Lincolnshire's Wilkin Chapman offers an attractive alternative to City firms, mixing practical experience with work/life balance.
From the county that brought you...
For a county with such a sleepy, rural reputation, Lincolnshire has been the crucible of a surprising number of dramatic episodes in UK history. It was here that Isaac Newton was struck on the head by an apple, leading to the discovery of gravity. It was here that Britain's first ever female police officer walked the beat, that an RAF officer named Frank Whittle invented the jet engine, and that Margaret Thatcher learnt about economics in her father's grocery shop. So it's appropriate that when the Student Guide spoke to the trainees at local firm Wilkin Chapman, we found that this nine-office outfit was in the midst of some dramatic changes. “There's a new CEO with a new strategy,” a trainee told us. One thing this means is that the firm's in the process of overhauling its seat selection process, and it may increase its trainee intake in the years to come. Expansion is in the air, we heard: “We're definitely looking to grow,” a source at Wilkin Chapman HQ believed, “and there's a sense that we've got our eye on the Yorkshire market.”
“Develop a decent career without giving up your life.”
Chambers UK ranks the firm for corporate and real estate work in the East Midlands, as well as for agriculture, private client and family in the Lincoln area; a training contract here can also involve stints in personal injury and employment. In the past the seat allocation system was rather fluid: “There was never really a plan as to exactly when you would be moving seats,” one source revealed – you could sometimes spend as little as three months in a department. Moving forward, the new plan is for trainees to do three seats: two of six months' duration and one lasting a full year. While the firm has a number of offices across the Greater Lincolnshire area, at present only Lincoln and Grimsby take trainees. “That said, if one of the other offices needs someone, trainees do get sent to them so we can take on a broader selection of work,” a source told us.
Many regional law firms have a reputation for favouring local people. Is this the case at Wilkin Chapman? “I think it definitely helps,” answered a source, “but not being from the local area won't disqualify you.” The firm isn't so much concerned with keeping things in the family as it is “wary of people looking to come here, do a training contract and then vanish off to London.” The flip side of this is that Wilkin Chapman sees trainees as a long-term investment, rather than a resource to be used up. “In the department where I did my first seat there were 14 people who had started out at the firm as trainees,” recalled one interviewee. Further proving the firm's dedication to its trainees, every department runs training sessions two or three times a year, and trainees are required to attend almost all of them, regardless of whether they have any intention of sitting in that department. Seat selection is a fairly informal process, with trainees approaching the partners in their chosen department for an informal chat. In 2016 the firm made NQ offers to both of its qualifiers, and one decided to stay.
The Casual Vacancy
Wilkin Chapman's commercial property clients range from “small businesses taking out leases on high-street properties to clients with big property portfolios.” Such larger clients include the University of Hull and regional property developers Beal and Cyden. The firm also acts for “local farming families in the Lincolnshire area,” such as the Brocklesby Estate owned by the Earl of Yarborough. Trainees described working on an array of matters, from landlord and tenant agreements to development work. “They'll start you off doing research, completion work and stamp duty land tax forms,” said one source, “but once you get a bit more experience you get to draft transfer deeds, leases, licences to occupy, and deeds of variation.”
The corporate and commercial department does a lot of work for local entrepreneurs, which offers trainees the chance to be present at the creation of new businesses. “Sometimes they just grow and grow,” beamed a proud parent – err, trainee – “and they stay loyal to us all the way through.” Clients range from online businesses run by “two women making dips in their kitchen” to hotel management companies and renewable energy providers. Trainees told us the seat gives you a lot of experience drafting board minutes, shareholder agreements, and website terms and conditions for those online businesses we mentioned a moment ago.
"If I'm in the office until 6.30pm I'd consider that a late night.”
The public law group has carved out a nice niche for itself advising local authorities on corporate governance matters. This department is “where you get the best stories,” according to sources who'd done a stint there. Readers of Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs column will know that the bland-sounding phrase 'local government' can cover all manner of sins. The firm advises over 80 local authorities throughout the country, and much of its work revolves around finding out what went wrong, who was responsible and what the client authority should do about it. Its workload is as confidential as it is juicy, but we heard of trainees getting to the bottom of bullying claims, internal police investigations and even allegations of bribery. A seat here involves a good degree of sleuthing, as well as a hefty helping of independence. Trainees told us they'd “interviewed staff, typed up their statements and compared them” as well as “liaising with investigators, who are quite often ex-police officers.”
All in the game
Snooty southerners may claim that it's 'grim up North,' but trainees at Wilkin Chapman didn't think so. In particular, our sources' hours were a good deal less grim than those of trainees in larger cities. “Those firms pay better,” began one source, “but that's not what working here is all about.” Instead, our sources valued being able to “develop a decent career without giving up your life.” Hours are “technically nine to five,” a source told us, “and if I'm in the office until 6.30pm I'd consider that a late night.” Another source told us that “the absolute latest” they'd worked was 7pm, while a third defined “really late" as staying in the office until 7.30pm.
