One of Bristol’s finest gives trainees the chance to try six seats while keeping “a big emphasis” on wellness – and just a little on dancing…
Hatched in Bristol
Much is known of the humble salmon. They hatch in freshwater but spend most of their lives in the ocean. They swim back upstream to spawn and die shortly afterwards. They taste delicious, especially smoked. They’re also classified as a keystone species – remove it from its ecosystem, and its surrounding environment will alter drastically. Some of these could be applied to Bristol firm Burges Salmon – we won't tell you which. For a clue, take a look at its commendations from Chambers UK. The firm absolutely slays it in Bristol and the South West with 17 rankings – and it gets nothing less than top marks in every single category. Talk about a big fish...
While “Burges Salmon prides itself on being in Bristol,” you’ll find national work here too, as this firm “looks to compete with a lot of London firms.” UK-wide, the firm’s public procurement and rail work is ranked among the best. It’s also a leader outside London in construction, corporate M&A, employment, IP, litigation, real estate, and, according to Chambers High Net Worth, private wealth law. Salmon jokes aside, this makes it one of the best firms working outside of London. As well as competing with, and bettering, big City firms in many practice areas, it does much the same to the most expansive national firms.
But the trainee cohort sits under one roof in Bristol. The pace of life outside London was especially appealing to many of our interviewees. “I’m fine with being heavily worked,” one trainee clarified, “but I can make weekend plans in Bristol without having to worry that I’ll have to ditch them.” The firm does have a London base, but it’s viewed very much as an “extension of Bristol,” with no permanent legal staff. It’s used mainly for client meetings and all trainees can expect to travel there for work at some point. An Edinburgh office opened in spring 2019. “We have strong ties with lots of Scottish firms,” explained one trainee, particularly in the energy and real estate fields.
Burges Salmon has seven sector specialisms: energy, financial services, infrastructure, private wealth, public sector, real estate and transport. The training contract structure lends itself to those who want to sample lots of areas, as trainees do six seats of four months. For the final seat, rookies typically repeat the area they want to qualify into. For qualification, trainees can only submit their CV to one department of interest, but there are no formal interviews; it's worth noting this process is under review. Retention rates are typically strong – in 2019 all 28 qualifiers stayed on.
Trainees acknowledged that “perhaps the only downside to a six-seat training contract is that each seat flies by. You feel you’re just about getting up to speed and then you move on.” But no one would trade it in for fewer seats – “six seats still isn’t enough!” Trainees submit three preferences per rotation. It’s more difficult to get a spot in some of the smaller teams, but if first-years miss out they’re more likely to get their choice in the second year.
“Six seats still isn’t enough!”
Most trainees can expect to sit in the firm’s largest department, dispute resolution – it takes ten trainees per rotation. The group has several sub-teams, including IP, energy, pensions, financial services, transport and agriculture – “how much we do bamboozles you!” Clients include instantly recognisable names like Virgin, the BBC and Coca-Cola. The firm recently represented the Co-op in a claim against the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) challenging its decision not to reimburse a £4 million penalty after an investigation into the pricing of tobacco products. It also advised accountancy firm Mazars as the liquidator in a £3 million claim against the former owner of a now insolvent engineering company. Trainees were “wearing the trainee badge doing bundling,” producing witness statements, and conducting research “to analyse a client’s position.” Most trainees will make a trip to London in this seat. “I’m going to the Royal Courts of Justice tomorrow for a three-day hearing,” one interviewee reported.
Trainees are also very likely to sit in real estate, although “it’s not a golden rule.” As the firm’s second largest department it takes around six trainees per rotation. The firm represents retailers like Waterstones and John Lewis, institutional property owners like The Crown Estate, banks like HSBC, and public sector bodies like the CMA in investment, development, finance and portfolio management matters. The team recently advised the Greater London Authority on the £1 billion Albert Island development in the east of the city. In Bristol, the firm advised Change Real Estate on the £240 million regeneration of the Redcliff Quarter, as well as the University of Bristol on its £300 million campus development in the city centre. Trainees reported working on the real estate elements of “big hotel mergers” as well as on real estate finance. They review certificates of title and draft title reviews, and “you’re always gonna get Land Registry forms to complete.” There are chances to get out of the office too – “I did an inspection of a client property,” one source shared.
