This Devon and Cornwall regional knows what it's good at and where it's good at it – and everyone takes a share of the profits.
You can go your Scown way
We at Chambers Student can't conclusively rule on how to pronounce 'scone', but we can confirm that Stephens Scown rhymes with 'cone' because otherwise the firm's 'Scownership' business structure wouldn't be a pun (and if something can be a pun, it always should be). Like John Lewis the firm provides a stake in the business to its employees, or Scowners – and this was the first UK top 200 firm to adopt this model. Trainees explained “at the end of the year profits are split and everyone gets the same bonus, so everyone's got a drive to bill and contribute.” Things are going to plan – in 2017/18 revenue hit £19.2 million, just shy of its 2020 target of hitting revenues of £20 million. Trainees also reported “a huge pay rise, the firm's now extremely competitive considering the hours targets at local competitors.”
Stephens Scown picks up top local Chambers UK rankings for corporate/M&A, family and agriculture; it also fares well nationally for mining. At the time of our calls there were nine trainees in Exeter, six in Truro and three in St Austell. Insiders told us: “You don't need to have local connections to join but all the trainees here are keen on living and working in the South West. You just need a passion for the area and to understand the mentality of businesses here.”
On the firm's website you'll find lovely images of rolling Devon countryside, blue sea and a striking orange camper van with 'Love Where You Live' emblazoned across it – Stephens Scown recently launched a campaign of the same name. What does it mean exactly? “There's a real emphasis on the local community,” sources told us. “The firm is prioritising being a big regional player in the South West.” Many felt “they're doing well to position themselves like that as competitors gravitate towards London.” Loving where you live also means helping out friends and neighbours through community service or fundraising – with both being “very important” to the firm.
“The firm is prioritising being a big regional player in the South West.”
Unusually, Stephens Scown's training contract is split into three eight-month seats. Trainees are assigned their first seat, but get to voice any preferences before joining seats two and three. Some arrived “a bit sceptical about the eight-month seats, but having done three longer ones I think it's a really good idea. You end up with so much more experience and confidence.” But there's a potential downside of course: “If you don't enjoy a seat you're stuck there for a long time.” You're either an Exeter trainee or a Cornwall one, potentially splitting your time between Truro and St Austell.
Within the disputes department trainees can slot into commercial litigation, construction, contentious probate or property litigation subgroups, though chances to experience work outside their chosen areas can pop up. “You're involved in every step of cases and everything's explained really well,” said juniors, and our sources had mostly sunk their teeth into drafting court documents and doing legal research. Stephens Scown represents various local clients including Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust and St Austell Brewery, but also represents international NGO Cool Earth Action, and dips into specialist sectors like mining, representing IMERYS Minerals (formerly English China Clays). The firm recently represented an individual, Anton Barkhuysen, in his claim of defamation and wrongful imprisonment after a neighbour of his claimed she had seen him engage in sexual activities with a pig. The story was found to be false, and the firm won the client £30,000 in damages. Another, less sensational, matter saw the firm advising London-based Spectrecom Films in a dispute centred on the creative agency's refusal to pay rent after its studio was flooded. Property litigation offered some juniors the chance to “do some advocacy in front of a judge. It's daunting but the firm gives you the confidence you need.” Over in commercial litigation, trainees ran some of their own small debt claims, acting as “the partner's right hand” on larger matters.
Team corporate “does a lot with small and medium-sized businesses, mostly local ones.” They recently advised the operators of tourist favourite Wookey Hole Caves on its £2 million acquisition of a local camping and caravan site. Our sources did “a lot of drafting but not always of the same document type: one day I might be drafting franchise letters, the next a share purchase agreement. The firm's good at making sure you're not just a one-trick pony.” Food and drink, mining and renewable energy cases all make appearances here, and trainees pointed out “you're there for a long time so get to repeat matter types. There's very good partner supervision and I meet clients through them.”
“I was answering client calls in the first week.”
It's more hands-off in real estate – some found that “the supervision's not as good there.” But with less oversight trainees were free to run their own smaller files. “I was answering client calls in the first week,” one recounted. “They give you more responsibility than some other teams.” There's both residential and commercial real estate on offer, and interviewees tended to focus on whatever their supervisor specialised in. There are plenty of niches to dive into, trainees tackling “agricultural property, social housing, more corporate stuff... it's quite varied but wherever you are there's lots of drafting and reports on title.” The team has recently helped South Western housing developer Devon & Cornwall Housing as it snapped up plenty of plots for development. Renewable energy also turns up here, as when the firm advised Hydro Mills on the development of 20 hydraulic energy sites in Devon. On larger projects trainees' roles involved “going to really big meetings between development companies and taking notes. You're thrown in the deep end a bit but the team's lovely and welcoming.”
'Lovely and welcoming' seemed to be the vibe in family too. “The partners are brilliant but expect perfection. They demand a lot from you but it's by far the best seat to learn in.” The predominantly litigious workload ranges from divorces to domestic abuse cases; trainees “are allocated their own projects and you do everything. It's all carefully checked but you get to email clients, draft consent orders and analyse financial information.” One told us the seat is “completely different to others because I was seeing clients every day and going to court three times a week. I was mainly sitting behind counsel but they let me do some of my own advocacy too.”
