Kept aloft by sturdy private client and property wings, Hewitsons has a bird's eye view of the Oxford–Cambridge corridor.
Corridors can be scary, especially if you watched The Shining too many times as a child. The lawyers at regional player Hewitsons are clearly brave souls – for them, a corridor signifies an opportunity. The Cambridge–Milton Keynes–Oxford corridor, to be precise. “It’s a real up-and-coming area and the firm is hoping to capitalise on that,” a trainee told us. According to a recent government infrastructure report the region 'could be the UK’s Silicon Valley – a world renowned centre for science, technology and innovation.' Hewitsons is certainly in the right place to benefit from all this with offices in Cambridge, Northampton, Milton Keynes and London.
The firm has already made a name for itself in the region doing both private client and commercial work: it’s ranked by Chambers High Net Worth for private wealth law in Northampton, Milton Keynes and Cambridge, and Chambers UK rates it for real estate, litigation, corporate M&A, IP work and more in East Anglia. Hewitsons may be a regional player, but the LawExchange International network (which the firm founded 25 years ago) brings in a smattering of matters from overseas.
“Our ambition is to get into the top 100 of UK firms,” trainees revealed. “We’re in a very strong position and are only going to get better.” As it’s grown, Hewitsons has done some tidying up here and there – the Cambridge office was completely refurbished in 2018, and the firm’s rebranded its litigious teams as one big group dubbed ‘The College’, complete with their own fancy logo. Managing partner Colin Jones tells us: “Our business model is to be a strong regional player with a solid London base. We don’t need any new offices for that – we’ll be consolidating on our current platform.”
“Our ambition is getting into the top 100 of UK firms.”
Most trainees can be found in Cambridge or Northampton, but London and Milton Keynes also offer seats. The firm sorts newcomers into their first seat; following that “we email HR with a list of preferences and they try to accommodate us – most trainees end up getting what they want.” In Northampton more or less every trainee does a contentious seat, private client, and split seats in corporate/employment and agriculture/property. There’s a “broader spectrum” on offer in Cambridge. It’s worth noting that trainees can request to do a seat in a particular office, and might sometimes get transferred by the firm where necessary.
Hewitsons’ private client department handles will drafting, inheritance tax planning, and administration of both domestic and overseas estates. We can’t tell you much about who the team works for as most clients are confidential, but we can say that the firm administers quite a few trusts worth £30 million and has historically dealt with some closer to £90 million. We also heard that “this is definitely the seat where you get most client contact.” One source told us: “In the average week I attend three or four client meetings with various team members.” Trainee involvement in those meetings develops over time: you start out “writing attendance notes for administration,” but soon trainees are “drafting wills with explanatory notes for the client” and by the end of the seat you might “lead client meetings and act as their first point of contact.”
Save the birds… or serve them
The firm’s litigious work comes in three big chunks: property litigation, contentious trusts and probate, and commercial disputes. It’s possible to do a seat in just one sub-section, but most of our interviewees got to sample at least two. Clients vary from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other national organisations to family-run businesses like chip shop chain Fish’n’Chick’n. Hewitsons also recently represented a Norfolk landed estate in a judicial review of a penalty imposed after alleged breaches of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. “Some of the issues we get to analyse are so minuscule,” one trainee laughed. “There can be property disputes over literally three inches of land, but they’re treated like a huge deal!” Bigger cases with more than a few inches up for grabs call for “legal research and lots of bundling” from trainees, who “build up to new responsibilities rather than diving in at the deep end.” Several interviewees also got to see mediations and attend court.
Farmers, private individuals and major landowners form the clientele in agriculture and rural affairs. Clients include estates in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Bedfordshire and Warwickshire, as well as Homes England (the government body formerly known as the Homes & Communities Agency). For some trainees, the appeal of this seat lay in “getting to dip into academic land law and trawl through conveyances from the 1700s which were probably written with a quill pen!” More forward-thinking trainees appreciated getting to work on first registrations of “increasingly rare” unregistered land. Client contact is also rarer here; trainees fill their time with transfer drafting and title investigation.
Agriculture is often offered as a split seat with commercial property, which covers everything from “development work to landlord/tenant leases. It’s a big team with a varied workload.” Hewitsons counsels various educational institutions including Oxford colleges, and acted for Milton Keynes property firm AW James when it let a 20,000 square foot office to national law firm Shoosmiths.
“We build up to responsibilities rather than diving in at the deep end.”
Corporate and employment are always grouped as one seat, and “there’s no fixed ratio of the two sides – how much of each you do depends on what’s busy, but most trainees tend to spend more time in corporate.” The Northampton team often represents American clients buying and selling businesses in the UK – such as when US-based ACF Technologies acquired UK software company Q-Nomy – while the Cambridge office focuses on tech and property development, for example representing German private equity fund BID in its acquisition of Cambridge software business eSight Energy. “I’ve helped a lot with due diligence and disclosure bundles,” a source shared. “I also went through share purchase agreements with the client.” The employment team is evenly balanced between contentious and advisory work, representing both employees and businesses plus various charities. Trainees “prepare bundles for court and tribunal claims. Both sides of the seat come with lots of client contact – I was here until 10pm last night talking through due diligence with one!”
Speaking of hours: 10pm finishes are far from the norm at Hewitsons. In most seats, trainees “tend to leave by 5.30 or 6pm on average – I’ve only had a handful of later nights.” Corporate can be more demanding but even there “it’s uncommon to stay later than 7pm. I’ve often been virtually kicked out of the office by partners and there’s really no obligation to work late nights.” One interviewee reckoned “a flexible approach to hours has helped Hewitsons when it comes to the representation of female lawyers among the partnership.”
