Ambitious national firm Bond Dickinson has just merged with Americans Womble Carlyle, reinforcing their shared specialisms.
Remember you're a Womble
To make a success of a marriage between a Geordie and a Bristolian is no mean feat. But the fusing of Dickinson Dees and South Westerner Bond Pearce in 2013 has clearly stoked Bond Dickinson's appetite for far bolder ventures; this time with Womble Carlyle. No, it's not staffed by the furry folk of Wimbledon Common – it's an American firm originally from North Carolina. The merger went live on 1 November 2017. Womble is by far the largest of the two legacy firms with double Bond Dickinson's revenues and double its partner headcount.
In fact, the two firms already knew one another quite well, thanks to an existing strategic alliance between them. And the two shared many common interests and sector focuses – areas such as healthcare, environment, energy, technology and real estate are awarded Chambers rankings on both sides of the Atlantic. Womble is also something of a pioneer in the development of AI in law firms. "It's an exciting time,” trainees echoed. "The firm has changed so much in the past few years and for the better." Training partner Paul Stewart added that the merger "offers us great opportunities to grow the business."
"It's an exciting time.”
Here on British turf, Chambers UK gives the firm top rankings in a broad variety of practices across the country, making good of the firm's sector focus, which you can find more about on its website. In the North East it receives top rankings in a dozen areas including corporate M&A, real estate, employment, litigation, planning, private client and intellectual property. In the South and South West there are top rankings for banking and finance, litigation, planning, professional negligence, real estate and several others. Our interviewees were attracted to the firm because they “wanted to do good work for reputable clients, but didn't want to get spent at a London firm.” The firm does recruit trainees in London, but only a couple; most trainees are in Newcastle or Bristol. At the time of our calls there were 18 trainees in Newcastle, 11 in Bristol, six in Leeds, five in Southampton, four in London, and three in Plymouth.
Trainees don't get to choose what seat they do first, but after that they fill in a form a couple of months before each rotation ranking their top three preferences out of the four wider business groups: real estate, corporate/commercial, private wealth, and disputes (though private wealth is only available in Newcastle and Bristol currently). “None are strictly compulsory, but they do prefer for you to do a real estate and a contentious seat.” For client secondments, it's assumed trainees are happy to go on one unless they've said otherwise. “They take your view into consideration, but one of the downsides to having several offices is sometimes it changes where seats are available at different times. For instance, there's one seat that was traditionally in Plymouth, but has just been moved up to Bristol.” In the smaller offices like Leeds, London and Plymouth, the seat choices are more limited. However, those in smaller offices “knew that coming in.” Other than a few grumbles about seat allocation being “a bit last minute due to waiting for clients to come back and confirm secondments,” most sources understood that HR “tries to accommodate people as best they can.”
Within the 151-lawyer real estate business group there are a number of subgroups trainees can sit in including property litigation, developers and investors, planning, agriculture, commercial, and residential. As one of the firm's biggest teams (and the largest real estate offering in the North East), the practice deals with well-known clients such as Historic England and Govia Thameslink. Recently it acted for Govia in the completion of 50 leases of bank machines at railway stations across the Southern and Thameslink Great Northern franchises to Cardtronics UK. On the commercial property side lawyers deal with landlord and tenant matters, acting for both sides, and the sale and purchase of land.
The planning seat generally involves working on development matters, but the more exciting work is on national infrastructure and regeneration projects. We're talking large-scale projects including railways, roads, power lines and wind farms. For example, the firm worked on the reopening of the railway between Bristol and Portishead, an offshore wind farm in the North Sea, the expansion of Bristol Airport, the redevelopment of Milton Keynes shopping centre, and the building of a new road to link the M18 to the old Hatfield Colliery site near Doncaster. The first of these is part of the MetroWest project to improve Bristol's rail services, which trainees work on, “doing a lot of research tasks, attending meetings and working with consultants.” As a large part of the work revolves around compulsory acquisitions (which allow the government to acquire private land), trainees also “drafted letters to object to compulsory purchases” and were “in charge of knowing whose legal rights could be affected.” The development side involves dealing with Section 106 agreements and negotiating with the council for planning permission.
"some were quite tricky and unusual assignments without precedents.”
