This firm combines towering expertise in public sector and real estate law with an extensive Middle East presence.
A Qatari businessman, the head of a London Borough Council and the chief executive of a housing association walk into a law firm. This is not the set-up for some terrible lawyer joke. We're talking about Trowers & Hamlins, which mixes UK-based property, social housing and public sector work with a Middle Eastern commercial prowess. The client roster has wealthy foreigners and overseas banks cheek by jowl with local authorities and UK non-profits. It's an odd mix of specialisms, senior partner Jennie Gubbins admits, but in this hyper-competitive age, law firms need to find something they're good at and stick to it. “For many years, we've taken the view that you have to be very good at working in key areas, and these are the areas where we are very strong,” she explains, “and besides, there's a lot more overlap than you might think.” For example, work on housing projects for state-owned companies in the Middle East.
“We have trainees of different ages and ethnicities."
Trowers' range of practices isn't the only thing about the firm that's diverse. In 2015 the Black Solicitors Network named Trowers & Hamlins as the most diverse top-50 law firm in Britain. “We have trainees of different ages and ethnicities, a good male to female ratio and everyone studied at different places,” one trainee told us. No doubt the firm's mix of international and public sector-y work is a big draw to those with an international background and individuals from different socio-economics milieus. Jennie Gubbins is a strong advocate of “setting the tone at the top,” citing the fact that nearly 47% of Trowers' partnership is female “while some firms are struggling to hit 20%!” One interviewee told us the firm is “working to improve diversity,” noting Trowers' involvement with the Aspiring Solicitors programme as just one example of its efforts to reach out to underrepresented groups.
The firm has four UK offices: London, Exeter, Birmingham and Manchester. Across these offices the focus is on housing and regeneration, the public sector, commercial, property and projects/construction work. Taken together, the firm's real estate strands generate almost half its overall revenue. The majority of trainees are based in London (28 out of 44 at the time of our calls) with a further seven in Exeter, five in Manchester and four in Birmingham (which only began taking trainees in 2014). In summer 2016, Trowers signed a deal with the University of Law to start sending future trainees there for an enhanced LPC that includes a Master's-level business qualification. We should also mention the four Middle East offices – Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai and Oman – plus the firm's newest office in Kuala Lumpur, where Trowers became the first overseas firm to set up shop in 2015. “It's not an immediately obvious location,” admits Jennie Gubbins (most international firms have their South East Asia office in Singapore), “but that's what attracted us – there's no point in opening up somewhere that already has 40 or 50 international firms.”
London Borough of Trowers Hamlets
Incoming trainees are assigned their first seat, and in the London and Manchester offices have a meeting with HR midway through each seat to pick the following one. “You rate your preferred seats from one to three,” a trainee explained. This doesn't always lead to trainees getting what they want. “I didn't get any of my preferences when it came to my second seat,” an insider admitted, “and since I had no input in my first seat, I effectively did two seats in departments I wasn't interested in during my first year.” To address these grumbles, the firm recently introduced 'super-seats'. These are “your dream seats, the ones you absolutely want to do.” While they aren't guaranteed, our sources tell us that HR do their utmost to place you in your super-seat.
Trowers’ housing and regeneration department, which Chambers UK deems one of the best in the country, deals with all things social housing, from negotiating funding to drafting the contractual arrangements and lease agreements. It acts for housing associations like the Peabody Trust, the Guinness Partnership and Sentinel Housing plus local authorities like the London Boroughs of Enfield, Sutton and Hammersmith & Fulham. The department's split roughly into three specialisations: one which acts for registered housing providers, another which represents those lending to registered providers and a third which focuses on the governance side of social housing. Depending on where they end up trainees could find themselves “drafting reports on title and sales contracts,” helping clients “identify planning and environmental risks” or “helping councils set up arm's-length management organisations to run their housing services more efficiently.” The group recently helped three local authorities set up a tri-borough housing company, advised Merthyr Valleys Homes on the establishment of a tenant and staff-owned housing co-operative and counselled the Greater London Authority on its pan-London housing zone initiative.
“A lot of Middle Eastern investment is in property, because it's Shari'a-compliant.”
At first glance the name of Trowers' 'public sector commercial' department sounds like an oxymoron. It turns out that it's not, as local authorities have plenty of commercial operations; for instance, "setting up companies or alternative delivery models.” A trainee told us the department “acts for a range of public bodies, including local authorities and NHS trusts,” and trainees also get to grapple with the weird and wonderful world of public procurement law. “I was very busy,” an interviewee recollected. “There was a steep learning curve.” A seat here is likely to involve “a lot of research, a few completions and a lot of document control.” Among the department's more interesting recent instructions was a matter which saw it advise the London Borough of Newham on the establishment of an ethical payday lender.