Cooking with partner
The Northampton office is fully open-plan, and “the size of departments makes a big impact on their culture – private client and property are very interactive and work closely together, whereas litigation is a bit quieter.” That’s also true in Cambridge, where individual offices circle an open centre space. “Everyone is very down to earth and treats everyone from partners to PAs with respect,” insiders said, “and when you’re chatting with senior partners in the kitchen you don’t think ‘oh god I have to be formal’.”
“… trainees tend to organise social events or drinks.”
Hewitsons runs regular firm-wide training sessions, which take place at each office in rotation, and “trainees tend to organise social events or drinks around those.” The firm itself doesn’t run many socials, aside from a Christmas party. “When I first started they had one social committee for the whole firm which organised trips to ice hockey and the theatre,” a second-year told us. “They weren’t getting big turnouts so the firm’s reshuffled to have a committee for each office.” As well as more get-togethers, trainees felt Hewitsons could fork out a bit more on their salaries. “It’s slightly lower than at some similar firms,” and there’s no increase from the first to the second year.
In mid and end-of-seat reviews, “supervisors make the effort to ask each member of the team for feedback on your work,” so trainees aren’t kept in the dark about their qualification prospects. In 2019 Hewitsons retained two out of four qualifiers.
Exclusive! Every two weeks Hewitsons circulates ‘The News’ – “it’s like BBC News but for Hewitsons and it’s really useful for finding out what’s going on in other offices.”
How to get a Hewitsons training contract
Hewitsons offers around seven training contracts a year – five in Cambridge, and two in Northampton – though according to director of HR Caroline Lewis, “we may increase the numbers where we are impressed by particularly good candidates.” The firm's small intake means that snagging a training contract can be competitive, but Lewis insists that this helps to “ensure that there is plenty of responsibility and enriching work for all of our trainees.”
The firm does offer placement opportunities during June, July and August for one week. Those who are interested in applying should send in a CV and covering email to [email protected] The placements are highly sought after and provide rookies with the opportunity to shadow fee-earners practising in areas of interest. Preference is given to undergrads on course to achieve at least a 2:1 with AAB at A level.
The application form
To score a traineeship, candidates are first required to fill in an application form. “We're looking for consistently good academic results,” Lewis asserts, “as well as a coherent, measured and logically reasoned account as to why you've decided you'd like to be a lawyer at Hewitsons.” Fibbers should take note, as Lewis “will always ask to see applicants' original certificates,” later on in the offer process, so make sure you have a copy of your A levels, degree, GDL and LPC to hand. If you haven't always made the grade then fear not: “If a candidate has spent a year as a fee-earning paralegal at Linklaters, it may mitigate against them achieving three Bs at A level,” Lewis says, by way of example. “We don't want to lose out on people who miss the cut by a thread.”
All applications are collated into one giant spreadsheet at the end of August. Candidates' names are withdrawn from the document to ensure anonymity, and those that meet the aforementioned criteria are then invited to interview. It's a process that Lewis feels works well, as “the only thing I know at this stage is that they're an individual applying for a training contract. I learn applicants' names on the very day that I interview them, so it's all very fair.”
The interview itself is held with Lewis and a member of the firm's trainee interest group (who is always a partner). The interview is relatively formal, and is designed to test interviewees' commitment to a career in law, and a career at Hewitsons. “It's important to show us that you've done your research,” Lewis nods. “We want to see applicants who are excited to explain where they want to be and why they think they'll get there with us.” Evidence of good teamwork is also important, so we'd advise applicants to think up a few scenarios where they've led or been responsible for a group of people. There is also a practical exercise involving a case study which is undertaken on the same day but in advance of the interview.
Though evidence of prior work experience can be valuable, “we try not to put too much store on it. There's a chance that someone who's spent a week at a magic circle firm may have just secured that experience through their father's friend, so what we're really looking for is something a little more substantive that demonstrates a degree of individual merit.” Lewis hints that a stint paralegalling could be a good example of this.
When it comes to academic credentials, Lewis feels that “it is good to see the benefits of a mix of learning experiences, including non-law degrees.” And as far as universities are concerned, “we've found that the likes of Oxbridge, Bristol, Exeter, Warwick, Durham, Sheffield and Leeds have produced a number of excellent solicitors for us. They're certainly not the only places that we'd look to hire from, but we have been particularly impressed with their graduates in the past.”
Working in Cambridge
42 Newmarket Road,
- Partners 45
- Assistant solicitors 63
- Total trainees 11
- UK offices Cambridge, London, Northampton, Milton Keynes
- Overseas offices: None but the firm is a founder member of LawExchange International.
- Contacts Sally Denton, Senior HR Executive [email protected] 01604 463122
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 12
- Applications pa: 500
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 minimum
- Minimum A levels: AAB minimum
- Work experience: June, July, August
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 July 2020
- Training contract deadline, 2022: 31 August 2020
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £24,000
- Second-year salary: £24,500
- Post-qualification salary: £40,500
- Holiday entitlement: 22 days, bank holidays and an extra dat at Christmas
- LPC fees: No
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Generally Cambridge and Northampton with placements in London and Milton Keynes
Main areas of work
Application is by way of letter and CV to [email protected]
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
Cambridge and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 2)
- Construction (Band 2)
- Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market and Private Equity (Band 4)
- Intellectual Property (Band 1)
- Litigation (Band 2)
- Planning (Band 2)
- Real Estate (Band 3)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 2)
- Corporate/M&A: SME/Owner-managed Businesses (Band 1)
- Real Estate Recognised Practitioner
- Litigation (Band 4)
Northampton and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 1)