The projects subgroup also deals with infrastructure projects but focuses on project finance. Sources noted “a lot of cross-team work with commercial, property and construction.” There's a split between the work done in the North and the South, with “the North mainly doing public sector work and the South more commercial work.” Energy projects crop up a lot in this seat, with trainee tasks including “reviewing contracts, assisting on drafting terms, and streamlining individual agreements.” Trainees have the opportunity to get involved in bids for new work. “I assisted with the preparation for a bid and was part of the interview panel,” one told us.
The commercial team has folk dotted in each of the six largest offices. The group addresses “everything from sales of goods and services to facilities management and data protection.” The IP team also sits within commercial – some interviewees helped out on copyright infringement claims alongside general commercial work. One such 'general commercial' assignment saw the team advise the Ministry of Justice on the procurement of interpreting and translation services from multiple suppliers. Other clients include “big high-street names and companies that everyone knows” like New Look, Costa and B&Q. “To begin with I did a lot of reviewing of draft agreements," a trainee told us, "but by the end of the seat I got the chance to draft agreements of my own – some were quite tricky and unusual assignments without precedents.” Sources also reported doing corporate support work and due diligence.
Dispute resolution is another biggie for the firm. Trainees noted: “It's really mixed depending on which supervisor you're sat with.” Our sources had worked on banking litigation, property litigation and retail matters. “We've got a range of multimillion-pound cases and then smaller ones related to the retail sector,” trainees explained. “I've had the opportunity to run a few small matters myself, drafting defences, witness statements and other court documents.” Larger cases involve more granular tasks: “things like disclosure and reviewing thousands of documents.”
The corporate department covers all kinds. Mergers and acquisitions? Check. Reorganisations? Check. Share and asset sales? Check. Trainees in this seat tend to get stuck into corporate authorisations and bibling – “that's a big part of a trainee's tasks in this seat.” You'll also draft board minutes and “review local media for business updates to keep clients abreast of what's going on.” The team recently advised Hertfordshire-based Renewable Energy Systems on its sale of a 60-megawatt portfolio of four wind farm projects to Aviva Investors. It's also helped Gateshead-based car dealership Vertu Motors on several deals to expand its franchises to add Mercedes, Toyota and Jaguar dealers to its portfolio.
“Even as a trainee you're made to feel like a valuable resource to the firm,” sources beamed. “You're seen as the future of the firm, and they do put a lot of time into trying to make us happy.” Despite the firm's various office locations, interviewees felt “an effort is made to get all the trainees together.” For example, the induction week sees them gather in either Newcastle or Bristol, so newbies can “forge relationships and get to know each other.” It helps that “nobody's stuck up.” The offices themselves are mostly open plan (there are 'pods' around the edge of the floors for slight privacy), with the exception of Newcastle where trainees sit in an office with their supervisor.
As for the social scene, apparently “there isn't a week that goes by without some way of blowing off steam with colleagues.” Most offices have active sports teams including football, netball and cricket, as well as active social committees that organise events throughout the year. At the time of our research, Newcastle trainees had a bowling night coming up to which “future trainees are invited too, so they can get to know us in an informal setting before they start.” Our Newcastle interviewees also had strong feelings over which was the best local pub – the two contestants being the Bridge Tavern and the local Pitcher & Piano. In Bristol, new trainees organise a scavenger hunt around town –“It's a pub crawl with challenges and hints along the way to get to the next pub.”
“a big drive towards being more innovative."
Sources couldn’t talk about culture without emphasising the commitment to corporate social responsibility events across the firm. “You see a full range of people involved in these," one source said. "The partners give as much weight to them as trainees do.” Events include charity quizzes, bingo nights, cake sales and cycle rides. There's also “a big drive towards being more innovative in the way we work with clients and internally.” A recent 'Innovation Week' involved events and lectures that “really energised people and served to illustrate what the firm is doing in terms of innovation and making clients' lives easier.” As part of this week, sources reported getting to test 'drive' Tesla's new self-driving car. Training partner Paul Stewart explains what this is all about: "Technology and AI will continue to change the way legal services are delivered. The extent and pace of change is hard to judge, but certain tasks (such as document review exercises) will continue to become less time consuming and there will be even more of a focus on junior lawyers assisting in the delivery of strategic advice to clients."