At Trowers “litigation is fun,” at least according to one trainee. The department is split into three subgroups, focusing on property, construction and general commercial disputes. We spoke both to trainees who had spend their entire seat in one of these specialities as well as individuals who'd done a general litigation seat. Work can sometimes be quite high-profile. For instance, at the time of our research Trowers was acting for a group of 12 criminal law firms challenging the Legal Aid Agency's procurement decision on duty solicitors' contracts. The firm also represented the London Borough of Bromley in a spat with Tower Hamlets Council over the ownership of a Henry Moore sculpture nicknamed 'Old Flo', and is defending BT in a dilapidation claim.
"Bahrain offers an international real estate seat.”
A seat in the private wealth department sees trainees get involved in tax planning for high net worth individuals with assets across multiple jurisdictions (typically the Middle East, Canada and the US). “I prepared quite a few wills,” reported one trainee, with other common tasks including “preparing accounts to send to HMRC, collecting a deceased's assets and paying off debtors.” It's one of the firm's smaller groups, but expanded recently when the Exeter office merged with local firm Stones, beefing up Trowers' private wealth offering in the region.
The chance to spend six months in one of Trowers' Gulf offices is one of the training contract's biggest selling points, sources told us. Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Oman and Dubai are all possible destinations, with the latter the most sought after. The trainee experience differs slightly from office to office –“trainees in Dubai usually do a construction or corporate seat,” one source explained, “while Bahrain offers an international real estate seat.” All offer hefty helpings of responsibility. This is not only because the offices are smaller, but also because some of the resources that lawyers in London use are absent. “In Bahrain they publish the latest legislation in a printed monthly gazette rather than online,” one source told us by way of example, “so your research has to be much more thorough.”
“No one asks anything unreasonable of you.”
One thing we noticed is that the Trowers trainee group has quite a few early risers: trainees told us they usually get to work at 8.30am or 8.45am (possibly tempted in by the free breakfast). If you're not a morning person, don't worry: while “strolling in whenever you want” is disapproved of, “it's certainly not frowned upon to start work at 9.30am." Trainees tend to leave between 7pm and 8pm while “anything after 9.30pm is considered a late night.” One source revealed: “I did once stay until 2am...” before quickly adding such late nights are “exceptional.” Generally sources agreed: “No one asks anything unreasonable of you.”
Trainees described their intake as “an eclectic group,” but also one where “everyone is really kind and open.” Sources said the firm has “a community feel” where “people are really appreciated as... well... people.” There's apparently very little sense of hierarchy; instead of “looking at partners and thinking 'Oh, God, that's a bloody partner',” trainees reported counting partners and senior associates among their friends at the firm. There's plenty going on socially in the individual branches. London's home to several sports teams and an office choir "which covers a real range, from swing to chorales.” It even attracts heads of departments, so it’s a good way to get in with the top dogs. In Exeter there's a lot of interaction with the Devon & Somerset Law Society, which sponsors events like football tournaments.
“You get to say what you'd change about the seat if you could."
New trainees congregate in London for a firm-wide orientation. Following this, and “a good two to three weeks where you're doing a lot of training,” newbies “hit the ground running in their new departments.” It's not sink-or-swim though, with mid- and end of seat appraisals. “I think they're great,” a trainee told us. “You get to say what you'd change about the seat if you could and what kind of work you'd like to do more of.” In particular, this is the trainee's time to mention if they have an interest in a stint abroad.
The qualification process begins with a chat with HR honcho Anup Vithlani, and is refreshingly straightforward. Two weeks on from the initial chinwag, the firm releases a jobs list, and soon-to-be solicitors submit a CV and cover letter. In 2016 17of 20 qualifiers were retained.
As exciting as six months in Oman or Abu Dhabi is, be prepared to work hard. Trainees in the Middle East reported “a noted increase in responsibility.”
How to get a Trowers & Hamlins training contract
Vac scheme deadline: 1 March 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
Trowers & Hamlins receives around 1,600 applications for its 23 training contracts on offer each year – this figure includes both vacation scheme and training contract applications. Training contracts are split evenly between September and March intakes, and most positions are in London, with a smaller number available in Manchester, Exeter and Birmingham.
Both training contract and vac scheme applications begin with an online form that features a number of competency-based questions alongside the usual qualification and work experience sections. These questions change every year, but recent ones include describing yourself in three words and deciding upon which key characteristics a commercial lawyer needs. Head of graduate recruitment and development Anup Vithlani advises candidates to spend several hours getting their form just right. "Research it, proofread it, enhance it, and create a second draft. I don't want to see answers that are rushed or not making use of the word limits."
