Like Delia Smith’s favourite football team, Birketts is a leader on the East Anglia circuit.
“Everyone knows Birketts,” declared one confident insider. For the unfamiliar, here’s the lowdown: the firm set up shop in East Anglia 150 years ago and now has offices in Cambridge, Ipswich, Chelmsford, Norwich and London. Despite its regional roots, the firm still does work for clients elsewhere in the UK and overseas.
Several trainees were sold by its “really good reputation across East Anglia: I was attracted by the mix of London-quality work but a better work/life balance.” The firm picks up the majority of its Chambers UK rankings in the East Anglia category, and its skill set is broad – Norfolk broad, you might say (not at interview though). The firm is top-ranked for (deep breath) construction, corporate, employment, environment, litigation, planning, real estate litigation, restructuring/insolvency, and social housing. It’s also top-ranked for its crime and agriculture prowess in Essex, Ipswich and Norwich, plus its family group in Ipswich. Wowza!
“You’re not just a cog in a rather large wheel.”
All these rankings are generated by a relatively small firm, with just over 350 lawyers spread across five offices: “It’s big enough to have all the key practice areas but small enough that it’s a really tight-knit, relaxed group. You’re not just a cog in a rather large wheel.” When applying for training contracts, some sources “thought London’s bright lights were calling, but after speaking to my friends in London I realised I didn’t want to be doing the double D [due diligence] for months.” Trainees who came into law without any legal background “liked that fact Birketts has so many practice areas, so you have as varied a choice as possible when choosing seats.” At the time of research, the Ipswich HQ was home to just under 40% of trainees, with Norwich, Chelmsford and Cambridge drawing in six or seven newbies each.
Rookies are assigned their first seat according to business need, but get to put down preferences for the rest following an “informal” discussion with HR. It’s worth noting that former paralegals can shorten the training contract by six months, so long as they’ve satisfied SRA requirements. Given they’re closer to qualification, second years get priority, but “they try to give everyone the seats they want, and more often than not people get their first or second choice.” If there’s no room at the inn, you’ll likely be able to do the seat you want in another office: “It’s a really good way to get to know more people across the firm, so I can see why they encourage us to do at least one seat elsewhere.” This makes up for the fact there usually aren’t any secondment opportunities, though they may arise from time to time. Those who hadn’t sat in another office lamented: “There’s a sense of disparity, especially as the offices are far apart. I guess it’s geography, what are you going to do?” HR do organise quarterly firm-wide training sessions “which are always followed by dinner and drinks, so they’re good at bringing us together in that respect.”
“I pretty much ran a £10 million transaction from start to finish!”
Folks spending time in another location get a £200 monthly allowance to cover travel costs “but it’s taxed so it doesn’t come anywhere near to covering a season ticket, so you’re out of pocket.” This was brought up by every trainee we spoke with who had sat in a different office, with one pointing out: “They’ve paid the same allowance for ages, but of course ticket prices inflate every year.”
Interviewees pointed out: “What’s unique to regional firms is that it’s common to run smaller matters on your own from start to finish,” like handling land registrations in the commercial property seat. There is “inevitably” a lot of post-completion work, which is “bread and butter” for the team, “but there are also really good opportunities for drafting contracts and leases, plus transaction management,” like running data rooms “which I quite enjoyed once I got to know the system!” Other trainees had focused on the residential development side “which was completely different to what I imagined –most commercial property seats deal with a lot of leases, but our clients are mainly housing associations so they come with an additional set of regulations which is niche.” Such regulatory issues include government quotas for social housing, “so I spent a lot of time on the Land Registry website looking at various plans and deeds.” This team recently negotiated the development and land agreements in a national housebuilder’s acquisition of 68 affordable housing units in Essex. This seat isn’t known for having much face-to-face client contact “because we have quite big clients, but we do get to send emails to them.”
By default, the private client group is “one the most client-facing seats,” so although trainees “started on the less complicated stuff” like taking attendance notes in client meetings, sources pointed out that the opportunity to “go to client meetings is fab, so it’s a really good seat if that’s something trainees are suited to.” Work here involves “sending a fair number of emails to clients on the administration of their estate” and “a lot of drafting wills, trusts and powers of attorney.” There’s also “lots of technical research on particular points of law, which is interesting, but it could be hard to find the answer!” Insiders explained that if a probate or wills dispute arises, the commercial litigation shoot-off team in Norwich is on hand to handle mediation. For example, Birketts recently defended the Honourable Charles Balfour against allegations of engaging in a fraudulent property scheme, with claims reaching over £30 million.
Newbies also got involved in more traditional professional negligence, insolvency and shareholder dispute matters, “but loads of different types of law pop up – you can be handed a case where the nature of the matter is completely new, which is really exciting.” Birketts recently provided UK legal advice to McCormick Global Ingredients in a $16 million breach of contract dispute between its Mauritius office and a French supplier of vanilla pods. Day-to-day trainee tasks vary from drafting settlement agreements and liaising with counsel on the other side to visiting clients’ offices to gather evidence: “You’re exposed to a really broad spectrum of matters, so you definitely learn fast.” Some sources were so keen on this seat they want to qualify into it: “It’s so analytical; you learn the ins and outs of the subject matter, plus there’s the strategic element of how to play the litigation.”
"The fee earners would probably have preferred to go home but the other side wanted to play beggars.”
Some were disappointed that “there’s not much opportunity for advocacy or court attendance,” but one interviewee did attend a mediation, “which was very good experience.” We’d hope so, as this mediation lasted a whopping 21 hours: “We had a break for dinner but otherwise we just blasted through. The fee earners would probably have preferred to go home but the other side wanted to play beggars.”
