A desire to escape the big city but avoid the high street drew our sources to this Salisbury-based firm.
Pets at home
“I didn’t want a City firm, and I felt Wilsons offered a good quality of work that I wouldn't get at a high-street firm. And it didn't have the hustle and bustle of the City.” That, in a nutshell, is what appealed to many of our interviewees about Wilsons. Based in Salisbury, with just a small London office, this firm is particularly known for its private client and charities work, though Wilsons lawyers can also be found aiding businesses in real estate, agricultural, banking, employment, and commercial matters.
On the private client side, beyond the more typical trusts and estates work, the firm handles many a spat over wills and inheritances between charities and disgruntled relatives. Wilsons is ranked nationally by Chambers High Net Worth and Chambers UK respectively for its private wealth and charities work. Save the Children, Help for Heroes and the RNLI are all clients. One particularly high-profile case saw the firm act for animal charity Blue Cross in a matter that worked its way all the way up to the Supreme Court in 2017 – Wilsons won the case and shaped how future claims under the Inheritance Act can (or can't) be brought.
Duking it out
About six weeks before starting, trainees are assigned their first seat. At subsequent mid-seat reviews trainees can put forward where they want to go next. “From what I've seen the firm is very good at giving you the seat you want,” one typical source felt, though some did note that “sometimes it’s a little secretive what's going to happen.”
Wilsons handles private client and charities work in three different teams: contentious trusts and probate; probate and trusts; and trust and tax. The contentious trusts team handles disputes over wills and estates: lawyers directly challenge wills or investigate if there’s grounds to do so – or defend a client against a claim brought against them. The team acts for charities – like the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and Macmillan Cancer Support – and individuals, including the Duke of Somerset and the widow and daughters of the late Tory cabinet minister Cecil Parkinson. Lawyers helped the former update his £50 million ducal settlement and defended a national charity's claim to a £1 million inheritance against the deceased's estranged children. Trainees get stuck into admin work like preparing bundles and documents, as well as researching points of law and drafting the odd letter, with “a constant theme of collecting data and putting it together in a way that's presentable to the court.” As well as beavering away on tasks like this, rookies get to attend “some very interesting client meetings with some very tense and fractured families – being able to help people during a very tense time in their lives is intensely satisfying.”
“Being able to help people during a very tense time in their lives is intensely satisfying.”
The probate and trusts team deals with administering estates, both before and after death, again acting for wealthy individuals or families and for charities. Trainees noticed some differences when dealing with one or the other: when acting for families “the work is a lot more emotionally involved, and there’s more toing and froing about dealing with the assets; whereas charities are looking for the most cost-effective method of addressing everything.” Trainees start out with “a lot of administrative tasks” for their first couple of weeks, then once they're settled in they can expect to be “drafting wills and deeds of variation.” Eventually newbies progress to “collecting all the information you need to apply for a grant of probate – then once you get the grant you're cashing all the assets and dealing with the administration.”
Wilsons splits its property work roughly into three groups. First is commercial property, which deals with businesses buying, leasing and selling properties and portfolio management for clients like charities Sense and Alabaré (which supports homeless people). Residential property deals with individuals buying and selling houses, and farms and estates acts for “clients who are farmers setting up farm businesses and tenancies” – the firm is top-ranked in the region by Chambers UK for its agricultural work. Trainees jump between 15 to 20 property matters at a time, doing various bits of form filling and research into who owns what. The added complexity of regulations relating to farms and estates means “there's problem solving involved” along the way. One source reported: “I spent time on a very complicated estate that used to be 17 different titles prior to being amalgamated.”
The company commercial team has two broad sides to its work: one is company sales and acquisitions, the other is the drafting of contracts for things like “supply agreements or share allotments.” Recently the team advised the shareholders of Dorset-based office supplier Copyrite on its merger with Bristol-based office IT business ITEC, and also helped care homes charity Greensleeves buy up the operator of Whitegates care home from its two principal shareholders, Rob and Paul. Trainees carry out pretty standard corporate trainee tasks – “drafting board minutes and Companies House fillings, research at Companies House, running the data room, and liaising with clients to make sure documents are provided.”
“The fact people are able to leave at 5pm means this is not a firm where you have to be rewarded with drinks.”
Last of the summer billable hours
Three themes cropped up when we asked trainees what Wilsons’ culture is like. The first was work/life balance. Trainees typically get in at 9am and leave between 5.30pm and 6pm – the latest exit time we heard about was 8pm. We also heard that “everyone tends to take their lunch break and no one’s keeping an eye on whether you take a full hour or not – it’s very relaxed.”
Second, while the nine-to-five schedule leaves trainees and lawyers with plenty of free time, they prefer to spend that time at home. “The fact people are able to leave at 5pm means this is not a firm where you have to be rewarded with drinks,” one source felt. Still that doesn’t mean Wilsons is bereft of social events: drinks are put on every two or three months by a social committee, which for instance included a Halloween gin bar. Trainees also join in the annual quiz organised by Salisbury Young Professionals. Finally, like many regional firms Wilsons likes to get involved with its local community. “We sponsor quite a lot of things,” one source told us, “and I believe some people help out and volunteer at the Salisbury Playhouse and the local wetland centre. Every so often there’s also a walk form Winchester to Salisbury for charity.”
Trainees have mid and end-of-seat reviews. The former pick out “any areas you're struggling with and where there’s room for improvement.” End-of-seat reviews are with the training partner and “go through our goals, what we've achieved, and what we want to achieve in our next seat.” During the review trainees “get a mark out of three: one means you've covered the basics and three means you've got a really good grasp of things.” Supervisors mostly approach training in a hands-off way. Trainees we spoke to preferred “to try to figure out problems for yourself.”
