Torn between working on public sector matters and tackling international corporate work? Why not do both?
“Working with public sector clients makes you feel like what you're doing has real value, compared to buying and selling companies nobody's heard of.” That's one trainee's (perhaps a tad exaggerated) summary of why they were drawn to Trowers & Hamlins, a firm which clocks up an array of UK-wide Chambers UK rankings for local government, social housing and public procurement work.Contrastingly, the firm also has a strong overseas presence in the Middle East – London trainees in particular “are strongly encouraged to spend a seat there” – and it's also Chambers-ranked for commercial areas like corporate, construction and projects law (among others). Senior partner Jennie Gubbins enlightens us as to what the firm's Middle East presence is all about: “Our work there ranges from writing legislation to corporate deals and outbound investment – local investors there are very interested in the UK, and we're well positioned to help them.”
Trowers' revenue shot up 14%in 2016/17, reflective of “strong growth across the whole firm,” according to Gubbins, who added: “We're not done yet.” Trainees were similarly excited that “the firm seems very busy, particularly in Birmingham which has grown a lot. It's more fun to be here than at an established firm that doesn't have scope to grow.” Interviewees pointed to Trowers' development in Malaysia as evidence of progress – the firm had to relocate its office there when the team got too big for the premises – while noting “the culture is very relaxed” even as the corporate side of the firm is built up.
"It's nice to be part of an intake that celebrates diversity.”
The majority of new starters join the London office, while Birmingham, Manchester and Exeter take a handful of trainees each year. (The three smaller offices were each home to half a dozen trainees at the time of our calls.) All trainees do start life at the firm together in London with “a really good three-week induction” where “you get to know the people you're training with.” Our interviewees applauded Trowers for “recruiting people from different backgrounds and places – it's nice to be part of an intake that celebrates diversity.” 64% of trainees are women and 30% come from an ethnic minority background. Jennie Gubbins tells us “diversity is something Trowers is genuinely dedicated to. We encourage people to come in through both traditional routes and, for example, after paralegalling first.”
Incoming trainees are assigned their first seat, and in London and Manchester meet with HR midway through each seat to pick the next one. “There isn't a great deal of choice” in the non-London bases as “they're still growing. But in all fairness when you do ask for something they try to accommodate your wishes.” Each trainee also gets to pick a 'super-seat' which they're almost guaranteed to get. It's a popular scheme that one source felt could nonetheless be improved by “always giving you your super-seat as your second or third stint” to give trainees time to decide if they wanted to qualify there.
Housing and regeneration, Trowers' largest department, is split roughly into three sub-teams, one acting for registered housing providers, another for those lending to registered providers, and a third focusing on social housing governance. It's a common first seat for newbies, who explained: “It's a good place to start as it's what Trowers is known for and gives you a good grounding for the other seats. You work within one team but are considered a resource for the whole department.” Trainees appreciated the chance to work on “huge regenerations” such as Meridian Water's £3.5 billion project to build 10,000 new homes to Enfield over a 20-year period. The firm also recently advised on the development of 1,150 new homes in Harrow and a merger between housing associations East Thames and London & Quadrant creating a £25 billion business. On such bigger matters trainees attend client meetings and draft things like reports on title and novation agreements, as well as doing administrative work like billing and dealing with Land Registry and stamp duty land tax forms. Trainees also manage their own smaller matters such as variations to leases, lease extensions and transfers of small parcels of land. You might also work on "problematic issues for clients like boundary disputes or environmental contamination." In addition, lawyers in the department draft commercial contracts for public bodies which have a "semi-political element" to them: the Greater London Authority, the Homes and Communities Agency and Wolverhampton City Council are all clients.
“It's one of the more stressful seats as the deadlines are constant.”
