With a flourishing corporate practice to complement its long-standing insurance pedigree, RPC gives trainees plenty to choose from.
As recently as 2005, RPC's partners were eating lunch in their own dining room and 90% of work was insurance-related. Since then, the firm has undergone a complete identity overhaul: it now divides its time equally between its core insurance practice and a blossoming corporate/commercial side. The latter attracts top Chambers UK rankings for commercial contracts, lower mid-market corporate M&A and publishing/media work. Ten years ago RPC was seen as quite a traditional firm, but that's all changed now amid trainee-run Twitter feeds (@lifeinalawfirm), swanky open-plan offices and a graduate recruitment campaign based around energetic slogans like 'rip up the rulebook'. In September 2014 RPC will also become the first firm to introduce merit-based pay for NQs – take a look at the bonus features to find out more.
“You can look back and see for yourself how much the firm has changed and grown,” said one of our interviewees. “Just three years ago, we were a one-office firm with no plans to expand; now we have four offices.” Indeed, RPC recently opened three offices in quick succession, in Singapore (2011), Hong Kong (2012) and Bristol (2012), the last of which specialises primarily in insurance and took on its first trainees in September 2013. While this investment led to a £2.8m increase in debt, it also helped revenue jump 20% in 2012/13. Further growth is on the agenda and we heard rumblings that a mainland China office might be on the menu at some point in the future. The firm is also currently moving some of its lower-value insurance and real estate work to Bristol.
Trainees are required to do at least one insurance and one commercial seat, and to gain both contentious and non-contentious experience. But, observed one trainee, “we are a litigation-heavy firm,” so expect this to be reflected in your training contract. Prior to each rotation, the firm runs 'seat spotlight sessions' for trainees, which involve “partners and associates in each department giving a presentation about what the seat entails.” We heard that “some departments only offer one seat, and if five or six people go for it, many are left disappointed,” but sources also told us “there has been a drive to make the seat allocation process more transparent through trainee forums and meetings with HR.”
Test of strength
RPC clocks up Chambers rankings in a host of insurance-related areas, ranging from product liability to professional negligence work. Recent high-profile instructions include advising clients on property damage loss after international earthquakes and counselling insurers following the 2011 London riots. Seats on offer in insurance are: financial risks; professional risks; property and casualty; general liability and life sciences; and construction insurance.
The large construction department mostly does contentious work but has recently seen an increase in transactional activity. Major clients include VolkerWessels, Carillion and multinational pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which the department is advising on the opening of its new global HQ in 2016. In this seat, trainees usually work on a mix of big high-value cases and lower-value matters on which they're given the chance to take the lead. One reported: “On large matters I'm part of a bigger team and do the simpler tasks like bundling and cross-scheduling, but for the smaller claims I manage files myself with fairly light-touch management from the partner.” Trainees are often tasked with sourcing construction experts – one described “attending meetings with engineers to discuss the tensile strength of concrete.”
A seat in the highly regarded professional risks group allows trainees to work in “one of the firm's bigger, busier insurance departments.” Essentially, it deals with insurance against mistakes made by professionals in the financial, insurance, construction, legal and technology sectors, and acts on behalf of them and their insurers in professional discipline and negligence cases. While some trainees reported doing the bundling or helping with disclosure on larger cases, others told us they got a lot of experience on lower-value matters: “I was responsible for between ten and 15 files. The learning curve was steep, but I got some awesome exposure.” Often the group works closely with the financial risks team, which deals with the insurance of savings and investments for banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions. Some trainees do a split seat between the two teams. One source reported that these areas of work can be tough to understand: “I had no idea what half of the language meant when I first started, and I spent the first few months getting used to the insurance world and how it works.” But never fear: “Eventually it starts to make sense, and you're able to talk with confidence about issues like coverage and policy positions.”
