Southern star Stevens & Bolton is doubling its trainee intake, giving even more newbies the chance to do “a broad range of seats” outside the chaos of the capital.
Stevens & Bolton training contract review 2024
Law and London go together like fish and chips. The difference is that, while the delicate flavour of battered cod can only be enhanced by the addition of salty chips, you can quite easily enjoy a hearty legal platter in and outside the capital – if you know where to look… For these trainees, that place was Stevens & Bolton, a full-service law firm based in Guildford in Surrey.
“It’s high-profile work, with high-profile clients, without the pressure,” raved one trainee. The firm’s mix of highly regarded practice areas was also a drawcard: “I didn’t know what I wanted to qualify into, so I wanted a broad range of seats,” one trainee admitted. “I knew I wanted to do private client, employment, but also maybe corporate.” S&B does it all, and gets excellent Chambers rankings in all three of those areas. It sits at the top in the South of England for banking & finance, employment, environment, IT, IP, litigation, and corporate/M&A according to Chambers UK. UK-wide, it has strength in franchising and commercial contracts. Outside London, the firm is also a national leader for private wealth law.
“I felt it would be a team mentality, and I’ve not been disappointed.”
With a headcount of just over 200, “I felt the size of the firm meant you’d get more hands-on experience, which has proved to be true.” At the junior end, others liked the size of the trainee intake. “When I was applying it was five,” said one; “it’s gone up to ten now.” Everyone joins the firm’s one and only office in Guildford (close enough to the capital to allow for a “reverse commute,” for those so inclined). “The single-office nature appealed to me,” said another interviewee. “I felt it would be a team mentality, and I’ve not been disappointed.”
Trainees sit four six-month seats and put down three options three months before starting. It's worth noting that corporate and real estate or private client are compulsory, as is a contentious seat (to satisfy SRA requirements.) “The corporate team has been described as the engine of the firm,” trainees told us, “and that’s an accurate way to describe it. It’s the biggest department hands down.” The team does a lot of M&A work and private equity work, as well as some fundraising. While specific numbers were confidential, deal values were typically in seven figures up to the low tens of millions. Depending on the size of the deal, tasks ranged from “mostly project management,” to “mostly drafting preliminary and ancillary documents, like board minutes and warranties.” Unlike smaller departments, where “a lot of the time it was me and a partner working on something together,” in corporate, “with bigger deals, there was an associate as well – there’s more of a hierarchy.” With corporate in the driving seat, trainees could expect to work with other teams in the firm, “getting them to complete due diligence reports and stuff like that.” Overall, it was an “intense” seat, but trainees said, “The work was interesting and exciting, and you do get that deal buzz!” The team represents clients like food supplier Brakes, insurance company Ardonagh Group, and Bright Stars Nurseries, which it has advised on a number of acquisitions of nurseries around the country.
“… comb through contracts, making sure provisions aren’t going to be catastrophic down the line.”
While corporate revolves around the beginning or end of a company’s lifecycle (i.e. sales and purchases) in the commercial and IT seat, “you’re looking at the middle of the lifecycle – the operative side.” In other words, S&B’s commercial team steers clients through “the deals they’re making with other companies.” As such, “it’s very contract-heavy.” In one recent matter, the firm advised Biggin Hill Airport Hotel on its appointment of catering service Air Culinaire. There’s often a tech flavour here too, with companies outsourcing services like IT. The firm represents companies like Kia, Nintendo and Japanese beer company Asahi, where trainees might be able to do a three-month secondment (in its Woking outpost, not Tokyo). Trainees had worked on “lots of different agreements,” doing “lots of due diligence.” Their job was to “comb through contracts, making sure provisions aren’t going to be catastrophic down the line.” Sources had worked on “some finance docs, some debentures and some loan facility agreements.” One told us they were “drafting from my first day,” and others mentioned “lots of client exposure attending meetings.” Here, trainees were told “‘take notes, draft that, and send it to the partner,’” who would send the changes for the trainee to send to the client. Trainees would then “review with client, and then it’s done.” All in a day’s work!
