant SABMiller (now part of AB InBev), Japanese video game supremos Nintendo and well-known banks like HSBC and Santander, S&B performs well in Chambers UK: it's considered a national leader outside of London for its corporate, IP and litigation expertise, but also bags top-tier rankings in the South for its banking and finance, environment and employment know how.
Our interviewees were keen to add that this calibre of work comes with “an emphasis on living your life rather than being a slave to the City.” It's an emphasis that has not only drawn trainees into its fold, but also established City lawyers looking to leave the hustle and bustle behind: recent laterals have come from magic circle heavyweight Clifford Chance, as well as the likes of Clyde & Co and Charles Russell Speechlys, boosting S&B's real estate, contentious trusts and estates, and insolvency practices.
“We see London firms as our main competition.”
But S&B's steady track-record was another big draw for trainees. In 2015/16 the firm recorded its seventh year of consecutive revenue growth, which nudged it into the UK's top 100 firms by turnover. This trend continued in 2016/17, with S&B posting another 5.8% increase. With the recent appointment of a new managing partner, Richard King, it looks like S&B will be sticking to its tried-and-tested formula of maintaining its independence; keeping everything under one roof; and offering competitive prices to lure clients away from the City's elite firms – a strategy summed up by S&B's current slogan, 'Excellence beyond the City.' Trainees were confident that the future will be rosy, thanks to annual presentation that keeps them in the loop: “We’re always looking to grow, and we are definitely gathering momentum –real estate in particular has been hiring a lot of people. We're also looking into new technologies and more flexible working arrangements for lawyers.”
A side of secrets
The training programme at S&B recently switched from a six to a four-seat structure. Some sources did have a concern that “there will be more competition for certain seats,” but were generally enthusiastic, as the old system meant that “you didn't really get long enough to settle into a department; often you had to move on just as you were hitting your stride.”
Seats are assigned as you go along: “HR asks for your seat preferences before each seat change in case you’ve changed your mind.” For the most part, trainees thought the allocation process was fair, saying: “It’s a pretty good system. The firm allocates seats based on business need at the time, but people generally get the seats they want, and it’s quite flexible.” There are no compulsory seats, but we hear that stints in corporate, real estate and dispute resolution are encouraged. “The smaller teams like commercial, IP and employment are very popular too.”
The real estate department is split into several sub-teams (including litigation, environment and construction) and services a range of developers, investors, lenders and corporate occupiers. Recent work includes advising Henley Developments on the procurement options for an £8 million residential development site in London; advising property insurance company XL Catlin on environmental liability claims; and acting for Papa John's throughout a £300,000 dilapidations claim. Sources described “drafting lots of leases, licenses and deeds of variation; delving into corporate due diligence; and doing some bundling and doc preparation on the contentious side.” On smaller matters like lease renewals “the supervision is much more hands-off. You’re not micro-managed at all and on many matters you’re the first port of call for clients.” Trainees can still have a fulfilling role on larger transactions too: “I worked on a £5 million sale to a development company, where I mostly worked on client correspondence and attended a couple of client meetings.”
“Being a mid-tier law firm we can’t sit back like some larger City firms.”
Both private equity and M&A deals are up for grabs in S&B's corporate department – a third of which incorporate an international or cross-border element. Clients include multinational distributor Bunzl, as well as British brewery Fuller’s and cigarette manufacturer Japan Tobacco International; a cross-border highlight saw the team advise the UK shareholders of US software company CD-adapco as it (and its subsidiary) were sold to Siemens for $970 million.One trainee told us: “I assisted on a £150 million sale of a business solidly for a month. It was just me, an associate and a partner on the case. It involved client meetings, negotiations, document management and keeping track of the timeframes post-completion – the team really went out of their way to make sure I got loads of exposure.”
Over in IP you'll find Brighton & Hove Albion, Cineworld and international food manufacturer Bakkavor Group on the client roster; the team recently defended the latter against a misuse of confidential information claim relating to a 'secret recipe' for infused salad oils. Insiders encountereda mixture of copyright, trade mark and patent matters: “That's a nice mix because sometimes you're working on new ideas, and sometimes you're handling the consequences of someone copying established products.” A trade mark infringement case allowed one source to get stuck into “the summary judgement process and strikeout arrangements, which enabled me to go to court a couple of times.” Non-contentious work involves “a lot of background research, which was actually super interesting. I spent a lot of time on social media researching all sorts of intellectual property.”
