If the thought of joining the City's rat race leaves you in a cold sweat, look south at Salisbury-based Wilsons, with its sterling rep for private client and charities work plus a growing commercial arm.
Last year we reported that Wilsons had taken on a landmark case that would be going all the way to the Supreme Court: it involved the late Mrs Jackson, who left in her will a sum of money to animal charities the RSPCA, RSPB and Blue Cross. However, her estranged daughter contested the will and was granted £163,000. This is where Wilsons stepped in, appealing the decision on behalf of the charities. The result? A win for Wilsons and its clients, which will shape the handling of future claims made under The Inheritance Act; it also demonstrates why Wilsons has earned a nationwide Chambers UK ranking for its charities expertise, plus tip-top regional marks for its private client know-how.
However, Wilsons also has a business arm to accompany its services for individuals and charities. Here you'll find the usual suspects of employment, banking, real estate and commercial. “We've just taken on a new commercial partner to enhance that team,” training partner Charlotte Watts tells us, adding: “That part of the practice is going from strength to strength. We've also made lateral hires in our family and property teams.” These developments reflect “a period of growth which has been great for the firm,” says Watts, who goes on to tell us that plans for the future revolve around “continued growth in our core markets, especially with regards to high net worth clients and entrepreneurs in our private client arm.”
“Good quality work without the ridiculous hours.”
Many of the trainees we spoke to were drawn to Wilsons' private client panache, which came with the prospect of “getting client contact early – which has largely proven to be true.” Sources weren't interested in pursuing “the big corporate 24-hour lifestyle,” and emphasised that they wanted “good quality work without the ridiculous hours” that can be found in the City's stronghold of legal giants. Wilsons' trainees can get a taste of London life if they wish though: the firm has a small, six-lawyer office in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which on occasion offers a seat blending commercial, charities and family work. Trainees are also sent to London for training courses, and all of the firm's current cohort were taken along to the Supreme Court hearing for the Mrs Jackson case.
Licence to graze
First seats are allocated by HR and the training principal, but new joiners are asked if they have any preferences before starting. “You usually get what's left over as second years get priority, which is fine.” Going forward “there are only around nine trainees, so it's not like you have to battle it out with thirty others to get your preference. Overall the system's fair and HR do seem to listen.” A stint in property is no longer compulsory, but interviewees flagged that “property usually crops up in some form in most seats.”
Contentious trusts and probate is a “really interesting and popular seat.” It essentially covers “litigation tied to wills or an estate,” including Inheritance Act claims, which see the team either directly challenging a will or investigating to see if there are grounds to do so. Charity legacy cases (like the Mrs Jackson example above) also make up a portion of the group's work, which “involves a lot of letter writing to explain a position and chase up the executors of a will.” Other trainee tasks included bundling, researching technical questions, going through medical records, drafting statements of case and witness statements. “Whether you get to go to court depends on luck,” but trainees did feel that “we're given a lot of freedom, as we're often putting together first drafts and doing a lot of case law research before writing summaries for partners. It can be daunting as a first seat but makes for a good lawyer!”
“Property usually crops up in some form in most seats.”
Trainees can also complete a non-contentious seat in probate and trusts, which focuses on administrating clients' estates, both before and after death. For trainees this means “sending off letters to utility companies and banks; drafting LPAs [lasting powers of attorney], basic wills and oaths to swear; and helping to sell any shares or assets that thedeceased may have had.” With charity probates, sources explained that “if they're not particularly high value we'll get to run those as our own files, which gives you good exposure.” Our interviewees also praised their supervisors in this seat for “making sure you see everything – they have a checklist that you work through.”
Over in tax and trusts it's all about “advising individuals on wealth planning.” The advisory nature of the work meant trainees weredealing with clients – a mix of high net worth individuals, entrepreneurs and landed estates – “on a daily basis.” Drafting trust documents and advising on inheritance tax and stamp duty were common duties, as was helping to put property into (or out of) joint names. Trainees also took to drafting more complex wills which involved assets in foreign jurisdictions. The seat “really improves your knowledge of tax,” sources agreed, “as trainees need to track and report on relevant changes every time the government launches a new budget.”
There are three property seats to choose from at Wilsons: commercial property, residential property and property estates. The latter involves “advising landowners and farmers on everything from selling an entire estate to leasing parts of it – like a cottage – to leasing all of it for farming purposes.” As you may have guessed, this means a lot of lease drafting for trainees, but given “the niche character of farming, some of the documents you put together are quite unusual, like grazing licences!” Those who'd spent time in Wilsons' company commercial team were equally chuffed: “I've just finished working on a sale of a company to a US buyer, and now I'm in the process of advising a client on a deadlock between the shareholders and directors of a company.”
When asked about culture, interviewees pegged Wilsons as a “very family-friendly firm – lots of people here have young children.” Sources therefore found Wilsons to be “pretty forward-thinking” when it came to flexible working hours and working from home. “Partners actually sometimes question you if you're staying too late. They'll ask 'why are you still here?' – in a nice way!” An average day lasts from 9am until 6pm, “although some people leave at five – nobody's bothered as long as you're getting you're work done!”
