One of Bristol's best has plenty to offer those looking beyond London.
Salmon en route
The trainees at Burges Salmon didn’t hang about in summarising their firm's appeal: “City-quality work without the steep London commute.” Other national and regional firms offer a similar escape from the Big Smoke, but few do it with the same panache as this leaping, gleaming salmon. We’ll get to the work in a moment, but the firm’s single office set-up is something that particularly jumped out at trainees. “Bristol is not just a regional office” so unlike national firms, newbies felt at the centre of everything – both the work, and the culture.
Trainees were keenly aware too, that “a huge share of the partnership have trained at the firm, so you have a culture that comes from people working here all the way through their careers. It’s a culture that recognises people want to have more in their lives than going to work: it’s very understanding of people with families and extra-curricular activities and I think the firm knows people will be better employees because of it.” The organic growth that contributed to these ideals also means retention rates are consistently high – after keeping all 28 trainees in 2017, the firm kept on 26 of 27 qualifiers in 2018.
"Very understanding of people with families."
So, the work. Airbus, the BBC, Virgin and Shell are just some of the firm’s blue-chip clients, and the firms regional reputation is hard to match: it’s given top marks by Chambers UK in every category it’s ranked in for the South West (and that’s a pretty comprehensive list of practice areas). The matters it takes on means the firm is familiar with working alongside, or against, firms from the City elite – a look at Chambers UK’s nationwide rankings also shows how its specialisms in transport, energy and public procurement put it on the same level as firms like Ashurst, Hogan Lovells, Clifford Chance and Freshfields. In corporate, construction, employment, IP, litigation and real estate, the firm is named a national leader outside of London. A new managing partner, Roger Bull, took the helm in 2018 and revenue rose 3% to £90 million in 2017/18.
With so much quality to sample, Burges’ choice of a six-seat system was a crowd pleaser. Trainees compared it to those firms with four seats who make certain practices mandatory: “You really only have one option to explore your own choices before you have to apply to qualify. The six seats provide more options for trainees.” Of course, there are downsides. “It’s good to get a broad range of experiences, but it takes me three months to get a feel for a seat – a six-month seat gives you a fuller appreciation of what the department does.” Another added: “You get to a point where you are competent and then you are moved on. It can be hard.” Seat allocation is based on trainees’ preferences, and most interviewees reported receiving one of their top three preferences every time. There are also client secondments, for instance to EDF Energy.
The corporate department holds roughly 30 lawyers, and has worked with clients including the University of Oxford; John Lewis; the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy; and National Express. There’s healthcare, energy and transport expertise, and cross-border matters crop up, including the firm’s work advising the Dutch investor Maas Capital Renewables on a £160 million investment in Solarplicity to provide solar power to UK housing association tenants. The team also advised Aerium Finance, a European real estate investor, on its £51 million acquisition of a property unit trust which owns units in the One Central Square building in Cardiff. As the department often leads on transactions that also involve teams like real estate and environment, “junior level work involves a lot of co-ordinating with other people” to make sure the transactional process runs smoothly. “You have to be organised and have good project management skills. It sometimes felt like I was doing more of that than the actual work itself. But you get to speak to people throughout the firm on a frequent basis, which was nice because you get an overview of the firm.” Sources had still done more discrete legal tasks though, “drafting things like share transfer agreements and Companies House forms, along with various research notes.”
"This is not black letter law in a vacuum. You are actually applying it.”
The much larger projects department holds around 100 lawyers, who focus on transport, energy and defence. There’s a strong mix of work here for public and private sector clients, with the team having assisted multiple government departments, including the Home Office, the Department for Transport, the Department for Education, and the Ministry of Defence. The firm has the lofty responsibility of advising on the MoD’s procurement of its newest submarines, having recently taken on the added task of managing an alliance between BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, and the MoD to bring this about. Oh yeah, and the submarines in question are worth £41 billion – crikey. Other recent work includes helping construction company Costain on the £1.5 billion M4 relief road project, and advising the Isle of Anglesey Council on its response to the proposed development of a nuclear power station at Wylfa.
Trainees reported being heavily involved in rail franchising work, “taking all of the documents that have been submitted by the franchisee and turning those into a contract.” There’s research here, but large parts of the work involved “looking closely at contracts and how things are worded. You have to stop and think how this will work on a practical basis – you have to look at it from the commercial side: this is not black letter law in a vacuum. You are actually applying it.” Other trainees described helping with public procurement advice by “reviewing the client’s tender documentation to make sure it's compliant.” Trainees could also get involved in environmental disputes here, and the team has recently started working on autonomous vehicle matters too.
Over in the disputes team, some sources found the calibre of the work took a toll – “the nature of the work is very high-pressure, people are more stressed, and the hours are long.” Commercial disputes, real estate litigation and professional negligence all feature – the firm recently advised the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, which has compensated those who were victims of PPI mis-selling to the tune of £200 million, as it attempts to recover the costs from those lenders responsible. Another portfolio of claims handled by the firm comes from Nationwide Building Society. Burges Salmon is handling over £35 million in claims of professional negligence against solicitors and surveyors resulting from various property transactions. The scale and seriousness of the work did mean “bundling is a classic task, along with a lot of document management. Sometimes I would draft letters to other law firms; then there was research into relatively obscure bits of law too.” While trainees had enjoyed attending hearings, the consensus was that “you wear the trainee badge in that department, and because your team is under pressure, it’s hard to move away from that.”