Plenty more seats in the sea
Four trainees sit in corporate finance, which handles mid-market M&A and private equity work for private and public companies, which are often AIM-listed. Trainees also reported doing joint venture and venture capital work. The team recently advised the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the transfer of £3.5 billion of assets from nine research organisations into the UK’s new research body, UKRI. In the food and drink sector, the firm acted for Yeo Valley on the disposal of a subsidiary to Denmark's Arla Foods. And in a less typical deal, the firm advised Peter Hargreaves (billionaire co-founder of financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown) on his £24 million investment in the Goonhilly radio telescopes in Cornwall. One trainee was “keeping an eye on incoming and outgoing documents and updating everyone on the team” for an international takeover of a European company, while another was working on a reorganisation, submitting forms to Companies House and “drafting board minutes and shareholder resolutions.” There's “immediate” client contact: “You email or call the CEO and get them to provide this document or tell them this and that by way of an update.”
The firm’s projects team is particularly focused on transport, energy and defence. Clients range from businesses like Marks & Spencer and rail operator Abellio to public sector bodies like Highways England and the Ministry of Defence. The firm advised the latter on the £41 billion procurement of Dreadnought and Astute class submarines. In the energy field, the firm advised SSE Renewables and Fluor on the multibillion-pound development of an offshore wind farm in the Firth of Forth. Trainees start out with “a lot of research tasks, and as you progress there's more drafting.” Rookies also do doc review in this seat: “I was asked to look at provisions in rail maintenance and service agreements and say whether they were favourable to our client or not.”
“… driving across the country to carry out a completion on my own.”
Four trainees sit in banking, which does mid-market lending work – debt transactions typically fall in the £20 to £200 million range. The firm recently acted for National Australia Bank and Santander on the £85 million financing of a portfolio of English onshore wind projects. It also advised HSBC and Bank Leumi on the £125 million financing of luxury retirement village sites owned by the Audley Group. The firm does borrower-side work as well – it helped National Express with a series of loans worth £500 million. One trainee fondly remembered “driving across the country to carry out a completion on my own,” though another “didn’t go to any client meetings, but did lead a call running through the conditions precedent checklist.”
The family team offers trainees a glimpse into the firm’s private wealth side, as it works with high net worth individuals on complex cases. Although trainees said there was a “slightly more personal element” to this seat, it’s still “commercial and business-minded, so it’s not ‘hand-holdy.’” Trainees described good client contact in this smaller team – “you’re only one step removed from the client as opposed to four or five steps! If you’re scared of the phone it’s not for you.” As well as client calls, trainee tasks include “reviewing proposals and helping to draft briefs.” Trainees also handle financial disclosure: “I review what the client sent in and compile all that information.”
Pensions offers an advisory seat option for trainees. Its client base is split about 70:30 trustees to employers. It recently advised the trustees of the Brunel Holdings Pension Scheme on its merger of three schemes into a new £2.2 billion scheme. The firm has also advised the trustees at Honda and Oxford University, while employer clients include the Department for Education and electricity company Western Power Distribution. Trainees “attend trustee meetings and carry out research into technical issues and regulations.” Client advice is then “channelled upwards to your supervisor, who sends it out.” As this suggests, there's a lot of oversight from above: “Everything is double and triple checked before it's sent out.”