Egging you on
City trainees, look away now – “there's no pressure to stay in the office after 5.15pm” at Stephens Scown and everybody's out the door by 6pm most days. “The latest I've worked was 8pm and that was of my own volition,” one trainee said. “What I've seen as a trainee here is the firm's really focused on its employees and making us feel valued.” December first means Advent calendars for all, followed by chocolate eggs at Easter. The gifts don't stop there: the managing partner led a well-being campaign during which “everybody got something new each day for two weeks. The first day we got headbands and a list of desk exercises!”
Exeter and Truro trainees might struggle for the room to squat and burpee however – both “feel pretty cramped at the moment” because of recent growth. Truro expanded into a new building to make room for those new arrivals, “showing the firm's willing to invest.” Exeter residents championed their location “right near the centre of the city – a lot of people go and eat lunch on the cathedral green.” Come night-time the building “lights up in Stephens Scown's purple.” Every office is open-plan, an almost universally popular layout as “you definitely benefit from hearing partners on the phone.” The social scene, however, “could be better. It's tricky to get together because a lot of trainees live far away.” The firm does host a Christmas party, monthly drinks trolleys and one-off events like a recent walking and camping trip.
Qualification kicks off later than some other firms, though “depending on circumstances you might move into your qualification seat a couple of months before starting.” The growing trainee intake left some worrying “whether there'll be enough jobs; there is more of a competitive edge now.” Six of ten took a place at the firm in 2018.
Trainees must complete at least three months as a paralegal with the firm before starting the training contract.
Get hired at Stephens Scown
Vacation scheme deadline (2019): March 2019
Training contract deadline (2021): rolling (August 2019)
Applications for training contracts start with an online application form with successful candidates being invited for interview. Stephens Scown typically receives around 300 applications each year for around 8 trainee solicitor positions.
The online application is “quite in-depth,” according to partner Hilary Pitts: “It covers the basics like academic results and work experience, but also poses some essay-style questions like 'Why do you want to work for Stephens Scown?', 'What are your strengths and weaknesses?' and 'Why do you want a career in the South West?'” There is a word limit, so Pitts advises applicants “not to go overboard. It's important to put your personality across, but that doesn't mean putting too much in.” Spelling and grammatical errors are also a no-no: “At the end of the day, we're selling a service to clients with exacting standards, so if there are mistakes in your application, it won't go down well.”
Work experience is “really key,” but the firm seeks a certain type of experience. Pitts clarifies: “We see many applicants who've shadowed a barrister or conducted legal aid work in a high-street firm, but what we're really looking for is experience in firms like ours, in terms of service offering and market positioning.” When it comes to non-legal work experience, “it's good to put it down, but only if you've learnt something relevant from it. Some people put down their bar work over the summer holidays, and that's not really going to impress. Instead, we're keen to hear about organisational and management positions. Work experience with law firms shows us the applicant is interested in a legal career.”
A minimum 2:1 degree in any subject is required, though “there isn't a rigid policy” when it comes to university background. “We're looking for people with a bit of personality and spark,” says Hilary. “We need people who aren't just going to sit at their desk and keep their head down; we're looking for the next generation of the firm's partners.”
Despite the firm's grounding in the South West, “you don't need regional links to apply,” according to Hilary. “Inevitably, a lot of the applications we receive are from people local to the area or who have attended local universities, but we have hired people who have no regional ties at all. Of course, it's good to show a desire to live and work here, though.”
Interview and work experience
Interviews tend to last between 30 – 45 minutes. “The interview is with me, and two others from the Training Team including one from Exeter and one from our Cornish offices,” Hilary Pitts explains. “We interview for all vacancies across all offices – it's centralised.” This panel is likely to use a candidate's application form as a springboard for discussion, but will also assess overall commercial awareness plus contemporary knowledge of both the legal profession and the South West marketplace. “We're always looking for that awareness – we aren't just looking for people who went to uni and got their law degree.”
Does Pitts have any other tips? “Quite often you read an application and think 'wow, they sound so exciting', but when they come in they don't come across as well as expected. We allow for nerves because it's an anxious time, but it's definitely okay to crack a joke and smile if it's appropriate. We're a serious business but a friendly firm.” Be sure to research Stephens Scown thoroughly, as “we do test candidates on what they know about the firm. We want to feel like they're interested in coming to us specifically.” The firm also encourages candidates to apply for its work experience scheme: applications are open between January and March. Successful applicants will spend time in at least two teams, and complete “real tasks, so they have a chance to learn something – they don't just get stuck with the photocopying.”
After the online application and interview, successful direct applicants are invited to an assessment day. “We set them two tasks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon,” Hilary Pitts reveals. These are tied to the family, commercial, real estate and dispute resolution teams. “In the family team, candidates have a financial task, so it involves figures and tests their attention to detail. In dispute resolution, it's research-based and they prepare a letter of advice for a client.” Candidates aren't given advance notice of the tasks, but Pitts assures us that they are allocated “a good chunk” of time to complete them. “My advice? Don't rush them. Some candidates complete a task in half the time because they think they need to do it quickly, but sometimes they don't do it justice.”
