Education, charities, start-ups or healthcare; whatever the sector, Veale Wasbrough Vizards' trainees report doing the work of "a grown-up solicitor.”
The words 'Veale Wasbrough Vizards' may sound like the creation of Heston Blumenthal before he got a job at Waitrose, but to us it represents a taster menu of a very different kind: a mouth-watering array of public and private law seats at an expanding Bristol firm. One year on from the big office move in Bristol to its “swanky-pants” new abode on the waterfront, the firm's training partner Jason Prosser feels that “it's motivated everyone to work that bit harder this year. We've all been invigorated, which I think is part of the reason why our turnover has gone up by about 20% compared to the last financial year.” These good tidings have meant that lawyers were entitled to a discretionary bonus once the firm reached a certain billable target. For many, this made up for the feeling that, “everyone is in favour of a higher salary. But it's pretty fair hours that we work and they don't expect your soul.”
2016 has also seen the opening of a fifth office in Watford after a merger with real estate firm Matthew Arnold & Baldwin. (Existing offices are: the Bristol HQ, the smaller Bristol high-street office after the 2014 merger with Parkhouse & Co, Birmingham and London.) This has boosted the commercial and residential property side of the firm's key practice focuses on education and charities, healthcare, the public sector, private wealth and family businesses. Chambers UK rewards VWV with a top UK-wide ranking in education as well as the same scores for Thames Valley work in real estate and lower mid-market corporate M&A.
Top marks in education naturally means top clients such as Eton College and Rugby School. And over in real estate, Hilton Hotels and Elstree Film Studios (where Kick-Ass and The King's Speech were filmed) are regular punters. So what does this good year mean for potential candidates? Jason Prosser tells us that “as of 2017 we will have around an average of 15 trainees, with the new September intake having five in Bristol, three in London and one in Watford.” While there is presently no full training contract in Birmingham, the firm reports that it's “keeping the possibility under surveillance.”
"It's pretty fair hours that we work and they don't expect your soul.”
Corporate insolvency, contractual disputes, debt recovery cases and professional negligence matters are just some of the issues VWV’s commercial litigation team handles. Like most departments at the firm, there's a certain penchant for energy and utilities, charities and education work. Here the client list combines large corporates like EDF Energy (where trainees can be seconded in-house to deal mostly with costumer litigation) with educational institutions like the University of East London, The University of Greenwich and the University and College Union. The team has recently advised 59 independent schools and academies on historic abuse claims of both a sexual and violent nature. Each claim is worth between £10,000 and £100,000, which when you do the maths, chalks up into the millions. The department also runs a fee recovery service for over 250 schools, which employ the firm on a subscription basis. This brings in a high volume of small cases that rookies can take a stab at running themselves. Trainee tasks throughout the seat included “research into the civil procedure rules, drafting letters of claim and statements of case. I went to a few court hearings and a partnership dispute arbitration. You really get a broad experience of all aspects of civil litigation.”
VWV’s private client practice has handled some "very high-value claims” lately, with some ranging into the tens of millions after the influx of over 300 new high net worth clients since the merger with Parkhouse & Co. This has increased the department's profitability by over 29%. Around half of cases here stem from Inheritance Act disputes, while the other half often concern challenges regarding the validity of wills (for example, disputed mental capacity or unexpected changes just before death). “It's a great department. I've liaised with clients and ran one estate from the beginning.” Some had spent their time “working on a case where the last beneficiary of an aristocratic estate died. It was a huge responsibility and I had to explain complex legal concepts to the family, identify all the assets and then call up the asset holders before going to liaise with the executors.” On the non-contentious side, insiders said: “It's a lot of setting up trusts, trust transfers and drafting wills for some of the long-standing old-school clients of the firm.”
“You get a real flavour of what it would be like to be a grown-up solicitor.”
