Fighting fit and ready for anything, Leigh Day acts for individuals in actions against big business and the government.
Wax on, wax off
Everyone remembers the dramatic final fight in The Karate Kid: our young hero Daniel impressively gets to the semi-finals of the karate tournament but takes an illegal attack to the knee from one of his bullies. Just when we think Daniel's done for, Mr Miyagi swoops in with his pain suppression technique allowing Daniel to finish (and win) the fight. Well, like Mr Miyagi, Leigh Day has a penchant for backing the little guy and strives to allow them access to justice. The firm's website proudly proclaims its aim to 'pursue the rights of the individual against corporations and government.' This is a firm that has taken on Uber, Deliveroo, TalkTalk, Unilever, the NHS and the MoD, and recently launched a £4 billion equal pay claim against Tesco on behalf of female shop workers who are being paid less than their male peers.
A pursuit of equality and diversity is not just part of the firm's work. While parts of the legal profession are not diverse and are male-dominated, at Leigh Day 55% of associates and 63% of partners are women. And Leigh Day is the only major law firm with a female name partner – Sarah Leigh. It also has a female managing partner, Frances Swaine.
“It would be difficult to get a job here if you can't demonstrate a passion for claimant work.”
It hasn't all been plain sailing recently. Anyone who's been reading the legal press will be aware of the firm's recent issues with the SRA over its handling of allegations about the British Army's treatment of Iraqi civilians. The firm was cleared of misconduct in 2017 and trainees weren't fazed: “We came out the other side, and the firm is now focused on looking forward.” What might this look like? "We still want to take on tricky cases against big public bodies which are risky, while also expanding,” one trainee said. The Manchester office, which opened in 2014, has reportedly been “growing really fast.” It now takes in one trainee a year and sources said: “It feels like there's a focus on making Leigh Day a national firm as opposed to just a London firm.”
A look at the Chambers UK rankings shows the firm is already well-regarded at a national level, winning top-tier rankings for human rights, public law, personal injury, product liability and environmental law – all for claimant-side work. All of this will no doubt appeal if you consider yourself a general do-gooder, but if you want a training contract here then bear this advice in mind: “It would be difficult to get a job here if you can't demonstrate a passion for claimant work.” Many of our interviewees had volunteered or worked at organisations like Citizens Advice before joining the firm. One said: “You don't accidentally end up working here – most of us have known we want to work here for a while.”
First learn stand, then learn fly
Unusually, Leigh Day trainees only do two seats for 12 months apiece. The system comes with pros and cons. “With four seats you would get a greater variety of areas to try,” said one interviewee, “but the benefit of two seats is that you become more familiar with the areas you've worked in. That's particularly good if you want to specialise in that area.” Trainees are assigned their first seat, then towards the end of the first year they can put forward preferences for what they'd like to do next.
The human rights team works on matters related to public law, privacy, war zones, healthcare, inquests, modern slavery, human trafficking, prisons, immigration, whistle-blowing, discrimination, abuse and more. The facts of the cases are all very different but each is as worthy as the next. For example, lawyers recently acted for 22 Peruvians in a damages claim against UK mining company Xstrata after they were the victims of police violence during an environmental protest. The firm has also been representing former Libyan dissident Abdulhakim Belhaj and his wife in a claim against former foreign secretary Jack Straw over Belhaj's 2004 rendition to Libya. Lawyers also acted for 30 patients of the Dean Street HIV clinic in a claim against the NHS after their names and email addresses were accidentally sent to 780 other patients.
The human rights practice is split into sub-teams – e.g. prisons, abuse, inquests, children – and trainees usually sit within one of these. Even within a subgroup different types of cases are covered, trainees said: “A prison law human rights claim might involve Equality Act issues, discrimination, clinical negligence, personal injury or a death in custody inquest.” Trainees are tasked with “a lot of document review and marshalling the facts” towards the beginning, moving on to “drafting pre-action correspondence” and “instructing counsel and drafting particulars of claim” after a while, followed by “attending the trial – sometimes at the High Court.” Trainees also said they get “a lot of client contact – quite early on I went on prison visits by myself to take clients' instructions.”
The personal injury team handles cycling claims, travel claims, serious and fatal injuries, and workplace injuries. The team recently represented a Bangladeshi ship-breaker in a claim against a UK shipping company after he lost his leg when working to dismantle a ship in Chittagong. It also acted for factory workers who had suffered health problems after being exposed to platinum salt (a heavy metal) in a dirty factory. Trainees draft witness statements, instructions to counsel and schedules of loss as well as attending meetings. “You're very well-supported,” one said. “When I did a negotiation the partner checked every stage but also gave me the chance to make decisions.” There's a separate team that deals with industrial diseases, which are usually asbestos-related. It recently represented the son of a mesothelioma victim exposed to asbestos while working on electric blankets in the 1950s. “These cases move quicker because a lot of the clients have a limited life expectancy,” noted one interviewee.