The general liability and life sciences team does personal injury and clinical negligence work. Trainees in this seat are treated to a wealth of clinical cases, from PIP breast implant litigation to claims brought against dentists, GPs and abortion clinics. Due to the confidential nature of the cases we can't disclose any compelling details, but trainees gave the seat a confident thumbs up. One said: “It's probably one of the seats where you get the most responsibility because there are lots of smaller cases, and trainees are usually left to run them.” Still, “as it's a specialised seat, you do get a lot of support and work closely with partners.”
Why trainees go to Iceland
Seats on offer on the corporate/commercial side are: real estate; employment; regulatory; commercial disputes; corporate; corporate insurance; and the snappily named 'media, IP, technology, outsourcing, competition and commercial contracts' (MIPTOCC).
The large commercial disputes department is split into subgroups, including banking, general commercial and tax, so “there's an opportunity to do a variety of work.” RPC has been involved in some headline-grabbing cases, recently representing CF Partners in its €100m claim against Barclays for misusing confidential information. Other key clients include Sports Direct and the Daily Mail and General Trust group, which owns newspapers like the Daily Mail and Metro. With such substantial cases in the offing, trainees are not given their own files. One explained: “The bigger the matter, the less responsibility you get.” As a result, a seat here is pretty “bundle-heavy” and usually involves “doing more of the grunt work.” But trainees “are taken to court hearings and get involved with more exciting bits and bobs as well.” For example, some were involved in an attempt to recover money from the crashed Icelandic banks and even travelled to the country.
Corporate is split into M&A, banking and corporate insurance subgroups. Trainees told us that this “is an area of the firm that's really growing.” Indeed, since 2008 the total turnover of RPC's corporate practice has grown by £4m. While the corporate team generally handles mid-market deals for clients like HTC – recently advising on its $47m acquisition of Saffron Media – it has in the past acted on some major deals. For example, lawyers advised global hygiene company SCA on its €1.3bn acquisition of Georgia-Pacific's European operations, and has since been involved in sales of parts of that business totalling approximately €100m. The banking team can be “frantic at times, particularly when deadlines are looming. Often e-mails are pinging around on a minute-by-minute basis.” The hours can also be demanding – one trainee admitted to completing a killer 90-hour week. Fortunately, we were assured that “it's rare for people to work weekends.” Trainee work in this seat tends towards the project management end of the scale, with sources describing “managing transaction documents, co-ordinating people across timezones and keeping parties up to date.”
Many of the areas the MIPTOCC department works on are highly rated by Chambers UK, with publishing and commercial contracts at the top of the class. Counting an enviable collection of national newspapers among its key clients, the publishing group is perhaps best known for its involvement in the Leveson Inquiry. The firm has since played a major role in establishing the new Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). Meanwhile, work in the non-contentious commercial contracts group gives trainees exposure to big-ticket work. Currently the firm's advising three NHS trusts on a deal that will create the largest provider of pathology services in the UK, valued at over £1bn.
While RPC doesn't provide overseas opportunities, Londoners can try a spell in the Bristol office, and client secondments are also on offer. In the recent past insurance secondment options have included AIG, Markel and Chubb, while trainees can also go to clients like Carillion for more construction experience, or to Sports Direct for commercial work.
Raven-claw or Shuffle-puff?
RPC's London HQ stands alongside St Katherine Docks, and the glass-clad building offers excellent views of the neighbouring Tower of London. The Bristol office is based near Temple Meads station in an area popular with law firms. Insiders told us Bristol tends to do lower-value work than London, so trainees here are likely to get a “greater degree of exposure to clients.” One explained: “The chances of a trainee being the lead contact on a matter in London are a lot slimmer than in Bristol, where you might have ten to 12 of your own files.”
Both offices are open-plan, with trainees sitting in pods usually consisting of a partner, two associates and a trainee. Trainees found the layout “great for training,” as “you learn a lot just by overhearing conversations and can get involved in discussions because they happen out on the floor.” Trainees also liked the resulting “lack of hierarchy” and “respect for junior employees.” One said: “There's a very open culture. You can just walk up to a partner and ask questions, and associates are always happy to help.” Many praised the firm's collaborative feel: “We work as a team here; we're always helping each other.”