A trainee told us that “the firm has a lot of very capable people, some of whom have worked in London firms then chosen to get out. That means they are a lot more understanding about having a work/life balance.” Working hours do vary across seats, but most interviewees said a typical day lasts from 9am to 6pm, and “if it's quiet people encourage you to leave on time.” We did hear of a couple of late nights, with trainees staying till 10pm or even 2am, but sources said “that's not the norm.” Although US firms do suffer some stereotypes about hours, we expect the merger to have minimal effect on the hours culture here, give or take the odd conference call during American business hours.
When it comes to qualification, trainees explained: “There are normally more NQ jobs than qualifiers, but if multiple people want the same job it makes it a bit trickier.” At the time of our research, second-years were just going through the process: a jobs list is published and you can apply for a maximum of two vacancies in any of the firm's offices. That's followed by an interview – “it could be competitive if there's more than one person applying, but if it's only one then the interview may be more relaxed.” The firm lets qualifiers know if they have a job at the beginning of June. In 2017 it retained 22 of its 27 qualifiers.
Trainees were keen to highlight that "there's no one Womble Bond Dickinson trainee − some of us came straight out of uni, some have paralegal experience, and some are career changers."
How to get a Womble Bond Dickinson training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 28 February 2018 (opens 2 November 2017)
A good first step towards landing a training contract is getting a place on the firm's vacation scheme. As one current trainee pointed out, “almost all of us did it.” In 2017 the firm received 1,473 vac scheme applications, out of a total 1,715 applications for vac schemes and training contracts together.
Everyone begins their applications with the same online form which asks about candidates' academic achievements, outside interests and work experience – legal or otherwise. “On top of that, we ask some fairly searching competency-based questions,” head of recruitment Samantha Lee tells us. In 2017 the firm invited 525 candidates from the 1,715 who applied initially to send in a pre-recorded video interview, before inviting the successful 185 to assessment days.
The half-day session involves a group exercise that tests presentation and negotiation skills, a written exercise, and a short interview with a member of the HR team.
The best direct applicants progress to a final interview. This takes place with a partner and a member of HR, and involves a presentation prepared in advance on a commercial topic (vac schemers do this at the end of their placement).
Our sources agreed that demonstrating commercial awareness is key to getting a training contract here. “Preparation is everything – find out as much as you can about our clients,” trainees advised.
Bond Dickinson runs vac schemes in its Aberdeen, Newcastle, Leeds, Bristol, London and Southampton offices, accepting around 72 candidates in total. Both one and two-week programmes are available in each office.
Those on the one-week option sit in a single department, while those on the two-week scheme visit two. All vac schemers are allocated a supervisor, as well as a trainee buddy, and most get a chance to work on live matters. “We try to give them an experience as close as we can to the trainee one. It's about making sure they fit into our culture – we want to give a flavour of who we are so they can walk away saying yes it's for me, or no it isn't,” says Samantha Lee.
Lee continues: “We rely quite heavily on feedback from supervisors when deciding who should get a training contract. They complete a form on the quality of applicants' work and how commercially minded they are.” Her advice for impressing? “Come prepared, and treat the scheme as though it's a two-week interview. The number one thing to do is to look like you want to be here, which means getting stuck in, being enthusiastic and inquisitive about our different practice areas, and producing the best-quality work you can.”
The Newcastle legal scene
Interview with graduate recruitment partners Paul Stewart and Simon Hughes
Please note: since we conducted our research and conducted this interview, Bond Dickinson merged with US firm Womble Carlyle on 1 November 2017.
Chambers Student: Are there any highlights from the last year you think are important to mention?
Paul Stewart: Not solely in the last year, but we've entered into strategic alliances with Bersay in France, Redeker in Germany and Womble Carlyle in the US. All of those are really important developments for the firm. Womble Carlyle is a very significant firm in the US and they've got a fantastic client base and geographic spread, so there are great opportunities there for us. We also recently announced the opening of an office in Edinburgh – it will be a small office to begin with, but we believe there are good opportunities there for us. We're beginning to recruit into that office and we've been seeing some really good candidates.
Simon Hughes: It links into us being a very client-driven and focused firm. Although we've had a presence in Aberdeen for the best part of ten years, a lot of clients were saying they wanted us to be in the central belt, particularly on the finance and disputes side. It's a classic example of us listening to what our clients say.
CS: How well have you managed to achieve the strategic goals you set out for the firm five years ago?