Trainees said that litigation is the most popular seat among rookies; it too is split into three subgroups, focusing on property, construction and general commercial disputes. For trainees, it's a pretty arbitrary division. One interviewee told us: “Though I was technically in commercial, I did work for all three groups.” Litigators act for a plethora of public sector clients including the London Boroughs of Hillingdon, Enfield and Bromley. The London team also recently worked on the high-profile challenge brought by 12 criminal legal aid firms to the award of £770 million worth of duty solicitor contracts by the Legal Aid Agency. Meanwhile, Birmingham represented the Swimming Teachers' Association in an asset misappropriation claim against a former CEO. The work for trainees is similarly pick 'n' mix – “you'll do menial jobs like running to court to file documents, as well as drafting and research. They trust you with client contact, but there's support if you need it.” Litigation may be popular, but insiders warned that “it's one of the more stressful seats as the deadlines are constant and there's so much to organise. You have to keep on top of a lot of last-minute stuff and the clients hang on your every word!"
A spell in projects and construction means dealing with “lots of unique procurement queries,” as well as working on both the supplier and purchaser side of projects, many of them related to energy and transport. Some of the work is international. For example, the firm recently advised Malaysia's Powertek Energy on the building of a $500 million water desalination plant in Egypt. Trowers' domestic work ranges from advising on the construction of 3,500 homes in West Ham to a £350 million facilities management contract for the Riverside Group housing association in Manchester. For trainees, there's “a lot of contract drafting and client contact.” One source reported: "The construction work involves working hand in hand with real estate, as public sector clients want the full package – it's nice to get to speak to other people inside the firm." If you're concerned you won't know your easements from your estoppels in such situations, don't worry: “because the department is so specialised there's lots of training.”
Trowers' banking and finance team covers real estate and development finance, capital markets, and Islamic finance work. The firm's Middle East presence means the last of these makes up a substantial slice of the pie. For example, the firm recently advised oil and gas conglomerate MB Holdings on Oman's first ever high-yield sukuk (a bond structured so as not to infringe Islamic law). Compared to the more property-focused seats, “you're working on fewer, larger matters and a different skill set is required as things progress a lot quicker.” Trainees draft board minutes, office certificates and loan agreements – thankfully this is another department that offers “lots of training, as it's important to understand all the terminology.” One source panted: “We're extremely busy so you also learn a lot on the job. After three weeks I've barely had a chance to catch my breath!”
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 example, Trowers recently advised the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham on the formation of a group of public sector-owned companies worth £4 billion. Several other London boroughs call on the department's services too and trainees said they'd “worked with a lot of local authorities” from across the country “setting up subsidiaries." This involves "all sorts of things: research, contract review, and a bit of drafting here and there.” The department's work varies from high-value transactions like the one mentioned above to smaller matters in the tens of millions. Rookies also tackle “esoteric queries about outsourcing and alternative models of service delivery by local government.” There's less client contact than in other seats, but trainees do get to grapple with the weird and wonderful world of public procurement law, and in some offices there's scope to work with other departments like employment.
“We've been sending trainees to the Middle East for 20 years so it's a well-oiled machine.”
Be warned: only trainees in London are able to do an overseas seat. For the lucky London lot, overseas seats in the Middle East are open to all who want to go: Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Oman and Dubai are potential destinations. The process of heading abroad is a smooth one. “Accommodation and travel is all sorted," said one source. "We've been sending trainees to the Middle East for 20 years, so it's a well-oiled machine.” Once out there trainees experience “a steep learning curve – the offices are top-heavy and rely on trainees to do more.” As a result, we heard, “midnight finishes are more common.”
Free movement of people
Back in Blighty, hours vary by department. “In housing, days last from 9am to 7pm on average,” a source said, while in litigation and corporate “it's similar, but with more peaks and troughs, though you're not staying until ridiculous o'clock.” The latest we heard of trainees working till was 9pm or 10pm. Londoners tend to need to stay later than their regional counterparts. Interviewees reported that “if you do really need to go somewhere after work for a special occasion, people will let you go.” This relatively forgiving approach to trainee welfare is common to Trowers as a whole. "Even when I've made mistakes, they've never felt catastrophic,” one trainee said. Mid-seat and end-of-seat reviews are “really helpful” for trainees hoping to avoid such pitfalls, as is “a plethora of training inserted into your diary as soon as you start each seat.”