While corporate was a common seat, commercial litigation was a popular one among our interviewees. “We do a broad range of commercial litigation,” sources told us, including “a lot of breach of contract claims, shareholder disputes, international arbitration and mediation.” On its list of clients are the likes of Allianz Insurance and tech manufacturer Global Display Solutions, which it represented in a multi-jurisdictional €37 million breach of contract claim against software company NCR. Trainees said they did a lot of research and drafting – “stuff like a few particulars of claim on smaller cases, a defence, and some pre-action correspondence.” There was also “some indexing and bundling for hearings, but one thing I would say is that even if it was very admin-heavy, there’s an approach to get you involved as early as possible to understand the context.” The aim was “to get you familiar with key litigation docs. You pick up stuff by osmosis.”
Several sources had done a split seat in family and private wealth disputes, but at the time of publication, these had since been split into two distinct seats with their own trainees. “They’re both really lovely teams, which has made my time really good.” On the private wealth disputes side of things, the team handles probate disputes involving estates and trusts in the many millions, and acts as administrators for high-value estates. Although the clients are confidential, the team’s recognition as national leaders outside London in Chambers High Net Worth will give you an indication of the calibre of matters carried out here. Sources said they had “drafted witness statements in response to a claim,” as well as “attended mediations, and put together some bundles.” Sources noted that as with most contentious work, it was unlikely trainees would see a whole case from beginning to completion during their six months. But “the team is good at making sure that you see different parts of things,” said one. “I would be on the first half of one case and the end of another to bring me in as much as possible.” The small family team largely works on finances and prenups for individuals. Trainees “were drafting instructions to counsel” ahead of a hearing, and “laying out what’s going on for counsel with their client.” Sources mentioned “lots of hearings,” often in financial dispute resolutions in divorces. There were also plenty of meetings with the clients themselves, “which I loved!”
So, how about those hours? For the most part, trainees mentioned knocking off around 6.30pm, with “the odd late finish around 11pm or midnight, and those are exceptional.” The corporate seat “definitely had longer hours,” but unlike their peers in the capital, who see their fair share of midnight finishes, at S&B, “I tended not to leave past 9pm when it got really busy.”
On the downside, “there’s a bit of dissatisfaction about pay,” sources admitted. “It’s not terrible, and not far short of what you’d expect, but compared to our competitors it feels a bit lower.” The firm recently increased trainee salary by £2,000, and NQ salary by £4,000. But on top of humane hours, the firm has “a nice, supportive environment.” As one relieved source put it, “I can have a go and make a mistake and if I do, I won’t be crucified. You’re told why it’s a mistake and how to rectify it. I’ll know better for next time.” Open communication was a common theme. “I don’t feel worried about speaking up,” said another, “and if I’ve had a personal issue I could reach out to my supervisor.”
“It’s part of being in Guildford. We want to feel connected to the community.”
The firm’s ‘open-door policy’ was helped along by the fact that “with the recently refurbished office, there are no doors – it’s open-plan!” But the sentiment remained the same: “People genuinely have time for trainees.” The office refurbishment meant everyone was out of the office for six months, which had put a damper on the social scene. However, the new space, in particular the town hall area, meant “socialising is a lot better. It’s lovely, you go to lunch, spot someone, and go sit next to them.” In addition, the firm had a “big welcome back party last week,” and longer-serving trainees said “generally every couple of months there’s a firmwide party. Teams also do events every couple of months.” Such as? “Beer pong, axe-throwing – the classics.” The firm also has a netball team, cricket in the summer, and a choir.
In terms of diversity and inclusion, “I’d say from a gender perspective, it’s pretty up there,” sources said. “What’s lacking is different backgrounds and nationalities.” Sources pointed out that the demographics are a bit different in Guildford compared to London: “If you look at the general stats in Surrey, we’re not far from that, but there’s a feeling among the junior staff that it’s not all that diverse.”