With many of its lawyers heading home to their families, our interviewees did highlight that after-hours socialising isn't particularly rowdy. In addition “being here [in Salisbury] has its advantages and disadvantages: it's a lovely place, but there's not too much going on.” That's not to say that there isn't a social edge to life at Wilsons. The firm's emphasis on charity fundraising often brings people together: in 2016 Wilsons organised a series of events to support its chosen charity of the year – Wiltshire Air Ambulance – including cake sales, quizzes and a 27-mile trek through the countryside to complete 'the White Horse Challenge'; in 2017, however, each lawyer was allowed to devote a day to assisting a charity of their choice.
Further mingling is facilitated through 'Law South,' a group of 12 law firms (including Wilsons) in the South of England that organises training sessions together. “It's a useful way of getting to know other people working in the region,” trainees noted. “We look forward to catching up with everyone!” A commitment to the local area is a must if trainees are eyeing up an NQ job at Wilsons: “They're looking for people who want to stay and eventually become partners – not those with a short-term view.” In the end, two out of four qualifiers were retained in 2017.
In keeping with its stance on kinder working hours, Wilsons recently launched a bi-annual 'lifestyle magazine', which combines features on legal developments as well as local highlights including the Salisbury International Arts Festival and the hippest nearby food producers.
How to get a Wilsons training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 31 March 2018 (now accepting applications)
Training contract deadline (2019): 30 June 2018 (now accepting applications)
Each year Wilsons sifts through between 200 and 300 applications total for its four training contracts and five vacation scheme spots on offer.
Following an initial screening, up to 25 applicants are invited to an interview with HR director Sarah Williams and a partner. HR manager Jo Ratcliffe tells us this is a chance for the firm to “get to the bottom of where candidates see themselves heading.” As a current trainee confirmed: “All the expected topics were covered, including where I saw myself in the future and what interests I had outside of work. I found it very relaxed. ” Another recalled that “a lot of the questions were based on my CV.”
From here, the firm decides who to invite to a vac scheme. Training contract applicants, meanwhile, go on to an assessment day in August if they make the cut. The number of applicants who secure a spot varies each year, with ten lucky hopefuls usually making the cut.
The day consists of an in-tray exercise – “you're given tasks via email and have to diarise your entire day,” a trainee told us – plus drafting and proofreading tests, and a group task. The latter forms “quite a big section” of the day, Jo Ratcliffe tells us, “Sarah Williams and I, together with some partners, usually sit in on that to observe how effectively the candidates interact with each other.” We're told that in the past this task has taken the form of “two sets of candidates communicating through an intercom about how to get a batch of eggs from one side of a map to the other,” and “debating the pros and cons of saving a group of people who'd been trapped.”
The firm's week-long vacation scheme takes place in July and has five places available. Vac schemers visit a different department each day of their visit. “We try to balance it so that they get a good mix of work overall,” Ratcliffe tells us. On the final day, there's an informal lunch attended by the senior and managing partners. “The trainees usually take the vac schemers out for lunch at some point too,” Ratcliffe adds.
When it comes to choosing the final four, “it all boils down to who the best candidates are for the long term,” Ratcliffe concludes. The firm requires candidates to have at least a 2:1 degree from a top-30 university, and Ratcliffe tells us that work experience, while not a necessity, is viewed very favourably: “It's great when we get someone who's made a concerted effort to get as much experience as possible.”
A final point: being a native of Salisbury isn't a prerequisite for this firm, but Wilsons is likely to seek assurances that you're happy to make the city your home.
Life in Salisbury
St Johns Street,
- Partners 29
- Other solicitors 40
- Trainees 8
- UK offices Salisbury, London
- Contact Jo Ratcliffe, [email protected], 01722 427564
- Training partner Charlotte Watts, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 4
- Minimum required degree grade 2:1 or other
- Vacation scheme places pa: 5
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open now
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 30 June 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open now
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 March 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: Above market rate
- Second-year salary: Above market rate
- Post-qualification salary: Above market rate
- Holiday entitlement 25
- LPC fees: Partial
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
Main areas of work
Family: The team’s expertise ranges from pre-nuptial agreements and civil partnerships to divorce, children’s arrangements and surrogacy law.
Charity: Wilsons has one of the most highly ranked teams in the UK. We advise on the complete range of legal needs and have a particular specialism in contentious and non-contentious legacy work. The constitutional and governance team has considerable expertise in advising military charities and the charitable care sector.
Agriculture: Wilsons’ rural team has developed a practice centred on the needs of rural business and landowners. These include complex sales and purchases, development options for landowners, grants and diversification advice and property litigation, including landlord and tenant, partnership matters, boundary, title and rights of way disputes.
Commercial: The commercial team specialises in employment, commercial property and corporate work. Corporate work focuses on commercial tax and asset planning, transactions and refinancing. The team deals with an unusual breadth of work requiring high-quality, bespoke commercial advice.
Property: Our clients have substantial commercial, agricultural and residential property interests and the firm advises on purchasing, letting and sales, and has a reputation for gaining excellent results in the options over and sales of development land.
Litigation and dispute resolution: Wilsons has one of the largest teams outside London. We advise clients on a wide range of contentious matters to provide an efficient and effective means of dispute resolution. In addition to its expertise in agricultural and probate disputes, the firm has specialists who can advise on all aspects of commercial dispute claims and reputation management.