Already firmly established as one of the leading firms in the South West, Ashfords has a growing London base too.
Check out the real estate
“The Tiverton office resembles something out of Downton Abbey – it's in a listed building off the high street – while in London we're based in the City on Fetter Lane right around the corner from the Royal Courts of Justice.” This quote is a nice illustration of the contrast between Ashfords' South West roots and its City aspirations. As with many of its regional competitors, Ashfords wants to grow in London, but for the moment the firm definitely leans toward the South West: at the time of our research ten trainees were based in the firm's Exeter HQ, five were in Bristol, three in London and one in Taunton. Ashfords is a fixture in the South West economy and local community – beyond Tiverton the offices are reassuringly modern in design, and Chambers UK tips its hat with high rankings for commercial practice areas like banking, real estate, M&A and litigation. The firm also doesn’t lag when it comes to recognition for more niche areas like private wealth, tech, construction, social housing and even equestrian law.
“You choose between a South West contract or a Bristol contract.”
Trainees are sent a list of seats two months prior to joining, with a total of 14 options listed, although second-years always get first pick. This means that despite providing HR with their top three choices, first-years don’t usually get their preference for their first seat. Although newbies didn’t mind this, they would prefer it if they were “sent a list with the remaining seat options that are available, rather than sending a full list from which second-years get priority – because as a result first-years are left playing a guessing game as to which seats won’t be taken.”
Our sources described the two different styles of training contracts which exist at Ashfords: “You choose between a South West contract or a Bristol contract.” It’s possible to mix up locations, but Bristolians informed us that they usually experience “a set route of seats due to the limited departments” – Bristol trainees tend to sit in employment, commercial, real estate and corporate. “If you would like to train in a different area, it’s up to you to make your own bed,” trainees told us. Exeter offers the most seat options, and trainees based here can also spend time in Taunton and Tiverton. The firm doesn't recruit trainees into the London office directly, but they might end up doing a seat there if the firm has need for it.
Proud to present
Real estate is the firm's biggest department and takes most trainees. The department covers development, social housing and commercial property work. Trainees are given the responsibility of running their own matters. “I think this really helps with the learning process,” one source said. Daily tasks include managing pre and post-sale admin, exclusion documents, financial statements and reports on title, plus analysing search results and sitting in on negotiations with land buyers and current owners – “it’s good fun to witness disagreements over the price.” The department is big on knowledge sharing and gets together “every two weeks to hold presentations on topics of interest – trainees are in charge of finding speakers, booking rooms and scanning articles.” Rookies also get involved in the transfer of land from the original to the new entity – “these matters can be quite complex and require a lot of research from our side since the school doesn't have lawyers and isn’t aware of how they hold the property.” Other clients include housing associations, commercial developers and local authorities and organisations (e.g. Mendip District Council and the Plymouth Arts Centre). The team recently advised commercial developer Burrington Estates on the acquisition of a development site for 85 homes in the Dorset village of Yetminster. Bristol trainees commented on the “generic, cut and paste work” they tend to do, focusing largely on three main clients: Subway, Curtis Banks (a pension fund), and Loungers. “Loungers are a particularly interesting client to work for since they convert old banks and churches into bars and restaurants, and so we’ll be dealing with bizarre clauses in the title.” Bristol did also recently advise historic car group Bicester Heritage on the refurbishment of the former RAF Bicester World War Two bomber station into a centre for historic motoring.
“Trainees don’t really dabble in the whole shebang.”
Over in corporate, trainees said that “dealing with the companies is more interesting than the actual work – the work itself is quite boring.” How so? “Corporate deals are generally more bespoke and complicated and so trainees don’t really dabble in the whole shebang,” one source explained. “We mostly work on ancillary documents, post-completion matters and HMRC applications.” Those sound like pretty standard corporate trainee tasks to us. In addition, the clients are an interesting bunch ranging from meal kit company Hello Fresh and pork pie and pasty makers Samworth to tech lenders Frog Capital and Draper Esprit. The team also recently advised Notion Capital, Eden Ventures and BGF Ventures on the $350 million sale of NewVoiceMedia, a cloud services company, to America's Vonage. Besides M&A, the team also tackles corporate restructuring, capital markets and private equity work, as well as dealing with startups. A Bristol 'tech hub' “deals with some interesting investments into start-up companies.” For example, Ashfords recently advised the shareholders of Kopernio, an AI tech start-up, on its sale to US analytics company Clarivate.
The South West commercial litigation team handles matters like shareholder and director disputes, sales disputes, reseller and franchising arrangements, and corporate litigation. The Bristol team focuses largely on the tech and retail sectors, while the team as a whole acts for clients including the Post Office, Lloyds Bank, Bank of Scotland and the Environment Agency. Lawyers also successfully defended insurance broker Ward Associates against a £1.8 million liability claim. Trainees described the seat as more of a learning experience than the others: “The partners take a lot of time to go through the work in detail and allow us to become part of the narrative – even if we don’t know all the answers.” Client contact is low due to the complexity of the matters, but “trainees are still able to work on interesting matters related to things like bankruptcy, energy and local business.”