The clinical negligence team “represents people who've had some sort of catastrophic injury as a result of medical negligence – things like birth and spinal cord injuries.” Lawyers recently acted for a severely disabled child who had suffered brain damage as a result of a delay in delivery, leaving them with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Damages of £2.35 million were agreed. The team also deals with claims related to delayed or missed diagnoses. It recently represented a claimant over a delay by a GP in the diagnosis and treatment of malignant melanoma, causing a significant reduction to life expectancy. The judge awarded the claimant £1.84 million. “I've been involved in pretty much every aspect of a claim,” one source recalled. “You start with the first client meeting and move on to review medical records, then instruct experts and counsel, and draft witness statements. I also drafted particulars of claim and schedules of loss.” Those that had been to trial reported “preparing trial bundles, attending conferences with experts, and liaising with counsel.”
“I had a go at advocacy in front of a master.”
A seat in international and group claims “is great for people who like travel” – we heard that one trainee had been to Africa eight times. That was possibly for this case: the firm recently acted for claimants who were injured during a protest against an iron ore mine in Sierra Leone – an English High Court judge heard the case in a hotel in Freetown. The firm also issued High Court proceedings against Gemfields, a London-based mining company, on behalf of over 100 Mozambicans alleging serious human rights abuses at the Montepuez ruby mine in Mozambique. Trainees “help counsel draft particulars of claim and draft inter-party correspondence.”
The consumer law and product safety team (formerly called product liability) deals with claims against manufacturers of medical devices, clinical trial issues, and 'white goods' claims like “house fires caused by dishwashers or tumble dryers.” There's crossover with other practice areas, trainees said: “Medical device claims often relate to how they were implanted – and any related clinical negligence and personal injury – as well as whether the product itself was defective.” The team has recently acted for Volkswagen owners who found their cars had been fitted with emissions cheating software, and for 40 residents of a tower block in Shepherd's Bush after a fire was caused by a tumble dryer. “Quite a lot is expected of you,” a trainee reported. “I had a go at advocacy in front of a master in the High Court and appeared in front of a judge in the County Court.”
Balance is key
“The work we do attracts a particular type of person,” a trainee told us. “We all share a commitment to working for claimants and giving everyone access to justice. Everyone here has that same ethos.” Another source added: “You tend to meet like-minded people here, which is good for making friends.” The firm's size helps too, as it is “still medium-sized, so everyone pretty much knows everyone.”
The nature of the work that brings these lawyers together can also be a source of understandable emotional strain. “The reason clients come to us is because something awful has happened,” one trainee said. “Often people are vulnerable and need their hand held or extra explanations.” Another interviewee added: “You're encouraged to develop a thick skin – you can't do the job if you're an emotional wreck. Clients need someone to sort things out – they want you to be self-assured and confident.” Trainees noted that there's an employee assistance programme helpline which you can call if you have any stress and well-being issues. Interviewees added that “the teams are generally supportive environments anyway.”
“You're encouraged to develop a thick skin.”
There's also formal training to help rookies get to grips with everything. It starts with three days of “fairly intensive training” on things ranging from office procedures to legal issues. The firm has a new learning and development manager, Jackie Martin, who has “tried to formalise the training so it's ongoing throughout the training contract.” There are sessions on legal writing, witness statements and interview techniques, plus soft skills. On top of this “all departments invite trainees to their training sessions regardless of what department you're in.”
Among all the work, training and emotional strain, Leigh Day lawyers do find time to unwind. There are regular Friday night drinks at which “one of the partners usually funds drinks for everyone at a local pub.” There are two Christmas parties, one for external contacts and clients and one internal; both are now held at the Museum of London. “Leigh Day loves a party,” an interviewee grinned. There's also sporty stuff to get involved in – netball, football, yoga – and charity events. Some of the latter are pretty sporty too: a team recently did the Snowdon Push, hauling a wheelchair user up the Welsh mountain. Lawyers are also involved in mentoring, debating and reading schemes at local schools.