PS: Our alliances are a really important part of the firm's strategy. You start to see work and client opportunities that you wouldn't otherwise have had. The legal market is incredibly competitive and, in terms of legal spend in the UK, is not really growing. So, while you can look to win more of that market, if you can also broaden the opportunities available to you through strategic alliances, that can only be beneficial. Edinburgh is another part of our strategy. We're looking to win new work and the feedback from existing clients is that there are opportunities for us.
SH: The alliances point is key – we're focused on having a sector approach, so when looking at the alliances we've entered into, that's very much the theme. We're not just trying to find a firm in a specific location, but someone genuinely aligned with what we do.
CS: What should students know about your firm's strategy going forward? Where will the firm be in two or three years' time?
PS: I think the key thing to stress is that we are a really ambitious firm. We're not just sitting back and watching the market develop around us; we're looking at ways to increase revenue and move the firm forward, while not losing the firm's culture.
SH: If you look at where this firm is and where we see growth in the future, you might say there are similar firms out there, and that's probably right. But if you look at the sectors we cover in the legal market, and the geographic spread of our offices and developing alliances, I can't immediately see any firms that are similar. We also have our London office which is growing, and it's fair to say to students now that London will be looking different and bigger by the time they are trainees. We're a firm with a growing presence in London and Scotland, and a good geographic spread. We also have an international reach which we're developing. I don't know that many out there can say the same. For a firm of our size, we have a stellar client roster. That's been increasing and been cemented over the past year. For example, our reappointment to shrinking panels (Tier one of Crown Commercial Services). There's the opportunity to work with international and household names, and international work in areas of the law that are exciting.
PS: One thing future trainees can expect to see – and they're something we've consistently offered – is a number of client secondments. At the moment we've got seven trainees out on secondment at key clients of the firm. These provide a great opportunity to be a member of an in-house legal team and to develop a greater understanding of how clients want legal services to be delivered.
CS: How is Brexit affecting the firm? What challenges and opportunities do you foresee Brexit posing for the firm in the future?
SH: I think that with every challenge comes opportunity. It's difficult at the moment; there's a lot of second-guessing what will happen in the market. We will also be impacted by the type of Brexit that happens. We have a large number of manufacturing company clients who see Brexit as a huge opportunity because of markets that will open up as a result – they have to look to do things differently. It's a great opportunity to go on that journey with them, to look to the future and develop new lines of business, as they themselves are looking more internationally. Going back to our alliances, we're well-placed with our alliance with Womble Carlyle – as a bridge over to Europe, it's really important on both sides. The challenges are far too many to list, but they will play out. We have a lot of financial institution clients that will be challenged. We've worked hard to remain close to them – producing briefings and holding seminars to discuss likely issues with them.
CS: What are the main future challenges for law firms generally?
PS: They are many and varied. It has always been a competitive market and is becoming more so. UK law firms face challenges from the accountancy profession and overseas law firms, as well as from each other. There is also the debate that continues about how you best deliver value to clients, how you structure your fees and offer different fee models.
SH: One of the key things and something we've looked at closely is the impact of technological changes. Innovation is going to be a game-changer and the pace of change is significant. What we thought would come in five years is here now. We see how the younger generation understand technology and the way in which they can operate to benefit the delivery of client service, and it's hugely impressive. It will be a game changer in the way legal services are delivered. It's exciting and as an added benefit will take the boring tasks we did as trainees out of the picture.
PS: Technology and AI are already changing, and will continue to change, the way legal services are delivered. The expectations placed on junior lawyers will continue to change as well – there will be an even greater premium placed on providing strategic, business-focused advice, with less of an emphasis on what are currently more labour intensive tasks, such as disclosure and due diligence. Our alliance with Womble Carlyle will also help us in relation to innovation, with the two firms working together to share best practices and new ideas.
CS: What sort of person thrives at the firm? How can a candidate really impress at interview?
SH: Someone with a ' can do' attitude – someone who will throw themselves in and make the most of the opportunities. As previously mentioned, it's not just about legal advice. It's a given that you'll be academically able and be able to deliver top-notch legal advice, but the distinguishing factor is someone who has that business sense and that understanding that we operate in the wider commercial world, not just in an ivory tower of legal academia. That's what clients look for, and what we impress upon trainees and prospective candidates. Our assessment centres are geared around finding people with that inquisitive mind and that understanding of the commercial world. We pick our trainees on that basis. The ones that get on well are the ones that really embrace that.