As Above, So Below
Saying that South West firms offer a greater work/life balance is something of a truism – it's also just very true. Working 9am to 6pm “is an accurate description of the hours for at least 80% of us,” trainees informed us. The construction department falls under the other 20% – “I was eating dinner in the office most nights a week,” one trainee informed us. In real estate hours remain consistent throughout the seat, whereas “the work in litigation comes in peaks and troughs – you’re either super busy or left twiddling your thumbs.”
Following on from grievances we heard in 2018 about bonuses… the situation's still the same. “The firm has continued to base the bonus structure on individual performances and that hasn’t been so great,” one source shared. When it comes to salary, trainees were satisfied and said the firm is “pretty much on par with the market.”
Ashfords can also go toe-to-toe with any firm when it comes to the social side of things. In Exeter social events span from dodgeball trampolining to hosting a summer party in an old church with a “dance floor placed above people’s graves.” Interviewees assured us that this wasn’t as creepy as it sounds. Trainees also take part in 'XYBC' events, an Exeter business network for young professionals co-founded by Ashfords. South West charm flows throughout the offices and we heard that “the London office is pretty tight – we have beers with our CEO.” Sources did feel the firm could do more to connect the offices. “I believe we should have more cross-office events in addition to the annual knowledge-sharing days between departments,” one source said. We did hear that Bristol sees itself as something of a central meeting point for all six offices.
When it comes to qualification, trainees said “there's an unwritten rule that it's basically a 'tap on the shoulder' system – people tend to settle in their nests early on, leaving the process quite opaque.” In theory, the NQ process involves sending a CV and cover letter to HR and attending an interview. In practice, the “staggered approach” consists of staying in contact with HR and heads of department throughout your seats and informing them of your desires. “I feel like there is a lot of pressure to work out early on where you want to qualify, which is unfortunate for those who have no clue,” one trainee grumbled. In 2019 the firm kept eight of ten qualifiers.
While Ashfords is based in the South West, it dislikes being called a regional firm, and given its national clients and growing London base you can see why.
How to get an Ashfords training contract
Training contract deadline (2022): 30 April 2020 (opens 1 November 2019)
Ashfords has ten training contracts on offer for a 2022 start: split between Bristol and the South West. Candidates need not just a minimum 2:1 but a consistently good academic record to land a spot here. Beyond that, we're told the firm is looking for people who are business savvy, creative and ambitious – people who are team players and effective communicators. Links to the South West are not required, though candidates will need to show their motivations for wanting to work in the region, and demonstrate a commitment to staying in the area.
The firm's current trainees noted that their intake includes “a fairly even split of career-changers and fresh graduates,” telling us “going into law from another career is something the firm views positively.”
Applicants can either apply for a summer scheme or a training contract outright. In 2017 the firm received around 500 training contract and summer scheme applications. Both start off with the same online application form. This examines a candidate's qualifications and previous work experience, and asks several competency-based questions designed to assess their suitability.
Recruiters typically invite 16 direct applicants to the assessment days,
The assessment day includes three elements: a written exercise, roleplay and an interview with a partner and a member of HR. The interview takes around one hour and involves competency-based questions. “I had to show evidence of standard things like working well in a team,” a trainee recalled, “and they also asked 'When have you been put under pressure in the past, and what would you do differently next time?'”
The firm runs three week-long summer schemes in June and July each year. These take place in both the Exeter and Bristol offices, and there's room for 24 candidates in total. Attendees split their time between two departments, and past participants reported doing substantive, trainee-level work. Candidates spend the final day completing the assessment centre outlined above.
- Partners 73
- UK fee earners 222
- Total trainees 19
- UK offices Exeter, Bristol, London, Plymouth, Taunton, Tiverton
- Graduate recruiter: Graduate recruitment team, [email protected], 01392 337 000
- Training partner: Kerry Morgan-Gould, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 10
- Applications pa: 500
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Vacation scheme places pa: 24
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1st November 2019
- Training contract deadline, 2022 start: 30th April 2020
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1st November 2019
- Vacation scheme 2020 deadline: 30th April 2020
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: South West - £28,000, Bristol - £29,000
- Second-year salary: South West - £29,000, Bristol - £30,000
- Post-qualification salary: South West - £42,000, Bristol - £47,000
- Holiday entitlement: 23 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: South West (Exeter, Taunton, Tiverton, Plymouth) and Bristol
Main areas of work
University law careers fairs 2019
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
Exeter and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 2)
- Crime (Band 1)
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 2)
- Banking & Finance (Band 2)
- Construction (Band 2)
- Corporate/M&A: Lower Mid-Market (Band 1)
- Employment (Band 2)
- Information Technology (Band 2)
- Intellectual Property (Band 2)
- Litigation (Band 2)
- Planning (Band 2)
- Professional Negligence: Mainly Claimant (Band 2)
- Real Estate (Band 2)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 2)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 2)
- Social Housing (Band 2)
- Tax (Band 3)
- Local Government (Band 4)
- Private Equity: Venture Capital Investment (Band 4)
- Restructuring/Insolvency: Personal Insolvency (Band 2)
- Sport: Horse Racing & Equestrian (Band 1)