A move to the City signals a continuation of WB's strategy to build on strengths old and new.
Goodbye wigs, hello new digs
A listed townhouse, a majestic name, and lashings of homemade soup. Out of these three, only one is guaranteed to survive into 2017... Don't worry, this isn't the beginning of some legal whodunnit – though 'Wedlake Bell' would make a great name for the hero of the piece. We're simply getting at this firm's August 2016 move to swish new digs at 71 Queen Victoria Street, next to Mansion House tube station and slap bang in the middle of the City. So WB's name will remain, its townhouse will be vacated, but many hope that the soup (served daily in the canteen) will live to provide sustenance for another day.
The move is, according to our sources, another sign that WB is “trying to change its image.” Many have plonked WB straight in the 'traditional' box thanks to its family and private client practices, plus its grounding in barristers' hangout Bedford Row. But managing partner Martin Arnold has been taking action to combat this presumption, trainees told us. The firm has dabbled in open-plan and agile working, and ramped up its attention to the more corporate-y side of things. It's snared some impressive commercial clients – including Lacoste, HSBC and trendy new burger chain Honest – and some flame-grilled Chambers UK rankings in a number of commercial practices, including corporate, construction, real estate, IP and employment. Add a suitably modern glass-panelled office to the mix, and perhaps WB can cast off its 'traditional' rep once and for all.
Before they join, future Wedlakers are asked to list their preferences in order to make a seat plan. However, “HR accepts that people change their minds,” and unless they've scored a cohort full of clairvoyants, most trainees resubmit before every rotation. Of the 11 seats available, four have a property bent – property litigation, commercial property, residential property and construction – so a stint in one is quite likely. Apart from commercial property, all of the other seats only take on one trainee at a time, so sources found it hard to get every one of their preferences.
Wills ’n' deals
With 38 lawyers, commercial property –“com prop” in Wedlakish – is the firm's biggest department and takes on two trainees at a time. The team handles “landlord and tenant work, development matters, and the buying and selling of properties.” Clients include investors (Henderson Global Investors) and developers (Antler Homes), as well as commercial enterprises like LEGO and Robert Dyas. Matters cover a range of sectors, and the team's recently assisted on the sale of Islington's Angel Shopping Centre; the construction of a hotel in Bristol Airport's complex; and the University of the Arts' development of a new campus in Camberwell. From day one trainees have their own files and, due to the diverse clientele, could be working on pretty much anything: “I was working on a receivership in the morning and was drafting a deed in the afternoon.”
Private client is WB's second biggest cog, with 19 lawyers. Wills, trusts and estate management, and tax planning advice are all on the agenda here. There's also a contentious side, which sees a lot of challenges to wills under the Inheritance (Family and Dependants) Act 1975. Clients are usually high net worth individuals and the service is bespoke – they are each assigned their own partner when they instruct the firm. Trainees nab plenty of responsibility. “You won't be given your own file to run, but you do get to draft wills and lasting powers of attorney. You also get to help draft advice on things like whether a client should put their money into different trusts.” Plus the work comes from all directions: “It's very fluid. We're all on one floor so the trainees pick up assignments from everyone.”
“Exposed to a wide variety of deals.”
WB's 15-strong corporate team is known for its mid-market work, with deals typically falling within the £10 to 100 million range. The group's seen a bump in private equity-related deals of late, and acted for Honest Burgers as it secured a bun-glazing $7 million investment from Active Private Equity. There's also a fair amount of overseas referral work from two networks, TELFA and US Law: one such matter saw the team advise an Atlanta-based security company, U.S. Security Associates, as it acquired London-based Entourage Security Management. Elsewhere, the commercial property department sends quite a few deals its way, and the two groups recently collaborated on the Angel Shopping Centre sale we mentioned above. Trainees are “exposed to a wide variety of deals,” and noticed a ramping up of responsibility as they progressed: “I began with simple tasks like getting company details, but by the end I had become the point of contact and was drafting due diligence reports and shareholder agreements. They throw you in at the deep end, but you learn by doing.”
Employment's 11 lawyers act for a mix of employers, senior executives and employees. They've built up a standing in the tech, hospitality and retail sectors, with clients including: Millennium & Copthorne Hotels; the former global president of Gap; and Massachusetts-based NetCracker Technology. Overseas clients with cross-border issues are drawn in via the department's supplementary iGlobal business, which bundles together advice on umpteen jurisdictions. One source with experience on this side of things told of helping out “on a bonus scheme that had been drawn up – we had to look into its applicability across multiple jurisdictions.” Alongside checking employment contracts and (on the contentious side) drawing up settlement agreements, sources took centre stage with the client: “I was acting for an individual and I did all the liaising with them, and kept them up to date with everything that was going on.”