As qualification nears, the firm advertises available NQ roles and trainees can apply with a CV and covering letter. Short-listed applicants are invited to interviews and then successful candidates are offered jobs. “This year the process was a bit of a shambles,” sources admitted in summer 2018. “Half the jobs came out late and we found out about them later than we should have. The firm did apologise.” Despite the frustration, Leigh Day retained 11 of its 12 qualifiers in 2018 – impressive!
Most trainees said they work 9am to 5.30pm or 6pm on an average day, with the odd 10pm finish during busy periods.
How to get a Leigh Day training contract
Training contract deadline (2020): February/March 2019
Students can apply for one of Leigh Day's coveted training contract spots via an online form. At this stage, the firm is looking at academics: you'll need at least a 2:1 at undergrad, although a 2:2 may be considered with mitigating circumstances. There's not a minimum ‘A’ level requirement because “we use a contextual recruitment system,” HR manager Mark Hines explains, “it helps us consider the wider educational, socio-economic and personal background of individuals. For instance, if someone went to a school where the average expected A level grades are CCD and they attain AAB, it helps us identify people who have out-performed expectations and circumstances rather than focusing solely on grades.” The rest of the application involves writing a personal statement, in which Hines is looking to see that candidates “understand and passionately identify with Leigh Day's ethos of providing access to justice for all, and can demonstrate attributes like persistence, resilience and flexibility.”
In terms of work experience, he adds “we try not to be prescriptive about people's backgrounds – we appreciate that some applicants will have gained work experience with organisations similar to ours, where others may have had part time jobs to support their education and living costs - we're more interested in the applicant demonstrating and articulating the relevant skills and approaches they have developed from these roles, no matter where they were gained.”
Leigh Day has also introduced anonymised application reviewing when creating assessment centre shortlists. The reviewing panel do not have access to personal information that may identify an applicant’s background to reduce any potential impact of unconscious bias/ in-group preference in the selection process.
The assessment day and interviews
Following applications, the firm shortlists around three to four candidates per spot and invites them to an assessment day. The day consists of an ability test (usually a critical thinking exercise), a case study, and two interviews. The case study is typically 40-45 minutes and last year, candidates were asked to read through a legal judgment, summarise the main points, and “provide a critical and personal evaluation of the judgment – do they think it was fair? Were there mitigating circumstances? Etc...”
Following these assessments, candidates have two interviews with two different panels. The first is an opportunity to “demonstrate your fit for Leigh Day’s ethos, and understanding of the legal landscape we operate in and how that is changing. There are also questions about topical issues in the media – last year we had questions about the Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans cases and the Tesco equal pay case. The questions might be something like 'do you ever think it's right to pay men and women differently for doing the same work?' Is there a devil's advocate case for it? These types of questions help assess whether the candidate is able to identify and evaluate all sides of an argument, as well as the ethics and reasoning of pursuing certain types of cases,” Hines elaborates.
The second interview covers traditional competency-based questions, where they typically look for evidence of things like managing multiple tasks and dealing with difficult situations and stakeholders.
Mark Hines admits the types of case they undertake can vary tremendously from one department to another and requires the ability to draw on multiple skillsets and adapt to different ways of working, but emphasises “our overlying ethos cuts right across the organisation. We're looking for people who really have the will and desire to strive for justice for individuals, and not be put off by the scale of the opposition we're working against.” Persistence and a 'get-up-and-go' attitude will go a long way, but Hines also notes that the nature of the firm's work means that it requires lawyers to have “empathy and compassion.”
Interview with managing partner Frances Swaine
Chambers Student: Are there any highlights from the last year you think our student readers will be interested in?
Frances Swaine: In terms of work, we have taken on considerably more work relating to supermarket equal pay claims and the gig economy. We're also growing our teams for dealing with the modern workforce and modern workplace, both in London and in Manchester. The Manchester office was quite small for its first couple of years, but now it's about a quarter of the whole workforce, touching at about 100. Initially we had no trainees there, but now we're taking on two there per year. We try to recruit people there who are particularly focused on qualifying and staying in Manchester – not those who are planning on doing their training contract then hoping to move to London.
CS: What's the firm's current business strategy?
FS: I don't think it's likely to change hugely. In the past we have had a number of very large international multi-party claims, but what we have found recently is that we have a few more than we used to, but not of the same size. We have more of them, but fewer people working on each one, which has been partially commercially driven. The investment in every enormous case is huge, so it is easier for us to spread the commercial load. Our name is also better known now, so we are approached not just for one-off matters, but for a number of cases.
CS: How is Brexit affecting the firm?