VWV’s split corporate/commercial seat is big in the education sector and undertakes “a lot of M&A but in a school context. It's normally when a school is about to go under and someone buys it, but there are also a lot of international investors that want to invest in UK schools, as we have a very good education system in this country.” This keeps trainees busy drafting share purchase agreements, readying disclosure documents and preparing completion agendas. Technology is another big sector here. “The tech stuff has really boomed,” enthused wannabe solicitors. “You get a lot of practice working with companies in the early stages, helping them from first enquiries right up to investment rounds and disposal. The clients are really interesting guys with really interesting ideas.” While most clients that trainees get their hands on tend to be start-ups, no one was complaining, because they got to do higher-level work like “being in on client meetings and calls, and drafting shareholder agreements, articles of association and ancillary documents like board minutes.”
The employment seat deals primarily with litigious matters and “is really split between businesses and schools.” Mainly representing employers, recent cases included successfully defending Newland House School Trust against a £1.5 million unfair dismissal claim brought by an ex-employee. Insiders loved that “you can run smaller matters on your own and you do anything from liaising with the client and opposing counsel to drafting witness statements and attending court hearings.” The business element in this seat also involves a bit of debt recovery work. A few of our sources spent time ironing out employment issues for start-up companies. “It's things like drafting settlement agreements or explaining to clients what can be done when there has been no employment agreement and someone has left the company, but claims they contributed to the intellectual property. You get a real flavour of what it would be like to be a grown-up solicitor in this department.”
"It's a great department as it's essentially human interest work.”
Our spies reported that seats in employment and regulatory compliance (which was previously called the pastoral team) “tie in nicely together” because they share pretty much the same clientele. “There are two sides to the work. The first is our traditional client base, which consists of a lot of academies and state schools. The second is the regulatory and litigious side.” Some suggested that the team's “specialities” centre around school policy reviews, parent complaint tribunals and special educational needs disputes. In addition to the usual bundle and tribunal submission prep, trainees had been set to work on compiling the updates for the firm's weekly department briefing. This has meant keeping on top of “what's been going on with the Goddard inquiry [The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse: IICSA] and what that means for our clients – everything is always changing. It's a great department as it's essentially human interest work.”
How do you zoo?
Training starts with a short induction, where all trainees trek up to Bristol to learn about doc management and IT. Beyond that there are optional “soft skills seminars like negotiation and networking, but you can ask for more things if you want.” There are also regular webinars and practice group updates that trainees were keen to get involved in. After this, there is a mid and end of seat review that happens every three months. “You fill out a very long form each time that goes over how you've met the firm's standards and are given anonymised collated feedback from people who have given you work. But there's also a section where we can give feedback to our supervisors, so it's a 360 review.”
The sports and social committee has seen a much-needed cash injection into its events budget. Each office has a separate committee that puts on events. There are rarely any firm-wide events, but “purely because it would be a logistical nightmare.” Past London extravaganzas have included renting out a capsule of the London Eye and going to the theatre to see The Curious Incident. Bristolians gushed about their monthly breakfast buffets, drinks in their new atrium – “it's beautiful because you can see right out onto the waterfront” –and an end of summer party at Bristol Zoo. While trainees appreciated the extra social funds, some delivered more sobering views: “I'm not going to lie and pretend we do flashy things like hire out the Savoy. We're more low-key, but that's who we are.”
“It was such a relief turning up here because your quality of life is respected."
But who are they? “Everyone is really lovely," was the consensus. “It's not hierarchical; everyone is approachable," another told us. "And the fact that we have open-plan offices is great for trainees, because I can talk to people on either side of me if I need help.” The work/life balance is in line with other firms outside London: “It was such a relief turning up here because your quality of life is respected. The people are loyal and are committed to their clients and each other. To say it's 'nice' is such a beige word, but it's true.” The trainees we interviewed normally clocked out around 6.30pm. “If you stay past 10pm in Bristol, the security guard will kick you out because the office actually shuts.” But it's not just Bristol that runs like this; unusually London does too. This year seven out of nine qualifiers were retained.
Vac schemers: prepare for a whirlwind experience, working in one department in the morning and then somewhere completely different in the afternoon, each day of your time here.
