This South-West stalwart offers varied work, a genial culture and international opportunities.
Five go lawyering
For most awyers, life is one big trade-off: the better the work gets, the worse your social life becomes. But wait, here’s an Ashfords trainee telling us they think they have it all: "I wanted to be somewhere that had a work-life balance and great quality of work.” Can this be true? Having got to know a few firms in the South West, the claim about the quality of life seems legit, but we’ll inspect later on.
Turning to the standard of work at Ashfords, Chambers UK graces the firm with high-class rankings across a spread of core commercial areas like banking, real estate, M&A, and litigation, as well as more specialised sectors like technology, construction, social housing and even equestrian law. The firm also features in the Chambers High Net Worth guide. Almost all the firm’s rankings relate to the work of the five bases in the South West: Exeter, Bristol, Plymouth, Taunton and Tiverton. There’s also a London office (but which only recruits from paralegals), and trainees were quick to tell us that “we're looking to grow our presence outside of Exeter in the next couple of years, and we're keeping an eye on the M4 corridor.” Another added: "The expansion is promising for trainees coming in. Ashfords has got clear growth targets, and the M4 office will give a good link between London and the South West.”
And anyone still doubting the quality of client experience you get outside London should take a look at the firm’s client list, which includes Subway, RBS, Majestic Wine, HSBC, and London boroughs. But most striking about the work is that it's not woolly City matters; it's more tangible, often infrastructural, and leaves a footprint on the firm's locality. Being able to see the impact of your work as a junior lawyer is hugely underrated, we'd say. By virtue of their roles, trainees all felt their colleagues were “fairly entrepreneurial,” and at big firms outside London, entrepreneurialism defines your career path.
Our interviewees tended not to get their top choice for their first seat. “I don't think anyone minded,” one newbie recalled, “because you usually get the other three seats to choose where you want to be.” From then on, trainees have a mid-seat catch-up with graduate recruitment to discuss their performance and preferences: “It can be fairly competitive, because Ashfords might not have the space for a trainee in a particular team, and if they do, it can be limited to one spot.” Second-year trainees get preference. Our sources explained that “one thing that can be slightly frustrating is we only find out which seat we're moving to a few weeks beforehand.” The firm tells us that it aims to give its trainees at least one month's notice before they change seats.
While secondments aren't a guarantee, at the time of our calls a few insiders had been on “a relatively new scheme where you can go abroad and work at an international firm for up to two weeks.” Although it's “not a six-month secondment in the official sense, one of the trainees is in Australia right now.” Trainees are typically invited by HR and the business development/marketing teams to make an application when an opportunity arises; however, trainees “can prompt HR if you want to put forward a case as to why you want to go to that firm or country and then they'll arrange it.” At the time of our calls, we also heard of another trainee taking residence in a client's HQ for a few months during their commercial seat, “which came about because of business needs, as opposed to applying for anything.” All in all, however, “secondments are mainly available once you've qualified.”
Work in the corporate and commercial seat is broad, but notable are sector focuses on energy, IP and technology – trainees told us Bristol is becoming something of a tech hub, providing work in data protection, outsourcing and trade marks. As well as local businesses, a few international companies adorn the team’s client list: Notion Capital, Senus, BlackRock, and L'Artisan Parfumeur. The team recently advised Creditcall, a global payment gateway services provider, on its infrastructural agreements across the USA and Europe. “You get really stuck in,” reported one insider, “and I helped to draft non-disclosure agreements, website terms and conditions, and purchase agreements.” While our insiders didn't liaise with many clients, “I took more of a project management role, so I'd take their initial instructions, get the estimate price confirmed with the partner and start putting together a first draft.” As dawn breaks on the new world of GDPR compliance, trainees reported doing things like “amending privacy policies and data processing agreements, which has been great!”
In the real estate seat, the team mainly advises on property development, real estate investment, and leases. Recently Majestic Wines, Burrington Estates and the port DP World London Gateway all sought advice from the team. The Bristol team recently advised Hooton Bio Power over the leasing of a site for the development of a £180 million waste-to-energy plant. Local councils are keen on Ashfords, which advised Torbay Council on its acquisition of a £30 million logistics development. “The work can be quite formulaic and land law-heavy,” one insider recalled, “but the drafting is really interesting. Some of the contracts have been negotiated for years.” Another interviewee assisted a partner in “arguing for about seven hours with the other side over a couple of works in the contract.” Trainees also have the chance to advise property developers across the regions, “but also we have interesting construction clients that are further afield.” Trainees also reported advising retail clients who “constantly churn out new stores. That's an example of a business client who knows exactly what's going on, so you don't have to provide a lot of advice, but they also expect a lot from you.”
“It's a steep learning curve...”
Over in the corporate team, trainees reported tackling a variety of M&A, corporate restructuring, capital markets and private equity work. The retail and technology sectors stand out as particular strengths here, and clients are varied; they include Dynmark International, Emoov and KandyToy Holdings. “We get a lot less traditional investors, who are more modern and forward-thinking,” opined one source. “They're more comfortable with risk and dealing with start-ups, so that puts an interesting spin on things.” Transactions are generally middle-market in scale – an example being acting for Ontology Partners, a tech and service-chain company EXFO, on the sale of its share capital to Canadian-based data and analytics company, for a relatively cool $7.6 million. Worth noting is that on deals of this size, trainees will get some real responsibility: “I worked on a big multimillion-pound deal and got to attend the client meetings, so I met the senior directors, investors and shareholders – I was witnessing documents during signings, making notes and drafting ancillary documents,” a Bristol-based source recalled. We heard of one newbie being whisked off by a client to a digital festival.
