If you want to work with companies and individuals, then be sure to look at this Southern gem, which doesn’t “have a fixed idea of what trainees should be like.”
Ashfords training contract review 2022
A common theme emerged throughout our interviews: trainees chose Ashfords because it offered the best of both worlds – location and practice area expertise. Sources were committed to living in the South West, but also found that Ashfords offered “work on a national scale”and in broad areas of interest, whether that was private client or technology. To top it off, “the culture has proven to be open – there's a nice balance between high-quality work and not working people to the bone,” said one trainee, while another emphasised a liberating aspect of learning their craft at Ashfords: “It feels like they are willing to take you as they are – they don’t have a fixed idea of what trainees should be like.”
Whatever they’re like, the chances are that Ashfords trainees will be working in one of the firm’s four offices in the South West: Exeter (the HQ), Plymouth, Taunton and Bristol. The firm does have a small base in London, though trainees are only recruited into this office via its internal paralegal pool. The remaining trainees opt to either complete their entire training contract in Bristol or spread across the three other South West bases.
Ashford’s mix of business and personal legal expertise is reflected in its Chambers UK rankings. The Exeter base in particular picks up high nods for its family and agricultural/rural affairs expertise, while on a broader level across the South West the firm is commended in several commercial areas including banking & finance, construction, corporate, employment, IT, IP and litigation. On a UK-wide scale, Ashfords is rated as one of the best for horse racing and equestrian matters (although we don’t imagine that many trainees devote much of their time to this specialist area!), but also picks up recognition for its venture capital, personal insolvency and local government work.
Ashfords also appears to be a firm that’s keen on reflection: in late 2020, Louise Workman – the firm’s first ever female chief executive – told the press that Ashfords had launched ‘Project Refresh’, which would re-evaluate the firm’s processes using the knowledge gained from the pandemic and its resulting lockdowns.
Second-years usually get first dibs on subsequent seat destinations; first-years state their top three preferences from the options left. We heard that the firm likes trainees to do a real estate seat (“that department is always looking for trainees”) but it is by no means compulsory. One source recommended that “if you have a special interest, it’s down to you to put the feelers out” and communicate that interest with the relevant lawyers in a certain department. In offices like Bristol, where there’s “usually six seats,”we heard that there’s “less competition.” Some trainees had been furloughed for anywhere between six weeks and up to five months. Those who had been furloughed typically returned to their original seat instead of rotating into a new one.
The constructiongroup has a “very strong one-team approach” across offices and with other departments. Some interviewees had worked on litigation matters with Ashfords lawyers in Exeter, while others “did some development financing work with Bristol’s banking group.” Trainees found that their assignments were not driven by their supervisors’ practices alone. In addition, “we get a really good mix of contentious and non-contentious work.”The former involves drafting letters to the other side and handling disclosure in preparation for hearings. On the transactional side, trainees put together and review construction contracts: “I got a fair bit of responsibility towards the end of my seat, so I got to review things on my own.” The team recently advised Wandsworth Borough Council on its multimillion-pound contract to repair and protect Wandsworth Bridge. Client contact is reportedly high in this group too: “I’d only been at the firm for a few weeks when one client was coming up to their financial year end, so they had quite a few deals to get across the line, which meant I liaised with them directly.”
Trainees also had bags of client interaction over in real estate: “I was the main point of contact for a client’s day-to-day work,” one source proudly revealed. Real estate is the firm’s biggest sector, so those who weren’t too keen on a seat here still appreciated the experience “because real estate-related matters come up in all our departments.” Social housing, business lets, residential, everyday conveyancing and landlord-tenant matters all crop up here. Research and drafting Land Registry filings are typical trainee tasks, alongside post-completion work. “I did more of the smaller tasks concerning various matters, rather than seeing one matter through,” recalled one source. The team recently acted for Sovereign Housing Association on its land purchase to build affordable housing on a new zero-carbon development.
"I got to do a bit of court advocacy for a low-value claim, which was great because it can be difficult to get advocacy experience on your training record.”
Litigious real estate issues are handled by a separate property litigation team: boundary disputes and issues of liability for disrepair at the end of tenancy often come up. On that note, Ashfords recently defended the London Borough of Newham against a lease forfeiture claim concerning allegations of disrepair and dilapidation. In true Ashfords style, collaboration with other offices is common: “I do bits for both the London and Exeter offices, like defending environmental and freedom of information investigations by the Information Commissioner’s Office. Solicitors in other offices help defend civil data breach claims, so working with them helps me understand regulatory issues.” We heard that one lucky trainee even got to attend a Supreme Court hearing.
The commercial litigationfolks “are automatically asked to attend court and mediations; I even got to do a bit of court advocacy for a low-value claim, which was great because it can be difficult to get advocacy experience on your training record.”Others had attended virtual mediations: “It was so interesting to watch how the partner and associate approached the proceedings. I got to discuss things with the client, too.” Newbies usually draft correspondence, claim forms and instructions to counsel and expert witnesses. They’re also responsible for court management – like chasing the court for listings – and researching clients’ options in different disputes: “We’re integrated within every matter, whether it’s high or low-value.”We heard “there’s a fair bit of scope to do professional negligence work by looking at the SRA[Solicitors Regulation Authority] code and how it applies to different situations.” It’s worth noting the firm usually acts for the claimant in these situations; the firm recently represented Exeter City Council during its £3 million claim against Allies & Morrison Architects for alleged delays in the design and construction of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s extension and restoration. Ashfords also has a criminal practice, which is centred on prosecutions for local authorities.