Corporate newbies also got to explore more nuanced areas of practices by working with the corporate tax subgroup: “Those two teams work side by side” (both literally and metaphorically). Tax work is “mainly research-based” and largely involves “helping out colleagues in other groups with internal clients’ queries,” like stamp duty and land tax matters. Trainees are thrown straight into the action: “On my first day a partner grabbed me and said: ‘I want you to be involved, here are loads of ancillary documents for you to draft.’” Trainees had also been involved in the bank finance subgroup: “I ran a few matters independently and helped in the background with bigger transactions.” These folks “act for a lot of sellers so I generally did straightforward M&A, plus a little bit of private equity.” This team recently advised the Little Norwich Shoe Company on its acquisition of Northampton-based shoe manufacturer and retailer T. Groocock & Co.
Although due diligence is a typical trainee task, “I equally did a lot of drafting like shareholder agreements.” This interviewee’s highlight was “pretty much running a £10 million transaction from start to finish!” The bank finance subgroup has grown in recent years, so trainees can now do pure banking seats if they fancy. This seat’s known for offering “a lot of client exposure, especially if the transaction is local or lower in value. I got to meet clients one to one.” Sources did note that “things got a bit sparse when Covid-19 started to close down deals.” Although corporate seats typically have shocking hours, “even in our HQ, late finishes are 8pm, unlike the City.” A highlight of this seat is going to big completion dinners in London, so “there’s a really good sense of fun in the team – I didn’t have a single bad day.” Interviewees were keen to point out: “The partners are really approachable – they’re not the scary people you’d think they’d be. There’s just a great atmosphere.” A special shout out went to a tax partner who “always pointed me in the right direction if I was ever confused.”
“The partners aren’t the scary people you’d think they’d be.”
Trainees can check in with HR as often as they like and have a dedicated HR contact, while there are also informal mid-seat and end-of-seat reviews to see how trainees are getting on. That said, “getting feedback varies hugely within teams,” which is “especially prevalent in large teams like commercial property because you get work from various fee earners.” For example, “some people look over everything you do and always make a small change, but others trust that you’ve done the work correctly.” Others had a more positive experience: “My supervisors have taken a lot of time out of their day explaining deals in a wider context.” Even in the wake of Covid-19, mentors had done video calls with their mentees: “The firm’s been really good in carrying on with business as usual.” Some felt the open-plan office layout means “it’s never terrifying to go up to a partner.”
Across the firm, trainees participated in twice-weekly Webex meetings “where we all talk about how we’re doing. We’ve had some teething issues with tech but I’ve been pretty impressed.” The firm put on video training during lockdown: “Each session someone will talk about their team and introduce trainees to practice areas they might not have thought about. We even had training on the firm’s professional indemnity insurance.” Others were pleased to receive resilience and wellbeing training over video. Birketts has been “big on mental health over the past year and making sure resources are available, like the anonymous helpline so it feels like there’s a good support network,” though others felt these initiatives are being rolled out “just as a box-ticking exercise.”
“I don’t feel like I’m alone in this.”
While some departments, like corporate, have anonymous suggestion boxes, the commercial litigation team have also taken the initiative and now assign each fee earner a buddy: “It’s an excuse to go out for lunch and catch up in a more informal setting.” Speaking of lunch, we heard there’s a canteen on the top floor of the Chelmsford office: “The partners sit with the trainees and we chat and get to know each other, regardless of what level you are, so there’s a nice community atmosphere.” In the Norwich and Cambridge offices too, “everyone, including partners and secretaries, will chat in the kitchen. There aren’t any cliques.” One particularly enamoured trainee declared: “Everyone is so approachable that it feels like we’re a family. I don’t feel like I’m alone in this.”
The firm recently launched its Good to Great initiative, “which is designed to help us improve our client care, efficiency and cohesiveness between offices. Everyone, including back-office staff, had training on it, which really helps with the one-office mindset.” There were concerns that this collegial culture may be threatened by Birketts' current expansion “from an East Anglia-based firm to something else entirely,” while others explained: “We’re already a large regional firm which is growing rapidly and what happens next is up in the air.” The firm told us its goal is to maintain the OneBirketts shared culture even throughout change. In May 2020, Birketts merged with London-based insurance boutique EC3 Legal, adding a further seven lawyers to its insurance practice. Some were excited by the expansion: “It feels like we’ve got a lot of momentum as a business and that we’re going places.”
The NQ process is a pretty informal affair: “It gets mentioned during conversations but if partners ask where you want to go you can be as non-committal as you like.” Once the job lists come out, trainees submit a couple of paragraphs about why they want to join a certain group, followed by an interview. If only one trainee wants to join a certain group, they don’t have to go through an interview process. Birketts retained 12 of 14 qualifiers in 2020, with two on fixed-term contracts.
Insiders explained Birketts “keeps on more or less every trainee – there’d have to be a very good reason for them not to” and “this is definitely a place with a meritocratic element, so if you throw your oar in you’ll get very good work.”
How to get a Birketts training contract
Applications and trainee profile
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' Talent Acquisition Manager Suzannah Rogers recommends that “candidates should 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 400 applications for both its vacation scheme/training contract each year. Commitment to the East Anglia region is preferable, particularly as many of the firm's clients are both local but also national. 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, plus an assessment. Candidates are then 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 26 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 2021
- Training contract deadline 2023 start: 30 June 2021
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2020
- Vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 31 January 2021
- 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, 2020
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)
- Shipping (Band 5)
- Transport: Logistics (Band 3)
- Transport: Road: Regulatory (Band 3)