“There are a lot of partners here who joined as trainees.”
Pay was thought of as “fairly reasonable given we are in Salisbury,” though some thought staff “are paid less than at firms in Truro or somewhere like that.” Wilsons does not disclose its trainee salary to us, so we can't confirm one way or the other. A lot of trainees we spoke to said they lived outside the city of Salisbury itself – “it's quite touristy because of the cathedral and Stonehenge, so it attracts a lot of people, which pushes the prices up.”
We heard that NQ roles are often discussed in May before trainees qualify in September, but our sources were unclear on what exactly the process involves. After some pressing we heard that “in your third seat you are meant to give an indication of which practice you might be interested in qualifying into.” Beyond that it's a matter of “talking to people and trying to work out what happened last year.” In 2019 four of five qualifiers were kept on. While those we spoke to wanted more clarity about the NQ process, thinking about their long-term career prospects they were more positive. “There are a lot of partners here who joined as trainees and progressed,” one source noted, adding: “There’s not a large turnover of staff generally.”
Wilsons' office in central Salisbury is in the city's former Crown Court just a stone's throw from the historic cathedral.
How to get a Wilsons training contract
Training contract deadline (2022): 30 June 2020 (now accepting applications)
Following an initial screening, up to 25 applicants are invited to an interview with HR director Sarah Williams and a partner. HR manager Jo Ratcliffe tells us this is a chance for the firm to “get to the bottom of where candidates see themselves heading.” A current trainee confirmed “all the expected topics were covered, including where I saw myself in the future and what interests I had outside of work. I found it very relaxed. ” Another recalled that “a lot of the questions were based on my CV.”
From here, the firm decides who to invite to a vac scheme. Training contract applicants, meanwhile, go on to an assessment day in August if they cut the mustard. The number of applicants who secure a spot varies each year, with ten lucky hopefuls usually making the cut.
The day consists of an in-tray exercise – “you're given tasks via email and have to diarise your entire day,” a trainee told us – plus drafting and proofreading tests, and a group task. The latter forms “quite a big section” of the day, Jo Ratcliffe tells us. “Sarah Williams and I, together with some partners, usually sit in on that to observe how effectively the candidates interact with each other.” We're told that in the past this task has taken the form of “two sets of candidates communicating through an intercom about how to get a batch of eggs from one side of a map to the other,” and “debating the pros and cons of saving a group of people who'd been trapped.”
The firm's week-long vacation scheme takes place in July and has five places available. Vac schemers visit a different department each day of their visit. “We try to balance it so that they get a good mix of work overall,” Ratcliffe tells us. On the final day, there's an informal lunch attended by the senior and managing partners. “The trainees usually take the vac schemers out for lunch at some point too,” Ratcliffe adds.
When it comes to choosing the final four “it all boils down to who the best candidates are for the long term,” Ratcliffe concludes. The firm requires candidates to have at least a 2:1 degree from a top-30 university, and Ratcliffe tells us that work experience, while not a necessity, is viewed very favourably: “It's great when we get someone who's made a concerted effort to get as much experience as possible.”
A final point: being a native of Salisbury isn't a prerequisite for this firm, but Wilsons is likely to seek assurances that you're happy to make the city your home.
St Johns Street,
- Partners 30
- Other solicitors 55
- Trainees 8
- UK offices 2
- Contact Jo Ratcliffe, [email protected], 01722 427564
- Training partner Charlotte Watts, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 4
- Minimum required degree grade 2:1 or other
- Vacation scheme places pa: 5
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications: Open now
- Training contract deadline, 2022: 30th June 2020
- Vacation scheme applications: Open now
- Vacation scheme 2020 deadline: 31st March 2020
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: Above market rate
- Second-year salary: Above market rate
- Post-qualification salary: Above market rate
- Holiday entitlement 25
- LPC fees: Partial
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: one; occasional seat in London
Main areas of work
Family: The team’s expertise ranges from pre-nuptial agreements and civil partnerships to divorce, children’s arrangements and surrogacy law.
Charity: Wilsons has one of the most highly ranked teams in the UK. We advise on the complete range of legal needs and have a particular specialism in contentious and non-contentious legacy work. The constitutional and governance team has considerable expertise in advising military charities and the charitable care sector.
Agriculture: Wilsons’ rural team has developed a practice centred on the needs of rural business and landowners. These include complex sales and purchases, development options for landowners, grants and diversification advice and property litigation, including landlord and tenant, partnership matters, boundary, title and rights of way disputes.
Commercial: The commercial team specialises in employment, commercial property and corporate work. Corporate work focuses on commercial tax and asset planning, transactions and refinancing. The team deals with an unusual breadth of work requiring high-quality, bespoke commercial advice.
Property: Our clients have substantial commercial, agricultural and residential property interests and the firm advises on purchasing, letting and sales, and has a reputation for gaining excellent results in the options over and sales of development land.
Litigation & Dispute Resolution: Wilsons has one of the largest teams outside London. We advise clients on a wide range of contentious matters to provide an efficient and effective means of dispute resolution. In addition to its expertise in agricultural and probate disputes, the firm has specialists who can advise on all aspects of commercial dispute claims and reputation management. has specialists who can advise on all aspects of commercial dispute claims and reputation management.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
Southampton and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 1)
- Charities (Band 3)