Trainees roughly put in 40 hours a week and our interviewees scored the firm highly for respecting work-life balance: “It’s not perfect because we’re a law firm with deadlines, but we’re very good compared to other firms,”one summed up. The more imperfect side can involve the occasional “call at 7pm where you’re asked to do something right away, which is annoying when you’ve not had anything to do for the past couple of hours!” Trainees are eligible for bonuses, which are typically based on performance. Considering the pandemic, everybody automatically got 3% of their annual salary in the latest bonus round (plus an extra 2% at a later date) and the firm didn’t make any pay cuts to trainee salaries.
The pandemic also encouraged the firm to home in on its mental health initiatives: “We’ve always had structures in place, but now we get daily emails that often include information on support helplines, recommended podcasts and yoga classes they’ve lined up.” To combat the more claustrophobic elements of remote working, the firm encourages people to take a ‘headspace hour’ during the day, by, for example, going for a walk and getting outside.
"They’ve made a real effort to translate face-to-face onboarding into online meetings, which have been a really valuable way to meet people.”
Those who started their training contract remotely praised the firm “for going the extra mile to make sure we were bedding in okay. They’ve made a real effort to translate face-to-face onboarding into online meetings, which have been a really valuable way to meet people.” Ashfords even sent new starters a box of cocktails on the last day of induction. The firm also couriered over all the tech that newbies needed: "When you start a new job you usually have to spend days sorting things out with IT, but everything had been set up for me specifically before I started my TC.” On a contact note, furloughed trainees were still invited to socials and training sessions to keep them in the loop.
When back in the swing of work, sources felt communication levels were good: “I don’t think supervision has decreased just because I’m not in the office with my supervisor. In some cases, I actually speak to my supervisor more now that we’re working remotely.” Another source enthused: “All the senior lawyers I’ve worked with have been really supportive and taken the time to give me feedback, which is crucial.” Trainees get a different supervisor for each seat, who can be a partner, a senior associate or an associate.
As with most firms, reviews of individual supervisors were hit and miss, with one source wisely declaring that “being a lawyer and being a manager are two different skills…”Overall though, “there’s never a sense of hierarchy – it feels like we’re all in it together, which is a real plus.”It no doubt helps that – in non-pandemic times – senior lawyers sit around the same desks as everyone else: “When I joined, I couldn’t tell who was more or less senior. Everyone was just so welcoming and made it clear that I could always ask questions or just say hi. There isn’t anyone I wouldn’t want to work with.”
As is the norm at most firms, trainees have mid and end of seat reviews. The first is an informal chat about how trainees are getting on, while the end of seat review uses the more formal, firmwide performance appraisal system. Training comes in the form of firmwide knowledge sessions, which vary in style and approach by department. In real estate, for example, “junior lawyers and paralegals give 20-minute presentations on a topic of law, then we have a Q&A.” Counsel in the commercial litigation group, meanwhile, have hosted a long-running series of seminars to update lawyers on changes in the field, like changes to civil procedure rules.
“I couldn’t have asked to train at a better firm, especially during the pandemic. I really hope to have a career here.”
Trainees who were furloughed for a longer period had their training contracts extended by six months, so qualification was delayed. Those who were on furlough for a short time – if at all – or had previous experience as paralegals followed the pre-pandemic qualification timeline: partners agree on NQ vacancies around March, then (following board approval) circulate the available positions. Trainees then express their preferences in April, with final offers being dished out a few weeks later. If only one trainee applies for a position, they won’t have to do an interview. According to our survey, five of six trainee respondents (including first-years) intended to stay indefinitely: “I couldn’t have asked to train at a better firm, especially during the pandemic. I really hope to have a career here.” In 2021, Ashfords retained all five of its qualifiers.
Laying the foundation
The firm set up The Ashfords Foundation back in 2018 ‘to bring together all the firm’s charitable giving.’ All proceeds from fundraisers go to the foundation, which focuses on one nominated charity each year: “There’s plenty of scope to get involved. Another trainee and I organised a sponsored run and split the proceeds between local and national foodbanks.”
How to get an Ashfords training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2022): 30 April 2022 (opens 1 November 2021)
Training contract deadline (2023): 30 April 2022 (opens 1 November 2021)
Ashfords has ten training contracts on offer for a 2024 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, curious 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.
Applicants can either apply for a summer scheme or a training contract outright. In 2021 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 32 direct applicants to the assessment days (including those who attend a summer scheme beforehand).
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.
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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2021
Exeter and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (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 1)
- Tax (Band 2)
- Local Government (Band 4)
- Private Equity: Venture Capital Investment (Band 4)
- Restructuring/Insolvency: Personal Insolvency (Band 2)
- Sport: Horse Racing & Equestrian (Band 1)