Birketts is a big fish in an East Anglia-sized pond.
East of Eden
Given the strength and depth of the UK legal market, budding lawyers should always be able to find at least one excellent law firm to apply to in their chosen region. For those considering living in the East of England, Birketts is one of those excellent law firms. But you might already know that. The trainees we spoke to, many of whom either studied at UEA or held another connection to East Anglia, could vouch for its “good regional reputation for being a nice place to work. I was already familiar with them.” One source echoed their fellow trainees in telling us: “I knew I didn’t want a London firm. I wanted a reputable firm without the City hours, and I wanted good responsibility early on. In the corporate team here I might be working with just one associate on a deal!”
The firm’s four offices, in Cambridge, Chelmsford, Ipswich and Norwich, give it a distinctly regional profile, and this enables Birketts to best almost any firm that dips its toe into East Anglia. Its only real competitor is Mills & Reeve, which frequently matches or narrowly tops Birketts. In agriculture, corporate, crime, employment, family, litigation, restructuring and all sorts of property-related bits Chambers UK recognises Birketts as having one of the best East Anglian practices. The firm is even seen as a leader in private client law outside of London. The client base is heavily regional, but Birketts snaps up plenty of work from London, elsewhere in the UK, and abroad.
"I wanted a reputable firm without the City hours, and I wanted good responsibility early on."
At the time of our calls there were eight trainees each in Norwich and Ipswich, four in Cambridge, and three in Chelmsford. But trainees are not wedded to the office they join. Instead they’re expected to complete at least one seat in a different office. That requires some flexibility on the housing front, with most trainees sorting short-term lets for their six-month seat. Birketts' financial contribution towards the expensive business of moving left trainees a little miffed: “The moving allowance hardly covers anything,” said one.
Newbies are allocated their first seat randomly. From there on, trainees voice their preferences to HR during the mid-seat review. The potential for an office move lends seat allocation more significance at Birketts, but it seemed HR had mostly given newbies what they wanted.
The commercial litigation team handles insolvency, professional negligence, fraud, shareholder disputes and more for both companies and individuals, some of whom are international. The firm recently defended Charles George Yule Balfour, brother of the Earl of Balfour, against a £30 million claim that he was part of an alleged fraudulent property scheme. One litigation trainee described “attending court with the barrister; drafting correspondence, applications for the court, witness statements and consent orders – all sorts.” On larger matters trainees had to settle for “bundling and legal research for your colleagues.” Sources in Cambridge, Norwich and Chelmsford also worked on matters stemming from the contentious trusts and probate team.
Birketts’ real estate team works for a mix of public and private sector clients on both commercial and residential developments. Across the four offices there are over 100 lawyers beavering away on acquisitions and developments, including ‘strategic land’ schemes (speculative land acquisitions which require planning approval). On the planning team’s books is Persimmon, one of the UK’s largest housebuilders. Among its sector specialisms, the firm’s ecclesiastical work caught our eye. It’s not something you get at every firm, and two of the firm’s lawyers are actually registrars for the Dioceses of Norwich and Suffolk. The Cambridge team recently advised Royale Parks Limited, a Portsmouth-based holiday accommodation company, on the £200 million acquisition of a mobile home portfolio. It also advised Cambridgeshire County Council on the £38 million purchase of some student accommodation located close to the Anglia Ruskin campus. As long as it wasn’t their first or second seat, trainees had the possibility of taking ownership of some small matters. “It would be something small like a first registration of land: I would have all of the contact with the client. That needs minimal supervision and it builds your confidence.” Others had drafted lease option agreements and licences, and assisted with land registry applications.
“Renewable energy is big on the agenda nowadays.”
Ploughing a very different furrow to big-city lawyers, the agriculture department works with families, individuals, banks, utility companies and charities. All offices have expert lawyers working in this, ahem, field. Work can include property transactions, trusts and succession planning, or even renewable energy projects. “There’s been a real surge in the last couple of years of farmers trying to get involved in solar wind farms, so renewable energy is big on the agenda nowadays.” Lawyers in Ipswich recently helped out Lloyds Bank with its role in a customer’s purchase of a £6.5 million farm. Norwich lawyers meanwhile helped a farming family split up their estate, family trust and business, all the while ensuring it incurred as little tax as possible. The individuals advised by the agriculture team are of a similar ilk to those catered to by the private client advisory team, though farming families and landed estates are also joined by a bunch of wealthy entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Trainees there helped out drafting wills, trust documents and lasting power of attorneys.
Birketts’ corporate team generally focuses on M&A, regularly advising shareholders of local companies on the sale of their businesses. Some of these matters involve international buyers: lawyers in Chelmsford and Norwich recently advised the shareholders of Servest Group Holdings, a facility management company based in Suffolk, on its whopping £540 million sale to Atalian Group, a Paris-based company in the same sector. The Chelmsford team also acted for the UK arm of Granarolo, an Italian dairy group, on its acquisition of Midland Food Group, a distributor of frozen food. “My tasks as a trainee involved a lot of drafting on ancillary documents,” said one source, while other trainees also had the chance to run very small transactions all the way to completion.
Archbishop of Banterbury
With the context that Birketts’ CEO is pushing a ‘One Birketts’ slogan to encourage collaboration and all-round unity, we asked trainees how the offices varied: “Chelmsford is very laid back and Norwich mirrors this,” reckoned one source. “Whereas Ipswich and Cambridge have a slightly more corporate feel.” It’s all relative of course, and trainees agreed their experience was underpinned by a prosperous atmosphere for their development. “Everyone here is looking to help you out, not to make trainees feel stupid,” said one source. Another agreed: “I wouldn’t think twice before approaching a partner with a question.”
“It’s old school, but we like it.”