Of the two most trainee-populated offices, Lincoln is the more modern while the firm's main office location in Grimsby is “more like a traditional solicitors' office,” based as it is in a large Victorian mansion. Speaking of offices: trainees in Grimsby share theirs with their supervisor, while Lincoln has an open-plan layout with a lot of natural light. Trainees praised both offices' central locations, with various amenities nearby, including bars, restaurants and shops. Plus, the Grimsby office is right across the road from a Games Workshop, if you're into that sort of thing. If you're not, good news: the firm will be moving to new digs by the end of 2016.
Most people live relatively close to the office they're based in, making after-work socialising easy. The Lincoln bunch are a particularly sociable group, and are active members of Lincoln Young Professionals and the local Junior Lawyers Division. There's a firm-wide event every summer. We use the deliberately vague word 'event' because it changes spectacularly from year to year – 2014's was a James Bond-themed party, while 2015 saw a firm-wide sports day, and the 2016 shindig was a more traditional ball. Each office also hosts an annual (and egg and spoon race-free) Christmas shindig.
“I've never worked in a big London firm, but I've spoken to people who have,” gossiped one of our sources, “and the impression I get is that they can be a little toxic, with a lot of competition between fee earners.” At Wilkin Chapman, by contrast, “you're never made to feel small or insignificant.”
Lincolnshire has a long association with the military, and hosted 70 RAF bases during the Second World War. Wilkin Chapman continues this tradition, with a personal injury department that frequently represents wounded servicepeople.
How to get a Wilkin Chapman training contract
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 July 2017
Applications to Wilkin Chapman are made in a traditional manner – a CV and covering letter, sent to HR officer Angela English either by post or email. The firm gets around 100 applications each year. The firm is happy to accept applications from both law and non-law students, but English suggests that the firm “tends to get more applications from law students now than it did five years ago when it was about 50/50 law v non-law, but there's still a mix of both every year.” A 2:1 minimum is required.
Work experience programme
Wilkin Chapman has no formal vac scheme but does offer offer a two-day work experience programme for university and college students, the application for which is made and assessed in a similar way to the training contract application. Around 30 placements are offered each year – in Grimsby spots are open only to sixth-form pupils, while in other offices the program is limited to university students. Applicants don't necessarily need to be second-year students or to be studying law.
Those who get good feedback during the programme are subsequently encouraged to apply for a training contract as there's “a good chance that they'd make it through to the interview.” However, doing a good couple of days work experience at the firm isn't essential to making the cut.
The interview day
The 20ish lucky applicants who make it through to the interview stage gather at the firm's office in Lincoln. Interviewees are split into two groups – for morning and afternoon interviews respectively – but the whole crop assembles for a group presentation and lunch with partners and staff in the middle of the day. Alongside the main interviews with HR, candidates complete a case study exercise that they are quizzed on, as well as verbal and numerical reasoning tests. A less formal stage of the process gives interviewees a chance to chat with current trainees and NQs, in order to get to know the firm better.
The interviews are described by Angela English as “quite informal and based largely around the person's CV.” Candidates are given half an hour before the interview to read through the case study and prepare some discussion points. Interviewees can also expect to be asked a question on current affairs, which has tripped some up in the past, so be sure to brush up beforehand. Publications like the FT and The Economist will no doubt help, but also look out for trends and developments that may affect Wilkin's principal areas of work. Trainees generally found the overall process to be straightforward and not very nerve-racking, with one remarking: “I actually really enjoyed the interview, which is something I never thought I'd say!”
Given that Wilkin is the biggest firm in the area it's not surprising that many of its trainees hail from the surrounding region. Having links to the locality is a big plus, but only in so much as the firm wants those who are in it for the long haul – those from elsewhere who are committed to remaining in the area are also welcome to apply, as English highlights: “we're looking for trainees who see the value that we can offer them in our training contracts and share our vision and passion, rather than someone who is just looking for a position with any firm. We want our trainees to build a career with us.”
Being able to justify why you've applied to Wilkin in particular will therefore go down well with interviewers. Among the most common reasons are Wilkin's better work/life balance (compared to that at City firms) and the opportunity to get stuck into “real work”– as English describes it – from the get go.
The Yorkshire legal market
Wilkin Chapman LLP
New Oxford House,
Town Hall Square,
- Partners 44
- Senior solicitors 28
- Assistant solicitors 24
- Total trainees 9
- Contact Angela English, email@example.com, 01472 262633
- Method of application CV and covering letter via website www.wilkinchapman.co.uk
- Selection procedure Interview, verbal and numerical reasoning tests, case study exercise
- Closing date 31 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 4
- Applications received (2015) 120
- % Interviewed (2015) 20%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary
- First year: £18,200
- Second year: £19,500
- Post-qualification salary £26,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2015) 100%
Principal areas of work
Private client: The wills, probate, tax and trusts Team includes nine qualified solicitors who are members of The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). Family expertise covers divorce, mediation, collaborative law and family law arbitration as different methods of resolution. Conveyancing is covered by the firm along with a nationally recognised agricultural department. The crime team are all members of the Law Society’s Criminal Litigation Panel and in addition, the department has received accreditation from the Legal Services Commission’s Complex Crime Unit. The personal injury and medical negligence teams have accredited members of the Law Society’s Personal Injury and Specialist Clinical Negligence Schemes.