Insiders highlighted RPC's sociable atmosphere. All employees are a member of one of three houses: 'Reynolds', 'Porter' or 'Chamberlain'. “If you just joined a department, you'd probably only socialise with the people in that department, but the houses are much bigger and link people in different teams together – they're always holding events.” Houses compete regularly for the glory of winning the house cup. Among all the inter-house events, 'RPC's Got Talent' stands out as the most popular, with trainees citing singer-songwriter duos and Bollywood dancers as their favourite acts. “Once you've done a silly dance routine with a partner, you feel much more comfortable approaching them about work!”
RPC has an excellent retention record: in the past ten years retention has never dropped below 80%. The trend continued in 2014 with 15 of 16 qualifiers staying with the firm.
RPC's sociable atmosphere and variety of practices help it attract a mixed bunch of trainees, including career-changers like an RAF pilot, a Cordon Bleu chef and someone who used to work for the president of Brazil.
How to get an RPC training contract
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2015
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2015
Trainee hopefuls at RPC need a minimum of eight high-grade GCSEs, three high-grade A levels, and an achieved or predicted 2:1 degree. Beyond this, graduate resourcing manager Kali Butler tells us, the firm is looking for intelligent, ambitious, personable and commercially aware people who are natural leaders and good communicators.
Butler informs us the “it's not unusual for some of our trainees to have come to us later in life – at the moment we have some who were previously chefs and pilots.” She advises applicants to not discount any previous work experience too quickly: “A Saturday job working in a shop, for example, can be used to demonstrate your customer and client services skills, communication capability, team work and reliability.” That said, legal work experience is compulsory to get a look in here. As Butler explains: “You need to show you have a real interest in working for a law firm, and prove that you can seek out opportunities and operate in a commercial environment. Legal work experience can include work shadowing, open days and pro bono activities, as well as placements in a law firm.”
Both vacation scheme and direct training contract applications start off with an online form – these are similar, though the one for vac schemes doesn't have a commercial question. One question they both contain asks for evidence of an applicant's research on RPC. According to Butler, “this is where candidates really have the opportunity to show their understanding of RPC and demonstrate the level of research they've done about the firm, rather than talking about why they'd be a good fit. That's not what we're looking for here. It's very important to us that candidates are brought into a career with RPC, not just law in general.”
In 2014 RPC received 1,000 direct applications for training contracts. Generally the firm selects around 300 applicants to complete an online verbal reasoning test and screens their applications after that. We're told the recruitment team pays particular attention to a candidate's answer to the form's commercial question. “Their answer should be logical, persuasive and concise, and ideally look at the wider implications of the issue,” Butler says. Around 80 make it to one of the firm's five assessment days.
The assessment day includes a presentation exercise, a networking exercise, and an interview with a partner and a member of HR.
“The interview has quite a commercial focus,” Butler reveals. “Candidates won't get any case law questions, though – we get such a wide array of applicants at different stages in their education and careers that it wouldn't be fair.” She advises candidates to “stay calm and composed” during the interview, and to come prepared with answers to standard interview questions like 'Why do you want to work here?' “You have to sell to us why you want to work here and present a really convincing argument,” head of brand and marketing services Ed Fitzgerald adds. “Be sure you look at our graduate manifesto before you come. This illustrates the kind of candidate who thrives at RPC.”
The day also includes a trainee-led tour of the firm and an informal lunch, and rounds off with a final presentation from a partner and the firm's HR director, plus a Q&A session.
In 2014 the firm received 950 applications for its 24 vac scheme spots on offer. The vacation scheme application process is “largely similar to the training contract application process,” Butler tells us. Applicants complete the form, and those who impress go on to take a verbal reasoning test and an interview with a member or HR or a senior associate. From here the firm chooses its vac schemers.