On average, seven training contracts are offered each year. “But we don't have set intake dates because we recruit on a rolling basis,” says Pitts.
Interview with training principal Liz Allen
Chambers Student: What have been the highlights of the last year at Stephens Scown?
Liz Allen: We continue to be ranked highly in the Times Best 100 Companies to Work For, a position we've held for four consecutive years. That's a good indicator of the quality of life here. Within trainee recruitment we've launched our Be Yourself, Be Unique initiative, aimed at attracting high-calibre diverse candidates from across the country. It stresses that Stephens Scown is a firm that encourages lawyers to be individuals and be themselves while still doing great quality work. Following the scheme we've seen an increase in applications from Oxbridge and other universities.
I'd add we've also substantially expanded our Truro office recently with huge additional premises. We're definitely the prominent firm in Cornwall with a great real estate group who offer experience and potential unparalleled in the West Country.
CS: The firm is also pushing its Love Where You Live campaign – how important is it that applicants have some connection to the South West?
LA: It's not crucial from our perspective, but it's helpful if candidates have an understanding of life here. Some came to Exeter to study and stay because they get a taste for the lifestyle. It's helpful to understand the industries local to here, because there's a history unique to the South West. Our firm has real expertise in mining and minerals, a big industry for us that comes from the Cornwall tin mines which have recently been coming back online. Tourism and food and drink are another big sector, as is energy – another industry that really stated in Cornwall. We'd like students applying here to have an idea of what makes the South West tick.
CS: How can a candidate impress at interview?
LA: It still astonishes me how little some people know about the firm when they come to interview, how much interest can they have in working here if they're not informed? Beyond that, we're looking for individuals and characters, people who have something unique to bring to the firm. This isn't a place for clones or bland City professionals. Stephens Scown has a very mixed client base, including substantial private client and family teams, so trainees have to be able to relate to individuals as well as corporate types and have a friendly, adaptable approach to work.
CS: What impact will the firm's growth have on the trainee experience?
LA: We've widened the number of seats on offer – both the employment and IP teams will now take trainees on a routine basis. Alongside the core modules, we're now able to offer seats that are unusual to the South West: another example is planning in Cornwall, going beyond just real estate. Seats like this will offer much more in-depth experiences in those areas than many other local firms can provide.
CS: The 3×8 month seat model is unusual, what's the reasoning behind it?
LA: At a lot of firms trainees dip in and out of transactions, and don't get to see everything from beginning to end. This model really improves their chances of doing so, especially in contentious departments where the litigation process runs over a long period. Getting to see matters from beginning to end gives our trainees a lot more confidence and experience in those areas. We've done it this way for years and regularly consult each intake for feedback, and the 3×8 model is something nobody ever seems to want to change despite it being unusual, partly as they can really see themselves working within a team by the end of the seat. Perhaps we're just ahead of the curve!
CS: Aside from that, what makes a Stephens Scown training contract distinctive to those offered by other firms?
LA: The culture here is fairly unique, especially because of Scownership, which means all members have a share in the firm and its profits. Trainees are very much part of that. There are also lots of opportunities to get involved in charity work, acting for local and national charities like Age UK.
CS: Do you have any advice for somebody who's about to enter the legal profession?
LA: My advice is always to get work experience under your belt – a training contract is such a big commitment that it's unwise to enter into one without a realistic idea of what to expect. I'd recommend aiming for medium-to-large commercial firms as it's unlikely that smaller ones will be able to take on many trainees in future.
If you're having any difficulty getting a good training contract, decent paralegal experience will open doors for you. We've had a number of paralegals here convert to trainees, and while some other firms are reluctant to do so we do it quite regularly. We're happy to have candidates who know the firm personally and whom we've seen commit to the work we do. The incoming SQE will inevitable lead to more candidates taking such routes.
Doing business in the South West
Stephens Scown LLP
- Partners 55+
- Associates 100+
- Total trainees 18+
- UK offices Exeter, Truro, St Austell
- Graduate recruiter: Emma King, [email protected]
- Training partner: Liz Allen, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 8
- Applications pa: 300
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: 320
- Vacation scheme places pa: Variable
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: Rolling recruitment
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: August
- Vacation scheme applications open: January 2019
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: March 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £24,500
- Second-year salary: £26,000
- Post-qualification salary: Competitive
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
Main areas of work
• Truro: Corporate, dispute resolution, family, real estate, planning
• St Austell: Private client, residential, family, dispute resolution
Visit www.stephens-scown.co.uk and have a look at some of our current trainees which will give you a great insight into what is on offer.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2018
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 1)
- Family/Matrimonial Recognised Practitioner
Exeter and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 2)
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: SME/Owner-managed Businesses (Band 1)
- Employment (Band 3)
- Intellectual Property (Band 4)
- Litigation (Band 3)
- Planning (Band 3)
- Professional Negligence: Mainly Claimant (Band 2)
- Real Estate (Band 3)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 3)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)
- Social Housing (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Mining (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy Recognised Practitioner