FS: If I'm honest, at the moment it isn't really affecting any of our client work on a day to day basis. One of our current client groups are members of the Windrush generation. I think that the position around Windrush probably finally attracted more interest because of Brexit and the racist and immigration issues that the vote has thrown up. It suddenly became something which the newspapers were looking at in a good light, as opposed to the past few years where much of the press has been looking at those who were not born in this country otherwise. So Brexit has brought certain views to the fore and this has brought us clients we might not otherwise have had.
CS: What are the main future challenges for law firms generally?
FS: Keeping up with technology as well as recognising that a high percentage of one's workforce needs to be non-legal in order to properly promote our services and ensure the service to the client is what we'd want it to be. It's a challenge right across the sector, and it can be difficult to come to terms with the investment required if you are a senior lawyer. Where once upon a time, a management board would be happy to see a percentage of the budget into what might have been marketing and the IT team, my discussions with other managing partners don't lead me to believe that all management boards have bought into the fact that technology needs as good investment as much as attracting the best lawyers. Increasing amounts of profit need to be invested in making sure firms are technologically superior to other firms in their particular area in order to meet growing client needs.
CS: What sort of person thrives at the firm? How can a candidate really impress at interview?
FS: I think if you're not committed to our ethos, you are not likely to thrive. That's not to say you wouldn't enjoy being here for a while, but in the long run, you need to be committed to working with the sort of client Leigh Day is used to working for. That means heart and mind dedication to the vulnerable, to the people that need that bit of extra help. We like to think we also recruit the best intellectually as well.
At interview, candidates have to try and show they understand the firm and the wider world we work in. We're looking for an open-minded approach.
CS: What advice do you have for readers about to enter the legal profession?
FS: I think it's quite hard for newcomers coming in. That's probably where you need to have a broad-minded view as to what you might end up doing. It's very competitive. Previously, people might have said to focus early, to choose a subject and know what you want to do. Nowadays, I would be saying something different. Yes, choose the sector – are you wanting to be in our sector, or a big commercial practice? But once you get there, be flexible about the sort of things you're wanting to be interested in.
CS: Do you have anything to add about life at Leigh Day?
FS: I think the trainees are quite a collegiate group. We try very hard in the first three months after their arrival to have them socialise. As the HR team has grown in the last two or three years, we've been very impressed with the way they've enhanced the trainee induction programme. We're a small firm compared to the Clifford Chances of the world, but we offer a very nice induction programme with lots of elements. It's designed to make people feel like part of the Leigh Day family. A few years ago with a smaller HR team and less resources, the induction wasn't as broad, but we're very proud of it now.
25 St John's Lane,
- Partners 46
- Assistant solicitors/associates 133
- Total trainees 20
- UK offices London, Manchester
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 8-10
- Applications pa: 550
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: February 2019
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: February/March 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £30,000 (London), £24,000 (Manchester)
- Second-year salary: £32,000 (London), £25,600 (Manchester)
- Post-qualification salary: £45,000 (London), £31,500 (Manchester)
- LPC fees: No
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London and Manchester
- Client secondments: Yes, charities and NGOs
Main areas of work
• Personal injury (London and Manchester)
• Employment (London and Manchester)
• Human rights (London only)
• International (London only)
• Consumer law and product safety (London only)
Leigh Day training contracts are for two consecutive years, and are typically two 12 month rotations across the different departments of the firm. Trainees may have the opportunity to work in our personal injury, international, consumer law, human rights, clinical negligence or employment areas and will be supported through their professional training by a dedicated learning and development team.
2020 requirements are TBD, typically there's one seat in Manchester and five to ten in London. Typically there are two 12-month seats and no compulsory or guaranteed rotations.
• Group personal pension plan
• Employee assistance helpline
• Private medical insurance (reduced rates)
• Interest free season ticket loan
• Childcare vouchers
• Cycle to work scheme
• Eye tests
• Corporate gym membership arrangements
• Employee referral scheme
• Corporate discount
• Social groups and activities
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Clinical Negligence: Mainly Claimant (Band 1)
- Employment: Employee & Trade Union (Band 1)
- Personal Injury: Mainly Claimant (Band 1)
Manchester and surrounds
- Clinical Negligence: Mainly Claimant (Band 2)
- Administrative & Public Law: Traditional Claimant (Band 1)
- Civil Liberties & Human Rights (Band 1)
- Civil Liberties & Human Rights: Prison Law (Band 2)
- Environment: Claimant (Band 1)
- Personal Injury: Mainly Claimant: Industrial Disease (Band 1)
- Product Liability: Mainly Claimant (Band 1)
- Travel: International Personal Injury (Claimant) (Band 3)