“Very little is kept in the shadows.”
Hours at WB can fluctuate, but were felt to be kinder than those found in London's bigger City fish. Of the seats, corporate tends to be the busiest and trainees can expect to leave after 8pm pretty regularly. The rest are pretty uniform, with a normal day running from about 9.30am till 7pm. If trainees do stay late, the firm lays on dinner and a cab home to sweeten the pill. On the subject of spoonfuls of sugar: WB has a fairly lively social scene that finds full-on fruition at 'end-of-quarter drinks'. On nights like these, employees start in the office with “lots of wine, beers and nibbles” and then “move on to one of the local pubs for one or four more.” For those with less liquid-based proclivities, the firm also organises annual walking and ski trips, which “anyone can sign up for.”
This is all symptomatic of what trainees deemed a generally open culture. “Our managing partner is great about sending around updates whenever there's a new development – very little is kept in the shadows.” It's the perk of being in a more modestly sized firm, sources felt: “People can give you more time and you feel more valued. We've even been involved in the plans for our new office: we were sent the designs for our new desks and they encouraged us to give feedback.” So to thrive at WB, future Wedlakers must be good mixers (“there aren't many egos here”) but also willing to step into the limelight: “The size of the firm means that you get much better exposure to the work. At a big firm you might do due diligence on one IPO through an entire seat – during my corporate seat I saw 20 transactions.”
WB's qualification process appears to be a bit of an anomaly in this otherwise open culture. NQ vacancies aren't published, so “it's up to the trainees to approach a department” and get the process rolling. “It's not very transparent as you don't know who's approached who and there can be tensions as a result.” After stating their interest in as many departments as they like, trainees then have to wait for “the teams to make a business case for each NQ position.” Interviews are subsequently held if more than one trainee applies for a space. Despite their disaffection with the process, our sources' overall experience at the firm had them hooked: “This is a really nice place to work and I certainly haven't heard of anyone not wanting to stay.” In the end four of six qualifiers were kept on.
“We've got a lot more space in our new office, so I think we'll expand,” trainees predicted. Recent laterals have come from big players like KWM, Trowers & Hamlins and PwC.
How to get a Wedlake Bell training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 July 2017
Wedlake Bell offers six training contracts each year. HR head Natalie King tells us the firm is after candidates who are “well rounded, happy to be exposed to different areas and open to new opportunities.” She adds: “We're a sociable, friendly and supportive firm with a diverse mix of talent – we look for people who fit in well with that.” Law and non-law graduates are equally encouraged to apply, as are those who've had a previous career, though bear in mind that candidates are expected to have the usual minimum 2:1 degree.
Application and interviews
Prospective trainees at Wedlake Bell need to be solid across the academic, extracurricular and work experience spheres alike. The online application form, which is the same for both vacation scheme and straight-to-training-contract applicants, contains room for a covering letter – for this, candidates need to concentrate on structure and grammar, as well as content itself.
The firm chooses its vac schemers after a one-stage interview process which also involves a written assessment. Between 35 and 45 direct training contract applicants are invited to a first-stage interview. This takes place with two members of Wedlake's training committee, which is comprised of partners, solicitors and the HR team. “We have fairly set questions for that interview,” King says, “so that we get a good level of consistency across all candidates.” Some are centred on candidates' university studies and background, while others test commercial awareness.
The second interview also incorporates a set of written tests. “They're not necessarily about the legal profession, but they do test all the obvious skills like organisation, grammar, spelling and common sense,” says King, adding that the content of these change annually.
Wedlake Bell's vac scheme takes place in July and lasts three weeks. There are eight spots available each year. Those who attend sample a different department each week, where they work alongside trainees on admin tasks as well as more substantive undertakings like research and drafting.
The placement also features lunchtime practice area talks given by senior lawyers, plus various client meetings and events.
Wedlake Bell LLP
52 Bedford Row,
- Partners 60
- Assistant solicitors 79
- Total trainees 12
- Contact The graduate recruitment department
- Method of application Application form
- Selection procedure Two interviews and open day
- Closing date for 2019 End of July 2017
- Training contracts pa 6
- Required degree grade 2:1
Main areas of work
Sponsorship and benefits
Duration: three weeks in July
Closing date: end of January 2017