Ashfords has built a regional empire in the South West and now has its sights set on a more rounded national profile – an enticing prospect for trainees who want high-quality work and more balance in their lives.
“I was looking for a firm that was focused on the South West but not a firm where I would have to compromise on quality of work. In that respect, Ashfords was the perfect choice,” one satisfied source told us when recalling their reasons for picking this firm. While most of Ashfords’ six offices are indeed in the South West, it does have a small London base and markets itself as a national outfit. One insider observed that “it’s common for firms that are on the cusp of being national to emphasise how corporate they are while maintaining a good work/life balance. But Ashfords genuinely does have a good balance. It’s not just a marketing ploy.”
Work-wise, Ashfords splits its services into business and personal areas, making it an ideal destination for those who want to work for corporates and/or individuals. The firm picks up Chambers UK rankings for its local government, venture capital investment, personal insolvency and (if you’re looking for something niche) equestrian work. Homing in on the South West, Ashfords’ know-how is mostly rewarded with high-level rankings in several areas: real estate is a real strength, with nods going to various related strands like planning, social housing and property litigation, while other highlights include banking & finance, corporate/M&A, employment and IP.
Trainees choose between a South West contract or a Bristol contract. Bristolians tend to stay put for all four seats, while South West trainees primarily reside in the Exeter HQ but can also spend time in Plymouth, Taunton and Tiverton. The firm doesn't recruit trainees into the London office directly but might offer up a seat there if there is a business need for it. When it comes to seat allocation, the process starts off quite informally: “We find our own opportunities by talking to department heads – it’s down to you to make that happen.” Department heads then feed these preferences back to HR, who put together an available seat list for trainees to confirm their choice. The final result was a mixed bag for our sources with some getting their first choice and some ending up a tad disappointed: “HR doesn’t always align with the conversations that you’ve had with partners.” The firm told us that it listens to all parties in the allocation process and assigns seats with both business need and the career development of trainees in mind.
Real estate is the firm's biggest department and many trainees end up sitting here. The department covers development, social housing, residential, landlord and tenant, and commercial property work. The Exeter office has a niche in energy sector work, which covers projects such as solar and wind farms, as well as recycling plants. Bristol has a penchant for franchise work – one of their main clients, Subway, can “keep trainees occupied for their whole seat!” Commercial work can involve helping property developers “on the whole process from land acquisition to the sale of individual plots.” The team recently helped construction company Unitbuild as it purchased a site in Plymouth to build a new business park. Read about the firm’s social housing work online.
The size of the real estate team “gives property litigation the scope to generate work off of those clients if they run into disputes.” This team works with local authorities on landlord and tenant matters such as evictions; it also works with property investors, portfolios and chains, as well as “the regular ‘Joe Bloggs’ who’s had a residential bust-up with their neighbour.” Of late, the group represented CDS (Superstores International) during a dispute with its landlord over asbestos found on its commercial premises in the North West. Trainees here liked that they’re “not just dealing with the same thing again and again. It’s constantly fresh and different.” Typical tasks included drafting break notices and writing letters prompting a response from the other side or different parties. “Most of the time, it never escalates to court,” said sources, but when it does, trainees can find themselves taking notes, preparing bundles and keeping in contact with the barrister on the case.
"It’s constantly fresh and different.”
The corporate department works on M&A deals but also handles corporate advisory matters across the country. In Bristol, there’s a growing expertise in the fintech space. Showcasing some of the firm’s cross-border capabilities (boosted by its membership of the ADVOC network of international firms), Ashfords’ corporate lawyers recently advised beauty product maker Swallowfield on the sale of its manufacturing business to a Canadian development group for £35 million. “In terms of the work that I was doing at first, it was baby steps,” noted one source, but we were told that responsibility soon comes knocking once trainees find their feet: “I had an important call from a client with ten minutes’ notice. From that point, I ended up managing my own files.”
Restructuring and insolvency is a small department that’s spread across the London, Bristol and Exeter offices. Matters here span debt recoveries, appointments of administrators and liquidators, and “investigations into letters of claim against previous company directors.” As there “aren’t masses of firms covering this work in the South West, we get high-value and interesting matters,” an insider reported gladly. On its list of recent assignments, lawyers here represented CVR Global, which acted as the liquidators of Implement Consulting in a matter worth £3.3 million. On the personal legal services side, high net worth individuals also call upon the group for its bankruptcy expertise. This is a “niche area for us and there’s lots to learn,” enthused one source. Among the common tasks for trainees are writing letters, drafting agreements and running timelines.