“It's a steep learning curve” in the employment seat, where trainees will see a mixture of advisory and contentious work, including tribunal hearings. Again, clients can’t be pigeon-holed: McDonald's, Roald Dahl Literary Estate and the Post Office are among them. One Bristol source reported “a big mixture of sex discrimination, equal pay, disability, age and race cases – you get the whole lot.” The team currently advises Hello Fresh on all of its employment matters across the UK, and looking back to 2016, the team was also involved in one of the largest tribunal matters in the UK, in which a dismissed NHS whistle-blower was awarded £1.2 million for exposing safety concerns. As well as defending “your average Joe Bloggs,” one insider reported “advising big insurance clients, which puts an interesting dynamic on the work... it's quite fun being able to talk to a variety of clients all the time.” On the topic of clients, one insider shared that “some of the allegations you hear are quite shocking – it's like reading a scandalous novel!” You get decent responsibility here, as reported one Exeter trainee: “I attended a tribunal hearing on my own, which involved meeting the witnesses in the morning and assisting clients and counsel throughout the day.”
Hours are reasonable; most newbies reported arriving at 9am and leaving around 6pm (core hours are 9am until 5.15pm). But this is law, where late finishes are unavoidable: “I was here till 10pm once, but that didn't happen many times.” Over in corporate, the hours can be “much more up and down, depending on which deals are closing. There was one week when I left the office at 2am every day, and the next week it would be 5pm.” Commercial property also presents “slightly longer hours, and typically starts at 8.30am.”
While our insiders were happy with their salaries, we couldn't help notice that there was some disgruntlement in regards to the bonus that has become “slightly less clear how it works.” Sources reported that bonuses had dipped quite significantly this year, with one commenting that “people are quite frustrated about that, because the firm pitched our growth plan at 9%.” The firm didn't quite hit its target this year, hence the drop. However, bonuses aren't just tied to how well the firm has done financially, but also on individual performance – performance reviews assign a rating to each person, and bonuses are distributed accordingly.
“Everyone is willing to speak to you regardless of their position, even the partners are chatty and make you feel comfortable,” one source proclaimed. “The partners are always keen to work closely with us, and are really big on pushing for trainee development.” We’ve documented this genial culture in previous years, and even London isn’t immune to that South-West charm; “the hours aren't too strict and everyone gets on with each other.”
“The firm puts on free drinks and snacks every Thursday.”
This is a sociable firm – “we like to go out and talk about it the next day!” reported a Londoner. An Exeter source said: “You're encouraged to hang out with everyone, even if it's just over lunch.” More formal events include the firm's annual summer party – “last year it was hosted at Exeter Castle and was a masquerade ball.” In Bristol “the firm puts on free drinks and snacks every Thursday,” although sources admitted that there “isn't a huge amount of trainee focus around events... it would be great to create links with other trainees in different offices.” The firm tells us it is aware of this feedback and is currently working on forging more inter-office links between trainees.
When it comes to qualification, the formal process involves sending a CV and cover letter to HR, before attending HR-led interviews. For some the process was felt to be "simple: I applied, had the interview a week later and was offered the position that day.” However, others weren't quite as enthusiastic: “The main complaint is that the NQ vacancies aren't well advertised, so for example we'll get an email out of the blue from HR saying there will be a vacancy, and after consulting with the partner about which locations it will be at, we'll get another email saying that HR has just been informed that it's available in multiple locations.” This has meant that some trainees who have been “left in the dark for too long start to look elsewhere.” We were assured by the firm that members of HR do their best to let trainees know the specifics as soon as they can. Trainees with previous paralegal experience may be able to qualify early provided there is a job available. In 2018, the firm kept ten out of 15 qualifiers.
“The firm is considering expanding locations to somewhere like Ireland and in between London and Bristol,” tips a trainee.
How to get an Ashfords training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 30 April 2019 (opens 1 November 2018)
Training contract deadline (2021): 30 April 2019 (opens 1 November 2018)
Ashfords has nine training contracts on offer for a 2020 start: two in Bristol, six in the South West and one in London (where trainees are only recruited internally). 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 vacation scheme or a training contract outright. In 2017 the firm received around 500 training contract and vac 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 day, and accept 24 onto the summer scheme. (The latter group attends the assessment day at the end of their placement.)
The assessment day includes three elements: a written exercise, a one-on-one roleplay and an interview with a partner and a member of HR. The interview takes around 45 minutes 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 vacation schemes in June 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.
Doing business in the South West
1 New Fetter Lane,,
- Partners 73
- UK fee earners 107
- Total trainees 24
- UK offices Exeter, Bristol, London, Plymouth, Taunton, Tiverton
- Graduate recruiter: Graduate recruitment team, [email protected], 01392 333 634
- Training partner: Andrew Worley [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: 1 November 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 30 April 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2018
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 30 April 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £25,000 (South West), £26,000 (Bristol)
- Second-year salary: £26,000 (South West), £27,000 (Bristol)
- Post-qualification salary: £40,000 (South West), £46,000 (Bristol)
- 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 2018
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
Exeter and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 2)
- Crime (Band 1)
- Banking & Finance (Band 2)
- Construction (Band 2)
- Corporate/M&A: Lower Mid-Market (Band 2)
- Employment (Band 2)
- Information Technology (Band 2)
- Intellectual Property (Band 3)
- Litigation (Band 2)
- Planning (Band 2)
- Real Estate (Band 2)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 2)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 2)
- Social Housing (Band 2)
- Local Government (Band 4)
- Restructuring/Insolvency: Personal Insolvency (Band 2)
- Sport: Horse Racing & Equestrian (Band 1)