“The culture seems fairly consistent in each offices," sources said. One interviewee described the “very pleasant” London mothership as “a seven-star palace compared to where I used to work,” and colleagues were quick to praise the subsidised cafeteria. Over in Exeter, the “fairly standard” office provides “gorgeous views of rolling Devon hillside from the fourth floor,” while Birmingham's base is “in a perfect location, but it's well known the building needs an upgrade. We've grown more quickly than the office has space for.” Trainees in Manchester once had similar grumbles, but a recent move means “it's much nicer now. The previous place was dire but the new open-plan format (common to all offices except in London) is great.”
“It's a seven-star palace compared to where I used to work.”
Everybody gets together for mid-seat trainee meals in the capital, with trains and hotels paid for by the firm. It's “a good opportunity to catch up with everyone – the firm really encourages trainees to socialise.” Each office has its own traditions: trainees in the smaller bases tend to go out for drinks with all their colleagues, whereas in London “certain departments are more gregarious than others” – housing and regeneration, we're looking at you.
A chinwag with HR honcho Anup Vithlani kicks off the qualification process, and two weeks later the firm releases a jobs list; soon-to-be solicitors then submit a CV and cover letter. Trainees can apply to qualify in any office regardless of whether they trained there. Our sources said that “everything is wrapped up by June, which is really good as whatever happens there's adequate time to look at other options.” Most were confident it wouldn't come to that, buoyed by strong retention rates in recent years; in 2017, the firm kept on 18 of 22 qualifiers.
Until recently, only one international firm had an office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. No prizes for knowing it was Trowers & Hamlins.
How to get a training contract at Trowers & Hamlins
Vacation scheme deadline (2018): 15 February 2018 (opens early October 2017)
Training contract deadline (202): 30 July 2018 (opens early October 2017)
Trowers & Hamlins receives over 1,700 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 positions are available in London, Birmingham, Exeter and Manchester.
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 what 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 limit."
The firm asks for a minimum ABB at A level (320 UCAS points) and a consistently strong 2:1 at (either predicted or achieved). It pays close attention to individual exam results, though Vithlani stresses that the firm does take into account very serious mitigating circumstances.
For successful candidates applying via the direct training contract route, the next stage is an assessment centre. Around 20 make it to this point. Vithlani tells us the assessments usually last half a day, and the activities involved change every year. “No one can prepare for it – we want everyone to be on a level playing field. We put individuals in various scenarios and see how they react to what's 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 persuasive skills. 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 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 vac scheme has places for around 20 candidates, while Birmingham, Exeter and Manchester each take on four. Each placement lasts two weeks, during which attendees sit in two different departments. Vac schemers work closely with senior supervisors, and during their second week they take part in the same assessment centre outlined above. There are various socials on offer, including dinners, team-building games, and a popular curry night.
Anup Vithlani tells us: “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 someone 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 snappily titled Public Procurement (Amendments, Repeals and Revocations) Regulations 2016; though this may change as a result of the so-called Great Repeal Bill and possible changes in regulation as a result. 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 top 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. Tom Wigley, the firm's head of energy and natural resources, moved from London to the Oman office in 2017 – a demonstration of Trowers' commitment to its Middle East presence.
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.”
Interview with senior partner Jennie Gubbins
Chambers Student: What have been the highlights of 2016/17 at the firm?
Jennie Gubbins: We've achieved strong growth across the whole practice, resulting in a really solid 2016/17 growth figure of 14%. Firm-wide revenue has increased steadily over the past few years, and some areas of our practice have developed a lot individually – our real estate, corporate and litigation teams have all been major growth drivers.
CS: How has the firm's work in the Middle East evolved, and how do you think it will progress going forward?
JG: Like all law firms, we've had to evolve with the market and consider what our clients want us to do. One particularly interesting project we've completed recently is helping to write legislation in Bahrain relating to limited partnerships within the investment community: the country's a strong financial centre in the region. Our work in the Middle East ranges from writing legislation to corporate deals to outbound investment – local investors there are very interested in the UK, and we're well positioned to help them.