There’s no plaice like home
Most trainees will pass through real estate, another huge department (around 70 lawyers) which deals with everything from development to investment to finance to property portfolio management. Most often, trainees would be involved in “smaller matters which you can run with yourself. You’re spinning a lot of plates as a trainee but it's a lot slower paced than corporate and the work gets spread out quite evenly.” There’s drafting and negotiating of leases and licences here, but also the admin work that comes with being responsible for a file, such as filling out land registry forms. Certain lucky trainees can work with partners who focus on renewable energy, where the work is more inspiring. Recent headline work in this department includes advising the University of Bristol on its new £300 million campus, and working with the Greater London Authority on its arrangements with a Chinese investor to develop a Royal Albert Dock business district at a cost of £1.7 billion.
The dedicated construction team handles both transactional and contentious work and trainees recalled “doing quite a bit of leaping between the two.” Clients include The Crown Estate and Highways England, which the firm advised on the procurement of construction contracts for the proposed A303 Stonehenge expressway. Some trainees had also been involved on work “in the nuclear and renewables sector.” Work could “vary from a super-fun late night of bundling to more substantive tasks, like drafting some of the ancillary documents and smaller contracts.” One source recalled “getting involved in lots of calls and meetings, and taking notes. I also drafted and finalised the appointments on some development work.”
"They make sure all the trainees are up to speed with what's going on in that area of law.”
Trainees were extremely complimentary of their supervision throughout the seats, even on those occasions they found it to be “fairly hands-off.” As one insider explained: “They guide you in the right direction but they are not overpowering. With my most recent supervisor I had my own debt management matters and the opportunity to draft my own arguments and documents. They only stepped in when they needed to rather than micro-managing.” This suited our interviewees, who understood that “you need some sort of independence to learn and develop.” But there’s still plenty of guidance provided: mid- and end-of-seat reviews are par for the course, as are lunchtime training sessions, plus “introductory seat-specific training every time you move. They make sure all the trainees are up to speed with what's going on in that area of law.”
Big fish in a little paddling pool
To introduce the firm, we suggested that the work was similar in many ways to City firms, but that the culture was somewhat different – the final piece of the puzzle is the people. Trainees explained that while they “are dedicated and motivated and we all want each other to do well, we are quite chilled out and laid back.” Even in disputes, which has a reputation for being a more pressured, hierarchical environment, lawyers will let their hair down: “If you go on a social with them in the evening they’re great!” As for their backgrounds, one suggested that “the firm really likes to have diversity: we have someone here who had been in teaching, someone who’d been in the construction industry, and someone from the police.”
Fleshing out their chilled credentials further, one trainee described a mini carnival being set up in the firm's office to raise money for the firm’s charity of the year. Each team ran their own stall and among “the usual tombolas and raffles, one team had set up a mini paddling pool with associates and partners bumbling about in duck suits. You had to 'hook' the ducks by sticking felt balls onto their suit. One partner did it for a full hour and a half. It was just brilliant!” There’s more fun and games on the sporty end of things with a softball team and a group that gets involved with dragon boat racing (a crazy form of rowing). The exhaustive list of goings-on also included a bowling social “which was fab,” an upcoming comedy night and a trip in the summer “to stay in a big house down in Devon.”
But lawyers do occasionally do some work. The hours are not as severe as those in City firms, with many Burges trainees clocking off at 6pm, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t the potential for a day at the office to morph into a night at the office. One source reported “a two-week stretch where I finished at 10.30 pm every night,” while another had stayed until 1.30 am once. Those in disputes and construction had it worse than most, with their days consistently extending until 8pm.
Compare Burges Salmon’s NQ salary with the magic circle average and you’ll get a decent estimate of the cost of a work/life balance.
How to get a Burges Salmon training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 2 November 2018 (winter); 11 January 2019 (spring and summer)
Open day deadline (2019): 22 March 2019
Training contract deadline (2021): 31 July 2019
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 specalist 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 a current 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. BS recruiters plan to visit 15 law fairs in 2018, including Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Nottingham and Southampton.
Burges Salmon runs four vacation schemes. The firm takes on just ten candidates per placement 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. Anna 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 Anna 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.
A rough guide to Bristol
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: 31 July 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: £35,000
- Second-year salary: £36,000
- Post-qualification salary: £48,000
- 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
Allowance: £250 per week.
Open days and first-year opportunities
First-year law and non-law/graduate insight days occurs in March and give attendees a chance to hear more about life as a trainee and take part in a mock assessment centre.
University law careers fairs 2018
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
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 1)
- 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 4)
- 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)
- Private Client (Band 2)
- Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 4)
- Public Procurement (Band 1)
- Sport: Horse Racing & Equestrian Recognised Practitioner
- Transport: Rail: Franchising (Band 1)
- Transport: Rail: Rolling Stock (Band 2)