There's private client and charity work aplenty at Salisbury-based Wilsons, but those with commercial interests should prick their ears up too.
Where there's a will, there's a way
At least that's what solicitors at Wilsons are hoping as they take one case all the way to the Supreme Court. Here it is in a nutshell: the late Mrs Jackson made a will and left a sum of money to the RSPCA and fellow animal charities the RSPB and Blue Cross. Her estranged daughter, Mrs Ilott, contested the will and was subsequently awarded £163,000. Now Wilsons – on behalf of the above charities – is appealing the decision. The case will determine the extent to which the courts can revise a person's testamentary wishes. It also shows why this firm has scored a nationwide ranking for its charities expertise in Chambers UK.
Wilsons is no one-trick pony though. It's long been known for its cracking private client and agricultural practices – both of which receive top regional rankings in Chambers UK. These areas also feed into its business arm, which handles employment, real estate and corporate matters, among others. “After the global slowdown post-crash, commercial work is on the up again,” training partner Charlotte Watts tells us. “It's difficult to say whether the balance between individual and business-oriented work is shifting, but there's been a definite upturn across all areas of the firm.” Lawyers on the business side of the coin recently helped a private equity house beef up its portfolio with a West London property valued at £70 million. FYI: it'll soon be divided up into several plush student pads (upgrade, anyone?).
Speaking of London: Wilsons does have a petite office in the capital, which attracts its own work and is used to facilitate regional clients' interests in the Big Smoke. Trainees with a craving for rush hour congestion can potentially opt for a London-based seat mixing commercial, charities and family work. But we didn't get the sense that many would be taking the firm up on the offer. “I didn't want to live in London. I didn't want to join a London firm,” one trainee emphasised, mirroring the rest. “But what I did want was high-quality work outside of London, and that's what Wilsons provides.”
First seats are allocated by HR. “Before you start they ask what electives you've taken on the LPC and whether you have any preferences.” Trainees then list three preferences a couple of months before subsequent seat rotations. A property-oriented stint is compulsory – property estates, commercial or residential property will do the trick – and trainees are also likely to spend time in private client or probate and trusts. The HR director will meet with trainees before allocation decisions are made, but on the whole sources wanted a more formal structure. Nonetheless, interviewees did concede that “most people are happy” and often get their top choices: “If you don't, they keep it in mind next time.”
"Getting into the nitty-gritty to draft research reports."
A seat in private client involves “the pre-death stuff,” trainees revealed, “like the creation of trusts and complex wills, as well as lifetime tax planning.” The group traditionally plied its trade in the landed estates and farms sector, but has since built its rep catering for entrepreneurs and handling offshore-related matters. For trainees, there's “a lot of will drafting, and they range from the straightforward I'm-leaving-everything-to-my-wife ones to those that are more complex.” Other tasks can be research-heavy: “One lasted for a week. I had to research and write a memo for a client, detailing the advantages and disadvantages of a certain arrangement.”
Probate and trusts, is more, well, “looking towards death and post-death,” trainees helpfully clarified. Here it's a case of dealing with the day-to-day administration of trusts, and probate, ie establishing the validity of wills. Probate is “more process-driven,” so trainees get stuck in from the start. “You're finding out the value of the deceased's estate, you're drafting the oath to get a grant to pay the legacies – you're doing it all.” Sources also drafted lasting powers of attorney and got to grips with Court of Protection work: “When we're making a deputyship application because someone lacks the mental capacity to run their affairs, you'll be getting all of the papers signed, which is a big job.”
A contentious trusts and probate seat exposes trainees to a lot of legacy recovery work on behalf of well-known charities like Help for Heroes and the RNLI. “I've been able to write to the executor of a will to encourage them to pay the charity the money that's been left to them.” This line of work took up a fair whack of our sources' time. “It's good because you can master your letter writing skills. As the size of a matter increases, the letters we draft are no longer fixed-format. They become much more bespoke.” The group also acts for individuals who contest wills. Trainees on these matters “spend a lot of time at the library, getting into the nitty-gritty to draft research reports. I looked into medical reports to try and establish whether the person who made the will had the testamentary capacity [mental capacity] to do so.”
"If you ask for five minutes of someone's time, chances are they'll give it to you.”
On the property side, trainees can complete a seat in property estates. Clients here include Hampshire-based Ashdale Land & Property as well as the Salisbury Diocesan Board of Finance. The work here involves advising landowners on a variety of matters, from the sale and purchase of rural estates, to the division of assets after a divorce, to the establishment of alternative energy projects like solar and wind farms. Those who'd spent time in residential property were especially happy: “I was able to run my own files on the sale and purchase of homes. You can see matters from start to finish, and you get a lot of responsibility. I was out visiting the sites and dealing with estate agents!”
With almost 300 years in Salisbury, it's no surprise trainees highlighted the firm's community connections. It went Magna Carta crazy in 2015, sponsoring a city-wide campaign to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the charter. It included walking tours, seminars, festivals and art exhibitions. Every trainee sits on the charity committee: “We have monthly meetings where we discuss how to give back to the community.” Each year the firm chooses a local charity to fund-raise for; in 2015/16 it was Wiltshire Air Ambulance's turn. To support the charity, a seven-strong team – the 'Wilsons Wanderers' – trekked 27 miles through the countryside to complete the 'One Day White Horse Challenge'.
It doesn't get much wilder than that, sources admitted. “Most people don't come to Salisbury for the party lifestyle.” A tamer offering is available though. Trainees regularly go for lunch and Friday drinks, usually at locals the Cosy Club or The New Inn, “which has a very classy beer garden.” They also broaden their net by hobnobbing with members of Salisbury Young Professionals: “It's a multi-company group, and they arrange things like quiz nights and barbecues.”
On the whole, Wilsons is “very family-oriented, which is why there isn't much of an after-work social scene – people have other commitments.” This does bode well for working hours, with trainees telling us that “you are encouraged to leave at 5.30pm. They realise that other things are important.” It also bodes well for the overall atmosphere too. “There's more of a family vibe in the office. Everyone wants everyone to succeed and people are quite happy to speak to you. If you ask for five minutes of someone's time, chances are they'll give it to you.”
“Most people have been here for a long time,” trainees observed, “and it's clear that the aim is to keep trainees on and develop them into partners – it's a point of pride for the firm.” In 2016 two of four qualifiers were retained.
Trainees do get a few chances to sample London life. Work in areas such as property and company commercial can see trainees summoned to the capital, while training sessions organised via Law South bring them to the city's bustling streets too.
How to get a Wilsons training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 31 March 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 30 June 2017
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 making the cut in 2015.
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 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 28
- Trainees 8
- Total staff 152
- Contact Jo Ratcliffe, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Method of application Application via website
- Selection procedure Interview and assessment day
- Closing dates for training contracts to commence in September 2019 30 June 2017
- Training contracts pa 4
- Salary Above market rate
- Holiday entitlement 22 days
- Offices Salisbury, London
Main areas of work
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 noncontentious 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.