How to get a VWV training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 20 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 30 June 2017
Veale Wasbrough Vizards usually recruits between eight and ten trainees each year. A little more than half of the firm's trainees tend to enter the firm through its vacation scheme. Unless you have completed the scheme before, the firm encourages all applicants to apply for the opportunity.
The Bristol and London offices each run week-long placements over the summer. Though Watford and Birmingham do not currently host a scheme, management have hinted that one may be organised once the offices become more established.
Vac schemers are hosted by a current trainee, and usually spend time working on a mixture of real and mock tasks in several different departments.
Both vac scheme and direct training contract applicants begin their applications with the online form. An eagle eye is an important asset for any prospective applicant, as former training partner David Emanuel explains: "Please don't make elementary spelling mistakes or grammatical errors on the form – good lawyers are defined in a large part by what they write. It's difficult, but try to find a way to demonstrate some independence and originality of thought, or some unique experience, that will help your application stand out. Sometimes less is more: you don't have to fill up the box if you have made the point you wanted to already. Write clearly, precisely, and simply to convey your answer, and a sense of you as a person. Decorating your response with unusual words found in the Thesaurus often looks more odd than impressive."
Assessments and interviews
The firm runs assessment days in March, which deduce which candidates will be shortlisted for the vac scheme.
The firm prefers not to circulate the precise details of what the assessment entails, preferring to put candidates' ability to perform under pressure to the test. The process also changes year-on-year, so if you're trying to work out what you can expect, your guess is as good as ours. However, past tests have involved short presentations on topics such as reforms to the education system or freedom of expression. Some years have also included a written component.
During the vac scheme, students also have an interview with a member of HR and a member of the trainee recruitment panel.
For those candidates who have completed the vacation scheme in previous years, or who are already working for the firm, VWV runs another assessment day in July.
In recent years a fair number of VWV's trainees have paralegalled at the firm before beginning their training contract. Some apply for the role directly, whereas others, upon being offered a training contract, are asked whether they’d like to work as a paralegal in the meantime. Those who do work as paralegals are able to count some of the time against their training contract, allowing them the opportunity to qualify earlier.
Trends in the education sector
Rising tuition fees, the introduction of EBaccs and combating extremism – read about these developments and more in our education sector overview.
Dickens and the law
Veale Wasbrough Vizards
Narrow Quay House,
- Partners 68
- Assistants 114
- Total trainees 15
- Contact Ellen Marsh, recruitment manager
- Method of application Online application at www.vwv.co.uk/careers
- Selection procedure Assessment day/interview
- Closing date for 2017/2018
- Vacation scheme: 20 January 2017
- Training contract: 30 June 2017
- Training contracts pa 8-10
- % interviewed (2014) 10%
- Required degree grade Preferably 2:1
- Training salary
- First year: £23,000 (minimum)
- Second year: £25,000 (minimum)
- Holiday entitlement 25 days plus bank holidays
- Post-qualification salary £35,000 (minimum)
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2014) 80%
VWV places a strong emphasis on the development of the skill and expertise of all staff, quality of service and regulatory compliance. They are accredited to Investors in People (IIP) Bronze level and Lexcel, the Law Society’s management standard.
It is the combination of specialist expertise, genuine teamwork and client commitment that sets VWV apart from competitors.
People and culture are important to VWV. They are proud to have the reputation of being a friendly firm to work for and with. Many new joiners comment on the open culture and approachability of all staff, no matter what their role or position.
The fact that 94% of clients say that they would recommend VWV to others is a strong indicator that it is the culture, and not just experience, that gives clients the confidence to continue to instruct.
Main areas of work
The firm also manages two distinctly branded divisions, Augustines Injury Law and Convey Direct, handling residential conveyancing.
Sectors include academies and maintained schools, aerospace and defence, agriculture and estates, charities, central government, energy and utilities, family-owned businesses, further education, healthcare, higher education, independent schools, local government and emergency services, property investment and development, private wealth and technology.
Sponsorship and awards