The firm asks for a minimum ABB at A level (or 320 UCAS points) and a consistently strong 2:1 at degree level. It pays close attention to individual exam results, though Vithlani was keen to stress that it does take into account serious mitigating circumstances.
For successful candidates, the next stage is an assessment centre. Around 20 make it to this point. Vithlani tells us this usually lasts for five hours, and the activities involved change every year. “No one can prepare for it – we want everyone to be on a level playing field where the adrenaline’s buzzing. We put individuals in various scenarios and see how they react to what's put in front of them..”
Current trainees informed us that “instead of the usual psychometric tests, there are a mix of mathematical and vocabulary tests, and then an assessment where you have to show your persuasion and presentation skills – almost like Dragons' Den!” They recalled the process as having “an atmosphere of friendliness.”
Candidates who impress are called back for an interview with two partners, or with a partner and Anup Vithlani. He tells us: “We try to turn things around really quickly – if we really like a candidate, we'll make an offer on the spot if we can in accordance with the SRA's guidelines.”
The London scheme takes on 20 candidates, while Birmingham, Manchester and Exeter each take on four. Each placement lasts for two weeks, during which time the attendees sit in two different departments. Vac schemers work closely with partner supervisors, and during their second week they take part in the same assessment centre outlined above. There are various socials on offer, including dinners, teambuilding games, and a popular curry night.
According to Anup Vithlani, “we don't focus our recruitment exclusively on undergraduates, and there isn't one particular career path we look for. During my time in graduate recruitment I’ve come across a former chef and an individual who spent 11 years as an investment banker. It's about demonstrating your skills and showing you're genuinely committed to building a career in the law. For us as a firm, it's all about diversity. It's your talent that counts, not your background.”
Our trainee sources characterised the ideal candidate as “a team player who can take the initiative and spot solutions to problems.” They had this advice for applicants: “Don't rush your application; you need to make sure it shows you've researched the firm and know where you'd fit in.”
Public sector work
Though traditionally viewed as less glamorous than private sector work, Trowers' trainees found public sector matters “both challenging and interesting” thanks to the fact that “the work you cover is ever-changing, and the way in which the practice operates is driven by external events and political developments. It makes it an interesting area to engage with.” Government cuts to public services, for example, have increased the pressure on those whose job it is to best determine how to operate the institutions that drive society – including Trowers' lawyers. Fortunately, our trainee sources revelled in “helping to deliver the different kinds of structures that can help these institutions in the long term.” Their enthusiasm points to Trowers' success in this area: the firm receives top Chambers UK rankings for its work in local government, public procurement and social housing.
As far as government-initiated development projects are concerned, the lines between public and private work have become increasingly blurred in the UK, thanks to the ever-growing trend to back public infrastructure projects with private capital. These private finance initiatives (PFIs) create public-private partnerships (PPPs). Over the past couple of years, Trowers' team has been advising Cherwell District Council on a PPP scheme to deliver 1,900 new homes in Oxfordshire, which takes the crown as the UK's first large-scale, self-build housing project. If all goes to plan, it should be complete by 2020, and also boast facilities like a school, nursery, community centre and, of course, a local pub.
However, PPP schemes don't always run so smoothly, with the muddled relationships between private and public agents blamed for recent failures to deliver projects to a high enough standard. A case in point: 17 schools in Edinburgh were closed in 2016 over concerns that their structures hadn't been inspected properly upon completion. But whose responsibility was it to check? The council's? Or the private company involved?
As with any area of legal work, the public sector is likely to be impacted by Brexit. Currently, public procurement is standardised by the 2015 Public Contracts Regulations; a recent Trowers blog post suggested that these regulations are unlikely to change if the European Communities Act 1972 remains in place. If it doesn't, the regulations will still be around for a good while longer, given the amount of time it will take to complete the Brexit process once it's formally initiated. There are fears that social housing projects will be especially affected, but there are also those who feel that Brexit will yield fresh opportunities. Our trainee sources were on the whole quite positive, buoyed by Trowers' standing as “one of the few firms with a strong social and public sector housing practice.”
Whatever happens, this thought will continue to draw trainees to Trowers' public sector work: “When you're advising local authorities on construction and partnering contracts for projects such as new schools, care homes or leisure facilities, there's a real feeling that you're working for the benefit of the public.”
Trowers in the Middle East
Trowers' overseas seats give trainees the chance to sample life in some of the most prosperous parts of the Middle East. Destinations include Manama in Bahrain, Muscat in Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, either in the capital Abu Dhabi or glitzy Dubai.