The newly-christened FRI (finance, restructuring and insolvency) department services borrowers (like Papa John's), lenders (like HSBC and Lloyds) and the liquidators of companies in financial trouble: of the late the group have been advising Ernst & Young as the provisional liquidators of a US insurer, The Home Insurance Company. “I really enjoyed the technicality of it,” reported one insider. “I got to work on things like corporate insolvency, personal bankruptcy and refinancing transactions.” Fortunately, “there’s a lot of formal training in FRI, as we need the extra guidance: we get six to seven hours of formal training a week.”
In harm-ony's way
As you might expect, our trainee sources continually referred back to S&B's “work/life balance: there's very much an awareness that people have places to go and lives to live.” Most trainees “rarely” stayed beyond 6.30pm, but did highlight that corporate can come with more intense hours: “You never consistently stay late, but I have left at 2am once and done a weekend stint. However, you're never left alone and meals are usually offered.” The hours may be generally reasonable, but the approach to work at S&B is very serious: “Being a mid-tier law firm we can’t sit back like some larger City firms. We are very ambitious and want people who share that ambition.”
“Even the managing partner is part of the choir!”
Everybody is two to an office at S&B, and trainees always sit with their supervisor. “It’s a very integrated atmosphere; the single-site approach fosters a real sense of teamwork and community,” said one source. Others agreed: “While there’s obviously still a structure here, you feel like there’s very little hierarchy and everyone’s door is always open.” A whole host of social activities keep things friendly out of working hours too. We heard of netball matches, pilates sessions, gardening get togethers and sing-a-longs via S&B's choir, which competes against City firms annually. “Even the managing partner is part of the choir! It helps to make everyone feel on the same level.” And the fun doesn’t stop there: trainees reported embarking on “training away days in France,” attending “clayshooting days with clients” and playing “crazy golf in London.”
We weren't surprised to hear trainees tell us that they wanted to stay at S&B. “It's a reasonably informal process,” sources revealed. “They ask us where we'd like to qualify before they offer jobs, but we're also encouraged to take a proactive approach and speak to the heads of departments we're interested in.” In the end all four qualifiers were retained in 2017.
“There are loads of opportunities to get involved and make a difference; we have sector-focused meet-ups, for instance, where we can discuss how to move the business forward.”
How to get a Stevens & Bolton training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2018 (opens 1 December 2017)
Training contract deadline: 1 June 2018(opens 1 December 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 and find out about the firm” 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. 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 in July each year. 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.
Stevens & Bolton LLP
- Partners 42
- Associates 227
- Total trainees 10
- UK offices Guildford
- Graduate recruiter: [email protected], 01483 734225
- Training partner: Gabrielle Holgate
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 5
- Applications pa: 500
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: 340
- Vacation scheme places pa: 10
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 December 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 1 June 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 December 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 January 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £33,000
- Second-year salary: £34,000
- Post-qualification salary: c. £48,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: Yes
Main areas of work
Our trainees have genuine responsibility and experience of dealing with clients – and are made to feel part of the team from day one. Trainee seats will be available in most of the key business areas we specialise in, namely M&A and other corporate work, insolvency and banking/finance, commercial, personal wealth and families, real estate, IP, dispute resolution and employment, pensions and immigration. We do our best to maximise your ability to experience as many of those areas as possible and currently operate a four, six - month seat rotation. There may also be an opportunity for trainees to undertake a client secondment. We are dedicated to encouraging continuous professional development, delivered in a variety of ways to give our trainees the best chance to become rounded, assured and respected professionals. Training in technical and business skills and early exposure to stimulating work with a variety of clients is instrumental in providing a solid foundation. Our unique combination of factors – supervision when you need it, support from colleagues and the opportunity to embrace early responsibility as soon as you are ready – creates a compelling proposition at the outset of your career.
University law careers fairs in 2017