Trainees at this firm get three eight-month seats, then their very own slice of the business.
One of our Scown
“When someone joins the firm, they are introduced to each person individually,” one Stephen Scown trainee told us, adding: “And the managing partner encourages us to give a ‘positive postcard’ to anyone in the office who has made you smile or helped you on a case.” The positive vibes at this South Westerner are further shaped by the firm’s ‘Scownership’ business structure, which sees every employee (or 'Scowner') given a financial stake in the business. Trainees told us: “The filling of the pot in the past few years has been really good and the fact that non-legal staff are valued and compensated in the same way as the lawyers is a really attractive feature.”
“Very embedded in the local and business community.”
Newbies also really liked the firm’s ‘love where you live’ campaign, which is symbolised on its website by an orange VW campervan driving down a lane lined with dry stone walls and Dartmoor ponies. Even though this is a commercial firm, trainees noticed a “countryside community feel – the firm is very embedded in the local and business community.” To serve this community Stephens Scown has offices in Exeter, Truro and St Austell, and for its efforts it wins regional Chambers UK rankings for a host of commercial areas, including corporate M&A for SMEs, commercial litigation, real estate, family and agricultural work. It's also ranked nationally for mining-related work.
Trainees are split between the firm's three offices, with most in Exeter: at the time of our research 13 trainees were based here while six were in Truro and one was in St Austell. Our interviewees were keen on the firm's unusual three-seat training contract. “Three to four months are spent finding your feet, after six months you can be trusted and left to get on with things, and eight months gives you the ability to cement your knowledge and apply it,” one source said. Not everyone was as accepting of the three-month paralegal requirement prior to starting your training contract. “The firm sells it as a way of finding your feet without too much responsibility,” one interviewee pondered, “but once we actually start, no one knows if we’re paralegals or trainees – the only difference is the salary.” Other sources viewed it as a way of acclimatising to the rules and regulations of an office environment. One said: “It’s great for people who have never worked in an office before – you can learn how to work with reception and figure out the printing system.”
Mine, all mine
The dispute resolution team acts as an umbrella to the commercial litigation, construction, contentious probate and property litigation subgroups. “We work on litigation matters, adjudications, arbitrations and mediations – it’s a lot to get to grips with,” one trainee shared. The construction team works closely with the energy team, doing work for everyone from housing associations to mining clients. Recent litigation clients include French mining giant Imerys, the world's largest supplier of Portland stone, St Austell Brewery and waste management company Viridor. The team also recently advised the Pendennis shipyard in Falmouth on a series of adjudications with Midas Construction about the building of a £10 million facility to build superyachts. Amid the constructed chaos, trainees get to “draft instructions to counsel, prepare bundles for trial and sit in on arbitration hearings.” The property litigation practice – whose clients include Hastoe Housing Association and Exeter Airport – pushes newbies to do advocacy in front of judges and go out on site visits.
Stephens Scown’s corporate practice “doesn't just do your standard corporate stuff.” Trainees can dip their toes into commercial, charities, energy, food and drink, and IP work (the latter mainly in Exeter). Rookies appreciated the balance between having a safety net of supervision to fall back on and being allowed to take the lead on certain things – “there will be quite large transactions for which you’ll be the main point of contact, but there will always be help available.” A large transaction in this context would be something like the £18 million sale of the St Michaels hotel in Falmouth, which the team worked on recently. Lawyers also recently advised Canadian mining company Strongbow Exploration on its multimillion-pound AIM stock market listing, which will help it raise funds for the reopening of the South Crofty tin mine in Camborne. In something of a contrast, the firm also recently advised the Cornwall Wildlife Trust on contracts, grants and fund-raising, and helped Bolenowe Animal Sanctuary, which looks after horses, incorporate as a new type of charity. Day-to-day trainee tasks include drafting share transfer agreements, manufacturing agreements and endowment disposals for charity land, as well as managing the disclosure process.
“We have to sort our own files and be in contact with clients daily.”