The firm runs a few two-week placements each year. Attendees spend one week each on the insurance and commercial floors, getting exposure to trainee-level work. “The firm really makes an effort to give you an accurate picture of trainee life,” said a current trainee. “I was surprised by how similar the first few days of my training contract felt to my time as a vac schemer.” Some participants even get to attend court and client meetings. Everybody gets to talk strategy with managing partner Jonathan Watmough over lunch, and they also complete what Butler describes as “a business project about developing the firm and how it runs.”
On the social side are networking events, ping-pong tournaments at Bounce and a mixology class. On the last day of their placement vac schemers complete the assessment day outlined above.
The firm runs two open days for applicants who don't get a place on the vac scheme. “Our vacation scheme is very competitive, so we offer open day places to candidates who narrowly miss out,” Butler says. “It's a great way for them to gain experience and get further insight into RPC.” Usually these includes an assessed group exercise and on-the-spot feedback, and afterwards candidates are invited to make a training contract application.
Prove your worth: merit-based pay for NQs
In September 2014 RPC introduced merit-based pay for its NQs, making it the first City firm to abandon flat rates at this level. A few other City firms, including Hogan Lovells and CMS, have also followed suit.
This move brings RPC's NQs in line with the rest of its lawyers: the firm ditched lockstep pay for partners over a decade ago, and began a merit-based scheme for associates in 2009. As managing partner Jonathan Watmough explained to the press in 2013, when the decision was announced: “The concept of the flat rate has passed its sell-by date and no longer has any integrity. It does not recognise the different merits of individual NQs, not does it recognise the market variances between the different branches of law into which they qualify.”
NQs at the firm used to receive salaries of £58,000 per year in London and £44,000 in Bristol, but firm reps tell us the new scheme sees each NQ's pay packets determined by two things: their performance during the training contract (quality of work, involvement in client activities, contribution to the team) and “the market dynamics” of the practice area they're qualifying into. “We also take into account any experience someone might have had before joining RPC which may be relevant to the role,” we're told. As a result, NQs now have the chance to surpass the above figures, though at the same time there's the possibility they could be paid less than the flat-rate cohorts that came before them. At any rate, they're still eligible for a bonus.
On the whole, our trainee and NQ sources at the firm had a positive view on the new pay scheme, with one NQ commenting: “We live in an unequal world, and I think this change reflects that.” Still, they did question how the new pay scheme will translate in practice, particularly on the “market dynamics” side. RPC is split roughly 50/50 between insurance and commercial work, and as one trainee suggested: “Our commercial side is more profitable, so that will probably pay a higher wage. But if working in a commercial practice means longer hours than insurance, then I guess that's fair.”
Others made similar assumptions, prompting us to ask if they thought the prospect of higher pay might encourage more qualifiers to plump for the firm's commercial departments over its insurance ones in the future. “It might not be the primary concern for people hoping to qualify into a department they love,” an NQ answered, “but it could certainly be enough of a push for those on the fence.”
As our sources concluded: “It'll be some time before we can see whether there's a major difference between pay in different departments.” In any case, they agreed: “It's important the firm focuses on maintaining a fair and transparent process.”
Tower Bridge House,
- Partners 76
- Associates 214
- Total trainees 39
- Contact Trainee Recruitment Team 020 3060 6000 RPC, Tower Bridge House, St Katharine's Way, London, E1W 1AA www.rpc.co.uk/manifesto
- Method of application Online
- Selection procedure First interview face to face, presentations, aptitude tests, case studies
- Closing date August 2017 Training contract 31 July 2015 Vacation scheme 31 January 2015
- Training contracts p.a.
- London 20
- Bristol 2
- Required degree grade London & Bristol 2:1
- London 1st year £37,000
- Bristol 1st year £32,000
- London 2nd year £40,000
- Bristol 2nd year £35,000
- Salary Merit-based
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2013) 81%
- Overseas/Regional offices Hong Kong and Singapore
Main Areas of Work