CS: How does going on secondment to the Middle East benefit your trainees?
JG: It's a rare career opportunity to get to do the job you already have in a completely different environment, and six months in the Middle East represents a fantastic learning experience for trainees. It takes them outside their comfort zone in terms of environment, and the work we do is excellent quality for excellent clients. I'd also add that because each of our Middle East offices is relatively small, trainees get to play an active role and everybody gets stuck in.
CS: Looking at the firm's offices in the UK, what would you say are the specialisms of each in terms of practice areas and the work on offer?
JG: The London HQ is where we started from, and is our biggest office by a significant margin. Each of the regional offices share common characteristics, but there are differences – our presence in Manchester goes back to the 1970s and the office there is very property and public sector-oriented, with a growing litigation team. Birmingham is our newest and fastest-growing location, with a particularly large litigation department – the headcount there has gone from 11 lawyers in 2011 to 90 in 2017. Exeter is more of a full-service offering, including a private wealth team as well as property, litigation and employment. Despite these differences, we co-ordinate our UK work within national teams that encompass all of our offices.
CS: How has Brexit affected the firm, and how do you think it will continue to do so going forward?
JG: Everyone is still waiting for the answer to that, because nobody knows as of yet! Over the summer of 2016, everybody adopted a wait and see approach, but now things are business are usual. The process has driven a lot of concern from clients, in areas ranging from employment law to the recent tax legislation that had to be dropped due to the snap election. It's difficult to get a clear picture, but in the short term we've had a lot of work advising clients in numerous areas. We are members of international group Interlaw alongside a number of European firms, but we have no offices on the continent so our business won't be affected by Brexit in the same way as some other firms.
CS: What do you think draws prospective trainees to Trowers & Hamlins?
JG: That's a very good question, and one we ask ourselves regularly. I believe the strong diversity in our organisation is very important. It's something that Trowers is genuinely dedicated to as reflected by our strong proportion of female partners and the varied backgrounds of our lawyers. We're encouraging people to come into the firm through both traditional routes and paralegaling; it's very important to us to open the profession up to the widest possible range of people. Alongside that, people are drawn to the firm by the strength of our brand in real estate and public sector law – if you're interested in those areas, Trowers is pretty much unbeatable. Similarly, if you have a connection to the Middle East or a strong desire to work there, we have as many offices there as almost any other international firm.
CS: Do you have any advice for our readers who are about to enter the legal profession?
JG: It's not only important for a prospective lawyer to get a training contract, but that they train somewhere they feel comfortable. Look at firms with a long-term view, and beyond the obvious magic circle prospects – there are a lot of very good firms throughout the market.
Trowers & Hamlins LLP
3 Bunhill Row,
- Partners 152
- Associates 248
- Total trainees 46
- UK offices London, Birmingham, Exeter, Manchester
- Overseas offices 5
- Contact Anup Vithlani, [email protected], 020 7423 8312
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 23
- Applications pa: 1,750
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or above
- Minimum UCAS points: 320 (A,B,B or above)
- Vacation scheme places pa: 34
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: early October 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 30 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: early October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 15 February 2018
- Open day deadline: 1 December 2017
- Salary and benefits
- First year salary: £37,000 (London) and £28,000 (Birmingham, Exeter and Manchester)
- Second year salary: £40,000 (London) and £30,000 (Birmingham, Exeter and Manchester)
- Post-qualification salary: £63,000 (London) and £41,000 (Birmingham, Exeter and Manchester)
- Holiday entitlement: 5 weeks
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant: £6,500 (London) and £6,000 (outside of London)
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Birmingham, Exeter and Manchester
- Overseas seats: Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai and Oman Client secondments None
Main areas of work
Our training contract is divided into four six-month seats. All trainees are teamed with a supervisor, whose role it is to guide them through each of their seats and ensure that they are given plenty of challenges (together with the support they need). From the outset, our trainees are given real responsibility and the opportunity to learn from hands-on experience in a supportive working environment.