PS: You want people who have a real enthusiasm for being a lawyer, but also for learning and understanding what our clients do and how we can help them. One of the joys of being a lawyer is getting to find out how other people's businesses work and what matters to them. You've got to want to develop that understanding. It won't come as a surprise that we're looking for people who are intelligent, articulate and willing to work hard. We're also looking for people who are enthusiastic, not just about us, but about our clients and the sectors we work in.
CS: What advice do you have for readers who are about to enter the legal profession?
PS: Really think about the type of firm you want to work for. There are many different law firms out there and they can be differentiated by their cultures, their plans for growth, the clients they act for and the types of work they do. I think you need a very clear idea of what kind of firm you want to work for and why.
SH: With the firms you identify, take the time to get to know as much as possible about them. Firms like talking about what they do, so go to open days and speak to people. Get an idea from talking to people of what the culture is like. There are a myriad of firms that on paper look similar, but once you're through the door they're very different. You spend a lot of time at work – you will have an enjoyable career if you enjoy the culture and the people you work with.
Womble Bond Dickinson UK LLP
4 More London Riverside,
- Partners 123
- Associates 503
- Total trainees: 56
- UK offices Aberdeen, Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds, London, Newcastle, Plymouth, Southampton
- Graduate recruiter: Joanne Smallwood [email protected] 0191 2799046
- Training partners: Simon Hughes and Paul Stewart
- Application criteria
- Training contract pa: Up to 30
- Applications pa: Approx 1,300-1,400
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Vacation scheme places pa: 80+
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 2 November 2017
- Training contract deadline 2020: 28 February 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 2 November 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 28 February 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £28,000 (Bristol), £25,000 (Newcastle/Leeds)
- Second-year salary: £30,000 (Bristol), £27,000 (Newcastle/Leeds)
- Post qualification salary: Benchmarked annually, competitive
- LPC fees: Full cost of the course plus £6,000 grant
- GDL fees: Full cost of the course plus £6,000 grant
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Scotland, Newcastle, Leeds, London, Bristol and Southampton, and Plymouth
- Client secondments: Yes
Our clients range from FTSE 100 businesses and governmental organisations to privately managed business and wealthy individuals. Our clients’ interests always come first. Strong personal relationships, dedicated client teams and a deep understanding of our clients’ businesses mean they have confidence that we can respond to their needs effectively and efficiently.
Our regional heritage, flexibility and commitment to innovation enable us to offer focused, relevant services as a compelling alternative to other firms.
Main areas of work
• Energy and natural resources
• Public service and third sector
• Private wealth
• Transport, logistics and infrastructure
• Financial institutions
• Pharmaceutical, biotechnology and life sciences
• Real estate
• Retail and consumer goods
We look at our trainee recruitment as a long-term investment. Trainees at Womble Bond Dickinson will have an opportunity to spend six months in four business groups, gaining a real breadth of experience along the way.
This is your training contract and it’s up to you to make the most of it, but along the way we offer fantastic opportunities to develop your legal career in a growing firm.
Our supervisors are trained and fully supported on an ongoing basis. You'll have access to high quality work and senior client contacts. We regularly second trainees to our most high profile clients. We keep our trainee intake relatively small, which means that more often than not, you'll be the only trainee in a team, giving you a large amount of access to the experience and advice from people who are happy to teach.
We're looking for people across eight of our UK offices. There is no typical Womble Bond Dickinson trainee - our trainees come from varied backgrounds and bring a range of different experience, and that's very important to us.
What all of our people do share is an enthusiasm for law and a passion for our business. Beyond that we look for our trainees to have a strong academic background, although this is not the only criteria we use when shortlisting applications. It’s as important to us that candidates can demonstrate commercial awareness and a natural ability when dealing with people.
Apply for a training contract to start in 2020 online. The deadline to apply is 28 February 2018.
The first stage of the recruitment process is an online application form assessing the core behaviours we look for: thinking, communication, motivation and drive, teamwork and a commitment to our business and our clients.
If you successfully pass this stage you'll be invited to complete an online video interview. Which is an opportunity to tell us more about yourself.
The next step will be to attend an assessment day in the location of your choice (Newcastle, Bristol, Southampton or London). This consists of a number of exercises designed to assess the core behaviours. You'll also meet with trainees, partners and other people from around the business.