A rough guide to Bristol

An introduction to the economic, social and cultural life of Bristol, which is also a major legal hub.

A bit about the city

Nestled between the borders of Somerset and Gloucester, Bristol is commonly labelled the 'gateway to the South West', thanks largely to one Isambard Kingdom Brunel – the esteemed, cigar-chomping Victorian engineer behind the Great Western Railway, which links Bristol to London Paddington. He was also responsible for one of the city's most iconic landmarks: the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

These achievements have had a lasting impact on Bristol's position and status in the country: after Brunel kick-started the city's connectivity, Bristol went on to become the success story it is today.

'Bristle' used to be a bustling seaport that thrived on maritime commerce (and, in the early years, the slave trade). These days, the Port of Bristol no longer plays a vital role in keeping the city afloat. Instead, its prosperity is far more dependent on the aerospace, technology, and research industries, which alongside neighbouring tech hubs Gloucester and Swindon, have helped to put the West Country's Silicon Gorge on the map. Major companies that operate in and around Bristol include multinational conglomerate Toshiba and American IT giant HewlettPackard, both of which have national research laboratories based in town.

The forecast for Bristol over the next few years is very promising; the Sunday Times labelled the city the best place to live in 2014 and in 2015 it was named European Green Capital. According to the economic growth researcher Centre for Cities, Bristol has seen a steady increase in the number of business start-ups each year since 2009. In 2014 there were 56 new businesses created for every 10,000 people in the city. With strong tech credentials, and healthy media, financial services and tourism industries, Bristol has proved a key force in the UK's economic recovery.

The 'City Deal' – a deal agreed in 2012 between the mayor of Bristol and the government which empowers the city to draw in a sizeable amount of private investment – will no doubt help to boost Bristol's strength in the years to come. According to early estimates, this investment should hit £1.5 billion and forge around 40,000 jobs over the next 30 years, though that's led to a heightened political focus on combating potential and existing inequality. Bristol has something of a lefty reputation politically and the new Labour mayor Marvin Rees, elected in 2016 (the first directly elected black mayor in the UK), largely ran his campaign on making sure this success doesn't leave parts of the city trailing behind.

All things considered, Bristol's future looks pretty rosy.

The city's legal market

Bristol has long been recognised as an important hub for legal services. There used to be a time when Bristol was solely the turf of strong native firms like Burges Salmon and Osborne Clark. Slowly over the past few years, however, bigger national and international firms have begun to see the allure of Bristol. CMS was the first to cotton on to the city's potential, launching an office all the way back in 1990, but since 2010 Irwin Mitchell, RPC and Simmons & Simmons have all set up shop too. 2016 research by the real estate company CBRE revealed that Bristol is now England's second legal city in terms of floorspace, commanding 874,321 square feet. Leeds and Manchester still employ more people in the legal sector so presumably this means Bristolian lawyers just have bigger offices. Lucky them!

That London firms are drawn to Bristol underscores the legal community's confidence in the city as a viable hub for business. The knowledge-based economy in Bristol tallies with many of the aforementioned firms' existing and target clients, and a Bristol base means firms can drive down costs – a key factor in Simmons & Simmons' decision to open in the city.

The emergence of non-native players hasn't dislodged the performance of the city's home-grown firms, though. Burges Salmon posted an 8% rise in revenue in 2015/16, cashing out at a tasty £87.4 million. Fellow Bristolian Osborne Clark put in an even stronger performance: its UK turnover rose 17% to £112.9 million in 2015/16. TLT too has grown substantially over the past few years, and not to be outdone it similarly increased revenue by 15% to £71.6 million in 2015/16. Where the firms go, legal education providers go too, and Bristol is no exception. The University of Law stormed into the city in 2010 to join long-standing providers BPP and the Bristol Law School, and it didn't take long before ULaw brought up the rear, securing deals to educate Osborne Clark's and DAC Beachcroft's incoming trainees.

Life at a Bristol firm

Bristol firms have a long history of poaching City lawyers tired of excruciatingly cramped, rush-hour tube journeys followed by 14-hour days in the office. Burges Salmon has embraced this stereotype quite strategically over the years, producing adverts that depict 'sardines' (hapless tube-passengers with their faces squashed against the doors) placed above the bold word 'salmon' (a nod to the idea of free-swimming solicitors merrily leaping upstream to work at BS). Another advert simply depicted ecstatic lawyers in wetsuits, implying that you can have enjoy a desirable beach lifestyle if you decide to practise at the firm.

There's no doubt a refreshing walk down a tree-lined hill is a million times more enticing than a sweaty crush on the Central line, but we should point out that life in Bristol isn't always a nine-to-five paradise. At Osborne Clark, for example, our research shows trainees – especially those in transactional departments – occasionally encounter the kind of late-night shifts seen at City firms, though the average day is still a reasonable 9am to 7pm. As our trainee sources confirm, the atmosphere at such firms has become increasingly 'corporate' over the years, and many are keen to dispel the myth that life at a Bristol law firm is a piece of cake.

Indeed, the pressure's cranking up as the stakes get higher, and the city's legal market has become more competitive as a result. In 2011 Temple Quarter, near Temple Meads station, was declared Bristol's upcoming enterprise zone, and many firms – including Simmons & Simmons, Osborne Clark and Burges Salmon – have since relocated to the area. As such, many trainees in Bristol today have quite a different experience than what they would have ten or so years ago – one with more of a 'City' flavour. As one Burges Salmon trainee told us: “Temple Quarter is a much more corporate area than where we were before, which does change the overall atmosphere at the firm.” With this change has come a bigger range of local, national and international work for the aforementioned firms, plus more opportunities for client contact for their young lawyers, so we get the impression that Bristolian trainees feel they are very much coming out on top.

It's worth noting that Bristol is a regional hub for the barristers' profession. If you want to know more read our Chambers Report on St John's Chambers, which is one of the city's leading sets.