A web of six offices across East Anglia and the East Midlands hosts trainees at this regional firm.
Not London Calling
London is often seen as the epicentre of our legal landscape. Yet for trainees at Howes Percival, London came calling and they chose not to pick up. “I didn’t want to work in London,” one told us, “but I wanted high-quality work and clients, and we have a strong regional presence.” Another source declared: “There’s a great diversity of seats here, and a great culture – it’s a fun environment if you want to work outside London.” For over 200 years, Howes Percival has wound a wide regional web across the East Midlands and East Anglia. At the time of our calls there were four trainees in Northampton, three in Norwich, two each in Cambridge and Leicester and one in Milton Keynes. (The Manchester office is “tiny” with no trainees). Chambers UK hands out high rankings to the firm’s corporate, litigation, planning, real estate, agriculture and restructuring practices in East Anglia; in the East Midlands – a more competitive market – the firm is recognised for corporate work for SMEs.
“We have a strong regional presence.”
Historically Howes Percival has been operationally split between the East Midlands and East Anglia – though now the division is reportedly less clear-cut. Trainees are expected to move and relocate between offices for various seats: while it’s unlikely an East Midlands trainee will have to up sticks and head to East Anglia and vice versa, trainees enter knowing they’ll be required to move within their region. Naturally, this connected disconnection somewhat splits the firm. For some trainees “the benefits of moving within your region are clear as you meet more people in the firm and gain an in-depth understanding of firm culture.” For others, long commutes, confusion about accommodation, and generally not being “a person who can just pick up and move,” caused slight consternation. “You have to be prepared,” warned one source.
All this being said, the fluid nature of the firm and rotations was mostly celebrated. “We’ve got a brand that follows through,” one source said. “Us newbies operate across regions without a focus on one office and that helps define a shared culture.” Nuances between offices do come to the fore. For example, size matters. In compact Milton Keynes and Cambridge “you know everyone,” whereas in Norwich the office “is split over three floors,” making connections less easy. Similarly, size determines scope: while you can find a commercial property seat in all offices, other seats – IP in Milton Keynes or estates in Norwich – are office-specific. See our website for a full breakdown of seats by location. Regardless of location, “a property seat is almost guaranteed.” In Norwich, there are several property sub-teams, while “Leicester has expanded its planning team.” Cambridge is the newest office (opened in 2015) and is “smaller but growing very rapidly – you get more of a buzz because of the intimacy.” Across offices, while there are “a few big clients,” sources said: “Clients tend to be based locally.”
“The level of involvement has been nuts!”
A seat in commercial property – the department which reportedly “brings in most revenue to the firm” – has trainees “busy from day one,” for example drafting lease reports or contracts for land acquisitions and disposals. “The level of involvement has been nuts!” one trainee beamed. “I did a completion on my own in the first week, and the support available meant that I really felt able to do it.” Another interviewee found that “there are standard trainee tasks to do, such as Land Registry applications, but I also got to do big things like completion of golden brick agreements” – these are special VAT arrangements used by housing associations.Besidesdealing with housing associations, local SMEs and owner-managed businesses, the team works on some larger matters. For example, Northampton lawyers recently advised a major Swedish bank on the £30 million refinancing of an extensive residential and commercial property portfolio. They also acted for HSBC on acquisition financing for the purchase of four chemists from Lloyds Pharmacies. Meanwhile in East Anglia clients include Greene King, Cambridge University Endowment Fund, Braintree District Council, Persimmon Homes and Ford Retail – so you can see that while some clients may be local they are pretty high-profile. The property litigation team represents several of the same clients, while also acting for the Ministry of Defence, the Co-op and Norwich Cathedral.
In corporate/commercial (known as ‘coco’), trainees hit the ground running. “I was given my first deal on day one, even though I didn’t know how to use the phone!” But rest assured, no one’s hung out to dry: “On a business purchase for a small buyer, I was given support with handholding where I needed it, but I did the completion meeting on my own.” And while there's less client contact here than in other seats, trainees still see things “from start to finish on smaller matters.” The team does work on some bigger matters too: for example, a cross-office team lead by partners in Norwich and Milton Keynes advised Suffolk's Aspall Cyder on its sale to US brewing giant Molson Coors. These bigger deals for bigger clients tend to mean more standard tasks for trainees. On one cross-jurisdictional multimillion-pound “bespoke deal,” a trainee was “helping draft, but also having to take notes and produce the bibles, which was horrible!” The Northampton office has continued its local relationship with the British Racing Drivers’ Club at Silverstone, meaning trainees get to work with “big businesses doing their AGMs there.” Other clients the firm does commercial contracts work for include the Guards Polo Club and Welcome Break.
Estates (currently offered only in Norwich) is “split between tax and private client on the one hand, and estates and landlord work on the other.” Agricultural clients include the Cholmondeley and Holkham estates in Norfolk, plus Sir Guy Quilter and his wife Jenny, who Howes Percival advised on the £30 million sale of their 2,000-acre Sutton Hall estate in Suffolk. Client exposure and responsibilities are reportedly healthy, with one source “being given a drafting task that I could go away and do then return to my supervisor.”