With Bristol prices on the rise (“I pay more council tax than my friends in London!”) some discerned the firm “might have to look at how much it pays trainees in the future.” With £35,000 for first-years and £48,000 on qualification, the firm’s salaries fall short of those at competitors Osborne Clarke, CMS and Simmons & Simmons. That said, it’s still at the higher end of what you’ll find outside London. To some degree, the firm makes up for it with its hours, though trainees' is not the life of a 'regional' trainee. "Afew people in disputes have had to do 4am finishes,” revealed one source. Another judged: “If I’m staying past 8pm I’d say that’s late, and if I’m staying past 7pm I’d say that’s not early." Overall trainees reckoned most people are out of the office by 7pm (matching the healthier end of the City spectrum), although the ups and downs in corporate could mean finishing as late as midnight too.
When times are tough, it helps that the firm places “a big emphasis on wellness.” Trainees said: “There are so many emails and events about nutrition and how you can help your sleep hygiene – I didn’t even know that was a phrase.” To help them on their way to healthy eating, there’s freshly prepared food at the firm’s on-site canteen, Glassworks. Trainees regularly gather on its long benches – “it’s almost like being back at school for lunch!” Continuing with the wellness theme, “most people try to commute in an eco-friendly way.” It’s easy to do, given that “lots of trainees live within walking distance” of the office.
After work there is also time for play, literally: we heard about trainees playing tennis and football together with their supervisors. And things aren't all serious in the office either: “From the senior partners down to your fellow trainees, everyone gives you a smile walking around.” Of course, “if you make a mistake you’ll be called out on it, but it’s always constructive.” It wasn’t all sweetness and light everywhere though – in this relatively big firm we weren't surprised to hear trainee and supervisor personalities can sometimes clash. If trainees encounter these kinds of problems they can go to their assigned contact in HR.
“One of the partners got their chest waxed in front of virtually the entire firm.”
Trainees are encouraged to get involved with the firm’s multitudinous social and charity activities, such as a fund-raising Strictly Come Dancing competition raising money for mental health charity Bristol Mind. Before the event, partners were “having secret dance lessons for months – lawyers are really competitive people.” No kidding. The couple that came out top “did a lovely dance to the music from Frozen,” so the other competitors just had to... Let It Go. “It’s nice to see senior people in an uncomfortable position,” one trainee commented slyly, and they didn’t have to look far. As well as a ‘guess the partner’ challenge featuring baby photos, “one of the partners got their chest waxed in front of virtually the entire firm.” Also for charity, we should add.
The fun isn’t reserved for partners. The firm’s Be Social group has recently organised trips to Winter Wonderland in London and the Grand Prix at Silverstone. And there's more dancing – we spoke to trainees who participated in a flashmob after “practising on the office roof for weeks in secret.” Such dedication must have paid off, right? “It was a disaster!” Perhaps trainees will fare better in the city’s annual Dragon Boat race? “We’ll probably fall into the river.” Don’t give up the day job just yet.
Burges Salmon recently launched BAME group Be Cultured with ambassadors across the firm.
How to get a Burges Salmon training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2020): 31 October 2019 (winter); 10 January 2020 (spring and summer)
Open days (2020): opens 1 October 2019
Training contract deadline (2022): 26 June 2020
Application and assessment
This should go without saying, but remember to pay close attention to spelling and grammar when submitting your online application. "We reject a lot of forms instantly because they haven't been checked properly,” says resourcing specialist, Anna Dixon, who adds: “The forms that stand out come from people who have done research into the firm beyond what can be found on the recruitment page, and who demonstrate a good understanding of our culture."
Both vac scheme and direct training contract applicants who nail this stage are invited to an assessment centre, complete with psychometric tests, group exercises and interviews.
At this point, vac scheme applicants who score highly enough go on to complete their vac scheme (see below). Meanwhile, between 35 and 40 training contract applicants are called back for an hour-long interview with a partner and member of HR. “They were really thorough and probed all aspects of my application,” recalled one trainee. “They also presented me with certain situations to gauge how I would react to them and seemed genuinely interested in my responses." Another remembered: "I was asked quite a lot of business questions – like how the current legal market might affect a firm like Burges Salmon – and what decisions I would make if I was in charge. You really need to be up to date with your firm knowledge to do well."