In Chelmsford we heard that “there’s a nice culture of everyone going for lunch together as a team. Everyone sits around a big table – it’s old school, but we like it.” Other reports coming out of Chelmsford indicated “the amount of banter is next level.” We’re not sure if that makes it the office to beat, or the office to avoid… anyway, the other trainees weren’t missing out too much. Social events we heard of included an annual firm-wide quiz and Christmas party, monthly drinks for the Cambridge crew (which partners pay for) and a trip to the Blickling Proms. Though some interviewees felt the trainee intake wasn’t quite as tight-knit as any single-office group, sources pointed to some positive signs: “In the time I’ve been here that has improved. There are quarterly trainee meet-ups in Ipswich. We’ll have some training first and then go for dinner and drinks afterwards.”
On average, trainees worked from 9am until 6pm. “The hours are regular to the extent that you can plan to do something in the evening for 7.30pm,” and the majority of trainees’ latest night ended at 8pm. “This work/life balance was one of the reasons I wanted to work for a large regional firm.” The firm’s track record on retention outdoes most firms too: Birketts kept 100% of its qualifiers in 2017 and 2018. In 2019 itkept eight of its ten qualifiers. “It starts with a chat with HR before you submit your preferences. The firm does its best to retain its trainees and most people tend to have teed up their NQ roles before the process officially starts.”
Birketts’ revenue and headcount have grown significantly in the last decade. In 2017/18 the firm’s turnover grew 16% to £49.1 million, placing it at 63 in The Lawyer’s Top 100 UK firms by revenue.
How to get a Birketts training contract
The vast majority of Birketts' trainees are awarded a training contract after completing the summer vacation scheme, and the firm strongly advises applicants to go through that route. Birketts' Recruitment Officer Suzannah Rogers recommends that “candidates always make a bespoke application, make it clear in their answers why they want to join Birketts specifically,” and also that “it’s crucial that applicants can demonstrate through their answers an understanding of our culture and ethos by doing thorough research. Networking with members of our community makes all the difference.” 120 UCAS points at A Level and a 2:1 degree are the standard requirements, and the firm favours applicants with some form of work experience be it law-related or otherwise – “we want candidates to be able to demonstrate a good work ethic and client care skills,” says Suzannah.
Birketts receives approximately 200 applications for both its vacation scheme and training contract each year. Commitment to the East Anglia region is essential, particularly as many of the firm's clients are local. Wannabe vac schemers apply to a particular office by preference (all four run a programme), – again, networking in advance will be a big help to get the lay of the land before students meet the recruiting partners at interview.
Vacation scheme candidates go through a 45-minute interview conducted by two partners at the office they've applied to. Candidates are asked to prepare a ten-minute presentation on a topic of their choice (outside of the law), this serves to give students a chance to demonstrate what they are passionate about. However, “The biggest mistake interviewees make is not bringing the presentation back to themselves and their skill set as a future lawyer.” Creativity is welcome, but make sure you reinforce why you'd be a good candidate for a spot on the vacation scheme.
Between 22 and 24 places are available each summer. Vac schemers rotate through a four-seat 'mini training contract', and the majority will spend time in corporate and commercial; property; private client; and a contentious department. More niche areas may be available, but it depends on the office a vac schemer is based in. The work is designed to replicate trainee tasks as closely as possible, and includes shadowing meetings, preparing contracts and going to court if the opportunity crops up. There's also a social side to the programme, which includes an all-trainee lunch, a firm-wide quiz evening (during which hosting colleagues usually put on a dress-up skit), dinners and drinks. A mock trial and a Q&A session with partners also helps vac schemers to get to know the firm, the growth strategy, the values and its work.
At the end of summer vacation scheme, all those who want to be considered for a training contract are asked to attend a short feedback session with the partners and upon leaving, to write a short piece on what they've learned during the two weeks to strengthen their initial application. There are no official interviews after the vacation scheme, which acts “as a two-week interview for all parties,” Suzannah tells us.
1 Gilders Way,
141-145 Princes Street,
22 Station Road,
New London Road,
- Partners 64
- Associates 222
- Total trainees 25
- UK offices Cambridge, Norwich, Ipswich and Chelmsford
- Graduate recruiter: Suzannah Rogers, [email protected], 01473 406232
- Training partner: Matthew Newnham, [email protected]
- Training contracts pa: 15
- Applications pa: 350
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: BBB/120 points
- Vacation scheme places pa: 20-25
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 February 2020
- Training contract deadline 2022 start: 30 June 2020
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2019
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31 January 2020
- Salary and Benefits
- Current first-year salary: £25,000 - £26,000
- Current second-year salary: £26,000 - £27,000
- Post-qualification salary: £40,000 - £41,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days + bank holidays
- LPC fees: up to £12,000
- Maintenance grant pa: No
Firm address: Providence House, 141 - 145 Princes Street, Ipswich, IP1 1QJ Telephone: 01473 232300 Website: www.birketts.co.uk Twitter: @Birkettsllp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/birkettsllp/ Firm profile
Main areas of work
University law careers fairs
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
Cambridge and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 2)
- Banking & Finance (Band 2)
- Construction (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market and Private Equity (Band 1)
- Employment (Band 1)
- Environment (Band 1)
- Information Technology (Band 2)
- Litigation (Band 1)
- Planning (Band 1)
- Professional Negligence (Band 2)
- Real Estate (Band 2)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 1)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)
- Social Housing (Band 1)
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 1)
- Crime (Band 1)
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 2)
Ipswich and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 1)
- Crime (Band 1)
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 1)
Norwich and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 1)
- Crime (Band 1)
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 2)
- Immigration (Band 3)
- Charities Recognised Practitioner
- Shipping (Band 5)
- Transport: Logistics (Band 3)
- Transport: Road: Regulatory (Band 3)