Trainees said that the work of the real estate department “is much more formulaic by nature” compared to corporate or litigation. Sources reported that “about 10% of the work is residential and the rest focuses on commercial property.” A change in supervision now allows juniors to run their own small matters – “we have to sort our own files and be in contact with clients daily.” Tasks include managing the sale and purchase of properties, arranging property warranties when the selling of a company is involved, and acting for landlords and tenants on commercial leases and option agreements. A trainee told us that “the client base is definitely local and national, with one or two deals focusing on big national companies.” We struggled to find any examples of truly national clients or work outside the South West in the information the firm sent us, so you'll just have to take this trainee's word for it. Tourism and energy/mining is a significant area of work: the team recently advised a Somerset tourist attraction on the six-figure purchase of a second holiday park and advised a tenant on a new mineral lease for their land.
Trainees emphasised that if you sit with the family department you'll need to proactively manage your own workload. “If letters need to be drafted, do it and take them to the supervisor,” one source advised. “Look out for things in the email and give suggestions on what the next step should be – you won’t be drip-fed work.” The work is “predominantly on high net worth divorces and you get to learn a lot working under the divorce partner, who is highly ranked.” (We checked: the firm has two top-ranked family law partners in Chambers UK, one in Devon and one in Cornwall.) As well as emailing clients and drafting consent orders, trainees get a lot of exposure to court hearings. The team deals with private and public children issues too, delving into domestic abuse cases and child abduction. Specific details of the work are quite sensitive and so kept confidential by the firm.
The work/life balance at Stephens Scown is “as good as you can get being a lawyer.” Trainees generally start the working day at just before 9am and will be out the door by 6pm. “If I've ever had to stay late, it was because of deadlines, and it was my own decision to do it,” one source said. Our sources recalled their mid-seat reviews and mentioned how “the training principal flagged up that some trainees had stayed late and let it be known that there is no expectation to do so, while offering to help out with workload if necessary.”
“It’s good fun to see the partners rolling around on the floor in a sumo suit.”
The firm's South Western charm really comes into play when it comes to the firm’s community atmosphere. For example, departmental away days offer trainees the opportunity to “see partners rolling around on the floor in sumo suits, taking part in coconut shies and doing bungee games.” In addition, we heard that in Exeter “everyone under 30 goes to the pub across the road for Friday drinks.”
Stephen Scown's John Lewis-style employee ownership model “further encourages the togetherness of the firm.” Trainees gleefully reported on the community feel within each office, especially when at the end of the year “everyone is working together to make enough money for a good bonus.” One source emphasised the lack of hierarchy: “Partners are sat next to secretaries, secretaries are sat next to paralegals – we’re all mixed in really well, so no one works as an island.”
Exeter trainees felt well equipped to carry out their work. “We recently had our toilets revamped, which is always great, and we have a table tennis table,” one source told us. “It’s no London glass office building, but we’re in the centre of town and can pop along to the high street with a two-minute walk.” In Truro – where the office is based on the river on the edge of the city centre – the firm recently expanded into an office across the road, which houses the property team.
“Our intake has been the guinea pig for formalising the NQ process,” sources informed us. Trainees described how the growth of the firm has pushed senior management to reassess the qualification process: conversations with HR and heads of department begin at the start of the third seat when trainees are asked to start thinking about their interests for qualification. “We’ve known about the mechanism from day one but it’s a work in progress,” sources agreed. Those in Cornwall felt a bit left behind at the time of our calls as “Exeter trainees have already been told their positions.” All qualifiers were offered a job in 2019; nine of ten qualifiers decided to stay on.
Trainees said Stephen Scown's mentality is that it hopes trainees will make partner in 15 years time. “They definitely invest in you,” interviewees agreed.
Get hired at Stephens Scown
Training contract deadline (2022): rolling recruitment
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.
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, private client, family, real estate, planning
University law careers fairs 2019
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 1)
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 1)
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 3)
- 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)