“We're well known as one of the longest-established firms in the Middle East,” Trowers' trainees reminded us, but troubled times in the region have somewhat diminished the firm's presence there: in early 2014 Trowers closed its Cairo office in light of the instability following the Arab Spring, and it was also forced to shut the doors on its hubs in Riyadh and Jeddah after partners in both jumped ship to local firms.
United Arab Emirates
“Dubai and Abu Dhabi are very popular destinations,” trainees told us. Dubai has long been a popular choice for firms looking to break into the Middle East market, thanks to its relative political stability, large expat population, and oil-rich locals. The cosmopolitan nature of the city makes for varied work as far as law firms go. Trainees who'd spent some time in Trowers' Dubai digs told us: “The office services a lot of international businesses wanting to set up in Dubai. We also work for the British Embassy, local companies and a number of clients from Africa.”
Trowers' office is in Bur Dubai, the city's historic quarter. “It's not as flashy as the International Finance Centre, where most firms are based, but I liked being somewhere with a lot of locals around.” Outside of work, sources found Dubai to be “a great place to live, plus the firm really looks after you when you're there as well. They take care of the visa, flight tickets, accommodation – it's a really easy transition to make.”
Fewer trainees head to Abu Dhabi, which offers a similarly plush experience. As one of the world's largest oil producers, the city owns the majority of UAE's oil wealth, and it's also the state's centre of finance. Both oil and gas and finance matters flavour the work on offer here. In both locations, trainees found that they were given “plenty of responsibility: you have to take the lead on a lot of things, which really improves your confidence.”
Oman has relatively modest oil resources compared to its wealthier neighbour. Still, it benefits from its reputation as one of the most peaceful states in the Middle East and from its strategic position at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It is also known for having a more diverse economy than its neighbours.
“I did a lot of corporate and commercial work for American and Asian companies looking to set up in the region,” reported one trainee of their experience as a secondee in Trowers' Muscat base. The office frequently administers advice on partnership agreements, as such companies need a local shareholder to operate locally. Having a base in Oman also helps Trowers to secure work occurring elsewhere in the region: one trainee here got the chance to work on “the Kuwaiti side” of a high-profile project involving both countries.
A multimillion-dollar advertising campaign from controversial PR wizards M&C Saatchi a few years back set about rebranding this country as 'Business Friendly Bahrain'. However, government-imposed curfews on the business community and violent crackdowns on protesters in 2011 unfortunately meant that many of the new entrants lured by this campaign went on to make a speedy exit. Trainees here found that there are “a lot more obstacles” to everyday work, “even when it comes to simple things – it can be hard to find up-to-date laws online, for example.”
Trowers is still holding firm to its office in Manama – it does, after all, occupy the sweet spot of largest international law office in the country. Here the firm is big on M&A, banking and finance, and real estate.
High up on trainees' list of reasons to go on a Middle Eastern secondment was Trowers' integrated network of offices. “There's a really good relationship between them and we're often liaising with Oman and Dubai on matters,” our sources in Abu Dhabi remarked. Trainees were also keen to point out that future secondees shouldn't be put off if they can't speak the local lingo: “Most of the documentation is in English, and our clients prefer to use it. It's no way a barrier if you can't speak Arabic.”
Trowers & Hamlins LLP
3 Bunhill Row,
- Partners 158
- Assistant solicitors 189
- Total trainees 47
- Contact Anup Vithlani, head of graduate recruitment and development
- Method of application Online only
- Selection procedure Assessment centre, interviews, psychometric tests and practical test
- Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
- Applications pa c. 1,600
- % interviewed pa 5%
- Required grades minimum of 320 UCAS points (ABB) and 2:1 degree or above
- Training salary (London)
- First year: £37,000
- Second year: £40,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 50%
- No of seats available abroad pa 10-12
- Post-qualification salary (London) £62,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (March 2016) 86%
- Offices London, Birmingham, Exeter, Manchester, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai, Malaysia and Oman
Main areas of work
Excellent academic results are essential. However, we also look for other attributes in our potential trainees, including enthusiasm and a drive to succeed; teamworking skills (both as a leader and a player); good humour, resilience and strength of character; initiative and a sense of responsibility; an innovative approach and versatility; an analytical and logical mind; and excellent communication skills (with the ability to adapt them to your audience).
We believe in learning by experience. Throughout your training contract, you will be given responsibility and will be challenged. However, you will benefit from a strong network of support in addition to that provided departmentally. Our head of graduate recruitment and development is always on hand, along with the training principal and the trainee solicitors’ committee. The committee meets regularly to discuss training, selection and trainee events, and includes four trainee solicitor representatives (one from each intake).