Candidates are also likely to be asked why they want to live and work in Bristol, but you don't need to have a local connection to be successful – only about half of newcomers do.
Burges Salmon runs winter (one week), spring and summer (two weeks) schemes across the year. The firm takes on just 40 candidates in total, spread out across the schemes, in an effort to closely mentor and give enough work to each attendee.
Vac schemers normally visit two departments during their placement and have a trainee buddy on hand to assist throughout. In addition to skills sessions, the firm holds breakfast talks that give participants the chance to learn more about specific practice areas. Current trainees gave the programme a big thumbs up: "It's a well-planned scheme, and the work is meaningful.” Indeed, one told of drafting an article for a weekly publication, while another mentioned “writing something that ended up going to the partners,” and a third reported attending court with an associate and helping out on a pro bono project.
Vac schemers are automatically offered a training contract interview. Dixon tells us successful interviewees are the ones who "think about how the work they've been doing fits into the bigger picture of the matters at hand." She adds that applicants need to be "enthusiastic, keen to get involved, and also have sensible questions to ask." The interview lasts for about an hour and is usually conducted by a partner and a member of HR.
The ideal candidate
You'll need at least a 2:1 degree and 136 UCAS points to get a training contract here. In the past the firm has made exceptions, but the vast majority of applicants who don't have the above requirements face the chop.
According to Dixon, work experience in a commercial environment is something recruiters look out for. “That could come from a law firm or any business really – for example, a part-time job in a shop, an internship in a bank or a stint in sales. Anything that involves providing a service and seeing how that makes money will stand applicants in good stead." Past trainees we've spoken with have beefed up their applications with administrative jobs, paralegal work and time spent with a local Citizens Advice Bureau.
Burges Salmon LLP
1 Glass Wharf,
- Partners 87
- Associates 261
- Trainees 56
- UK offices Bristol
- Graduate recruitment: Anna Dixon, [email protected]
- Training partner: Mark Shepherd [email protected] com
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 20
- Applications pa: 1,500 approx.
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A Levels: AAB/136 UCAS points
- Vacation scheme places pa: 40
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 28 June 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2018
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 2 November 2018 (winter)
- 11 January 2019 (spring/summer)
- Open day deadline: 28 February 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £36,000
- Second-year salary: £37,000
- Post-qualification salary: £52,500
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa:£7,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Bristol
Main areas of work
Open days and first-year opportunities
Open days occur in March and give attendees a chance to hear more about life as a trainee.
University law careers fairs 2019
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
Bristol and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 1)
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 1)
National Leaders (outside London)
- Banking & Finance (Band 2)
- Construction (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A (Band 1)
- Employment (Band 1)
- Information Technology (Band 2)
- Intellectual Property (Band 1)
- Litigation (Band 2)
- Planning (Band 2)
- Real Estate (Band 1)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 2)
- Banking & Finance (Band 1)
- Construction (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market and Private Equity (Band 1)
- Employment (Band 1)
- Environment (Band 1)
- Information Technology (Band 1)
- Intellectual Property (Band 1)
- Litigation (Band 1)
- Pensions (Band 1)
- Planning (Band 1)
- Professional Negligence: Mainly Claimant (Band 1)
- Real Estate (Band 1)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 1)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)
- Tax (Band 1)
- Banking Litigation (Band 3)
- Competition Law (Band 1)
- Financial Crime (Band 2)
- Asset Finance: Rail Finance (Band 3)
- Education: Institutions (Higher & Further Education) (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 2)
- Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory Recognised Practitioner
- Health & Safety (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Open-ended Funds (Band 3)
- Outsourcing (Band 4)
- Partnership (Band 4)
- Pensions Litigation (Band 2)
- Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 4)
- Public Procurement (Band 1)
- Transport: Rail: Franchising (Band 1)
- Transport: Rail: Rolling Stock (Band 2)