On the flip side, sources were overwhelmingly positive about the firm’s CSR initiatives, which include “cake sales in support for the situation in Ukraine. Around Easter we do things for the Halow Project as well.” The project provides opportunities and support for young people. The firm has since changed its charity to Challengers. Sources added, “We do a lot of litter picking-up as well. It’s part of being in Guildford. We want to feel connected to the community.”
For those who want to stay on as NQs, “you have an informal chat with the head of the department you’re interested in and they try to give you a soft indication of whether there’s likely to be a job,” we heard. “Then you get the email from HR with all the available jobs and you apply for the one you want.” Sources said the firm “reserves the right to interview” (if there's more than one applicant) before making a decision, but otherwise would confirm if the trainee had the job.
Bolted on: In 2023, the firm retained all five qualifiers.
How to get a Stevens & Bolton LLP training contract
- Vacation scheme deadline (2023): consult firm website from 1 Dec 2023
- Training contract deadline (2025): 31 January 2023
Applications and Assessments
S&B receives approximately 150 applications for its vac scheme, plus another 500 direct applications for its five available training contracts. HR sources at the firm tell us that they're seeking applications that show “good grammar and language skills, and the ability to communicate concisely.”
The assessment process for a training contract is “straightforward and designed to give each person an opportunity to be themselves and find out about the firm” our HR sources explain. Candidates kick-start the process by completing an online application form. Those who impress are invited to attend an interview with S&B's training partner and the head of HR. Ace this, and you'll be asked to complete a Watson Glaser critical reasoning test. From here, candidates are asked to attend a second interview, this time with a selection of partners.
If successful, S&B will sponsor your law school education, and provide you with a maintenance grant of £7,000 per year.
Candidates from both law and non-law backgrounds are encouraged to apply. You'll need at least 340 UCAS points (and at least one A at A level) as well as a 2:1 degree or higher – those who are still at university need to be on track to achieve this.
You'll also need to show that you have the right qualities to work at S&B. Recruiters are particularly on the lookout for those who can demonstrate the following: superb communication skills; a team player mentality; adaptability; the ability to manage competing deadlines and projects; drive and ambition; intelligence; attention to detail; business interest; and enthusiasm to be a lawyer and to work for S&B.
S&B offers a total of 15 places across its two vacation schemes in the spring each year. Each lasts a week and participants are paid after they have completed the scheme.
Vac schemers spend their visit in a single department, accompanied by a buddy within the team. They also attend presentations on the firm's practice areas over the course of the week. Within their assigned team, attendees tackle work on live matters. “I was right in the thick of things, not tucked away in a corner,” one of the firm's current trainees recalled. This is supplemented with exercises set by the firm's professional support lawyers – for example, drafting a witness statement. Sources also highlighted that there's ample opportunity to meet partners, ask questions and learn more about working at the firm.
Stevens & Bolton LLP
Main areas of work
Our trainees have genuine responsibility and experience of dealing with clients — and are made to feel part of the team from day one. Trainee seats will be available in most of the key business areas we specialise in, namely corporate, commercial and corporate tax, insolvency and banking/finance, personal wealth and families, commercial real estate, property litigation, real estate disputes, IP, commercial litigation and employment, pensions and immigration. We do our best to maximise your ability to experience as many of those areas as possible and currently operate a four, six-month seat rotation. There may also be an opportunity for trainees to undertake a client secondment. We are dedicated to encouraging continuous professional development, delivered in a variety of ways to give our trainees the best chance to become rounded, assured and respected professionals. Training in technical and business skills and early exposure to stimulating work with a variety of clients is instrumental in providing a solid foundation. Our unique combination of factors — supervision when you need it, support from colleagues and the opportunity to embrace early responsibility as soon as you are ready — creates a compelling proposition at the outset of your career.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2023
Guildford and surrounds
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 2)
- Banking & Finance (Band 1)
- Construction (Band 2)
- Corporate/M&A: £25 million and above (Band 1)
- Employment (Band 1)
- Environment (Band 1)
- Information Technology (Band 1)
- Intellectual Property (Band 1)
- Litigation (Band 1)
- Real Estate (Band 2)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 2)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)
- Commercial Contracts (Band 5)
- Franchising (Band 2)