Meanwhile in insolvency and corporaterecovery, there’s “quite a bit of court exposure,” but less client contact. Those clients are chiefly administrators and liquidators and include Grant Thornton, BDO and Mazars, plus the government's Insolvency Service. For one trainee, bundles were the buzzword: “One exhibit was 4,000 pages long, and it was key that its accuracy married up with the witness statements.”
As we mentioned above “there’s a different culture in different offices due to the staffing levels,” but sources told us: “Everyone meshes really well and you’re never segregated as a trainee.” The once-clear divide between the regional blocs is reportedly a thing of the past. “The collaboration between different departments is fantastic, and the integration between offices is getting better,” one trainee reported. With the help of conference calling and other tech advances, the whole network is at trainees' fingertips helping to “unify the firm.” The fact that all offices are open-plan helps foster connections too. Similarly, HPVoice (a new scheme designed to allow everyone’s suggestions to be platformed) means “your ideas can be heard without having to make a big step.” In addition the spread of trainees, lawyers and staff across offices creates an “equality” which means no office is seen as a satellite.
“It’s quite surprising how casually partners can be spoken to.”
This equality extends to trainee relationships with more senior people. “It’s quite surprising how casually partners can be spoken to,” one interviewee reported. The culture is epitomised by ‘Fun Fridays’ when partners put money behind the bar at a local pub – “it's a great way to socialise with everyone,” said one source. One observation trainees made is that (except in Norwich and Cambridge) the locations of the offices “outside cities and towns” precludes spontaneous drinks after work – “they have to be a more organised affair.” But fear not: charity bake sales, Come Dine With Me events, JLD activities and a firm-wide Christmas party keep trainees busy and connected.We also heard that a new training principal is working to make the qualification process more “transparent” and in 2019 five of seven qualifiers were retained.
Hours are pretty uniform here with a day usually running from 8.30am to 6.30pm and one trainee saying a late finish would be “anything past seven.”
How to get a Howes Percival training contract
Training contract deadline (2022): 30 June 2020 (opens 1 October 2019)
The firm receives around 200 to 300 initial applications. The application form covers standard CV and experience questions, like 'why do you want to be a lawyer?' and 'why do you want to work for Howes Percival?', as well as a few “designed to draw out a bit of your personality” like 'what's your best non-sporting achievement?' There's no specific question about local links, though we reckon mentioning things which tie you to the regions where the firm operates will do you no harm.
Assessment day and interview
Before attending the assessment centre, applicants are asked to complete an online numerical reasoning test. The half-day assessment centre itself consists of three parts: a 45-minute written commercial test, a presentation and a one-hour interview. The written test is based on a commercial scenario in which you're asked to write a piece of advice to a client.
The presentation is on a topic you'll be given on the day and tends to be fairly light-hearted – again, it is supposed to draw out something of your personality. In the past, applicants have been asked which book, film and CD they'd take with them to a desert island and (in another year) what three people, dead or alive, they'd invite to their ideal dinner party. (If you are asked that latter question, be honest, don't just name three famous lawyers unless you have a really good reason to.)
The interview is with two senior lawyers and is a more serious affair, though don't be afraid to showcase your personality. Expect to be asked about a typical array of competencies – strengths and weaknesses, analysis and decision making, teamwork, initiative – as well as commercial awareness questions: for instance, 'what makes a law firm successful?' There are some scenario-based questions too, but also some more easygoing ones like 'what makes you laugh?' (Don't say: lawyer jokes.)
HP's vac scheme lasts just a week and consists of students spending a single day in five different departments. They shadow a trainee or other junior lawyers and mix attending court and meetings with some real work and a number of set tasks. On the last afternoon, there is an assessed group exercise and some (though not all) participants will be invited back for a final training contract interview.
The firm runs schemes in two different weeks in the summer, in Leicester, Northampton and Norwich, with four to six places on each.
Among the trainees there were graduates from institutions in the regions where the firm works – Leicester and UEA – as well as individuals from places further afield like Sheffield, Birmingham and Queen Mary, London.
Links to the local region are a common denominator among trainees. Nearly all our interviewees had either grown up in the East Midlands or East Anglia or been to uni there. Many continue to cultivate these local connections during their training through involvement with local charity fund-raising and business development.
Howes Percival LLP
- Partners 49
- Solicitors 72
- Total trainees 15
- UK offices Cambridge, Leicester, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Norwich
- Graduate recruiter: Katy Tebbutt, [email protected], 01604 230400
- Training partner: Simon Murphy, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 8
- Applications pa: 300
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum A levels: BBB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 24
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: October 2019
- Training contract deadline, 2022 start: 30th June 2020
- Vacation scheme applications open: October 2019
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31st March 2020
- LPC fees: Yes subject to cap
- GDL fees: Yes subject to cap
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: None
- Overseas seats: None
- Client secondments: Occasionally subject to client needs
Main areas of work
Open days and first-year opportunities
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
- Banking & Finance (Band 4)
- Corporate/M&A: SME/Owner-managed Businesses (Band 1)
- Litigation (Band 2)
- Planning (Band 2)
- Real Estate (Band 2)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 3)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 2)
- Social Housing Recognised Practitioner
- Corporate/M&A: SME/Owner-managed Businesses (Band 2)
Norwich and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 2)