“I am basically my supervisor’s shadow,” joked one source. Trainees were huge fans of their supervisors, who have reportedly mastered that “perfect balance of being hands-on while giving you independence. They’ll give you something and say, ‘Have ten minutes, then we’ll come back and talk about it.’” Partners were also described as being good at placating trainees’ worries: “They say that there’s no such thing as a stupid question and they’re always willing to talk to you about any ideas you’ve had.”
This approach was felt to foster a culture of kindness, with this trainee flagging that “we’re told to help people any way and at any time we can! It really makes us feel like a big team.” The Exeter HQ was highlighted as having “a great family environment” aided by its open-plan layout. The office also has a canteen and a gym, where the firm hosted a rowing challenge for Sports Relief (“it was fun to go and watch people get sweaty!” chortled one amused trainee). Bristolians, meanwhile, wanted to make it clear that “we’re known as the cool office. We’re quite laid back and pretty open. We do lots of socials and stuff – it’s chill.” Firmwide, we heard of departmental days out and weekends away. For example, “the real estate team took everyone to a hotel in Cornwall where we enjoyed free drinks, beach yoga and a spa – it was so fun!”
"We enjoyed free drinks, beach yoga and a spa – it was so fun!”
Trainees were also fans of Ashfords’ “really healthy and up-to-date attitude” towards diversity and inclusion, with this source detailing how the firm “puts on regular training and sends out little tests to make sure you’re up to date throughout the year.” At the same time, insiders acknowledged that the firm has some way to go to diversify its ranks and commented that “it’d be nice to see more female partners.” At the time of publication, we were told that Ashfords has recently appointed a new female CEO, which has strengthened the representation of women at the senior level of the firm.Returning to the subject of work/life balance, trainees told us that the average day lasts between 9am and 6pm, with a late finish considered to be 7pm. These consistent hours were put down to team mentality: “Rather than one person staying until 11pm, we all stay until 7pm. It makes it more fun to be in late and we get it done better as a group.”
The qualification process is a bit like the one for seat allocation, where trainees make their preference known to partners and heads of department. A formal NQ jobs list is released after HR liaises with heads of departments to confirm space for roles. Qualifiers do apply, but only face an interview in the event that two people go for the same job. In 2020, seven of nine qualifiers stayed with the firm.
The view from Ashford's training principal
Training principal Kerry Morgan-Gould tells us that Ashfords is "committed to attracting and retaining the next generation of lawyers. Ashfords actively encourages alternative routes into the legal profession and supports career progression for all trainees whether they join us via the Degree/LPC or CiLEX pathways. The firm is keen to ensure that future lawyers are as ‘rounded’ as possible and offers training in associated complementary subjects, including business management, as fee-earners gain experience and seniority."
Ashfords’ revenue has risen 69% in the last five years. Nice work!
How to get an Ashfords training contract
Training contract deadline (2023): 30 April 2021 (opens 1 November 2020)
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.
More on the firm's social housing work...
Social housing lawyers, meanwhile, work for registered providers, housing associations and charities on the acquisition and disposal of land, plus the selling of affordable housing plots. Work for local authorities covers regeneration projects and long leases. Trainees here liked “helping fight the housing crisis” and feeling that they were doing some good for society. The team recently handled a matter for Aster Group, which involved the purchase of land for 148 affordable housing units across four sites in Sussex, Hampshire and Cornwall for £26.7 million. “I’ve been taken aback with the amount of involvement I have,” said one happy and representative insider. Trainees across real estate can find themselves dealing with deeds and title analysis; drafting application forms; conducting plenty of research; and getting ample client contact: “It’s great to help a client’s portfolio evolve – you can really build up a good relationship with them.”
The Exeter Young Business Club
Most of the socialising in Exeter occurs through the Ashfords-sponsored Exeter Young Business Club, which hosts city-wide events for young professionals: “It’s great to mix with other people at a similar stage in their careers, like trainee accountants. You get a chance to build that network now.” We heard that the club had organised events based around zorbing, pub quizzes and go-karting.
- 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 2020
- Training contract deadline, 2023 start: 30th April 2021
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1st November 2020
- Vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 30th April 2021
- 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 2020
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020
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)