In the pleasant city of Salisbury, trainees get hands-on experience in private wealth, property, charity, agribusiness, and much more...
In the whole nature-or-nurture debate, we acknowledge that people are (in part) a product of their environment. Law firms are too. Put a law firm among glass towers full of highly-strung bankers, and they will do a lot of stressful banking work. Put a law firm in the charming city of Salisbury, sitting pretty in its historic, rolling countryside, and you get a pleasant law firm specialising in charity, private wealth and agriculture and rural affairs.
This resilient firm has been plying its trade in this city for an astonishing 300 years, making it even older than Freshfields. Wilsons is a living example of the value of choosing a career outside the capital: the reward you get is to see the impact of your work on local businesses, individuals and charities, watching them grow, and thinking "I did that." And the more you progress the more your become a figurehead of that economy. The firm isn't entirely locally-oriented, though. It has a smaller London office, as many of the matters, in private wealth especially, involve court appearances and dealings on a grander scale.
This all results in several Chambers and Partners accolades. Wilsons’ knowledge in rural and agricultural affairs earns it a top Chambers UK ranking, while its work in the charity sector is also applauded. “It’s always a bonus to be working for charities, it’s one of the main attractions here,” one trainee felt. In Chambers High Net Worth, Wilsons comes out on top as a national leader for private wealth law, particularly for its work on the likes of landed estates matters, as well as cross-border issues spanning various jurisdictions. All of this proved to be an enticing combination for our trainee sources, who also noted Salisbury’s “London sensibility: it has that level of client service and professionalism, but with a more sociable set of hours and a friendlier atmosphere.”
Trainees get allocated their first seat at random and state their preferences for subsequent seats at their mid-seat reviews. A trainee underlined that the private client team is “in a sense, the core of Wilsons – it’s what the firm grew out of.” The group has three sub-teams: Court of Protection, tax and trusts, and trusts and probate. The Court of Protection sub-team handles lasting power of attorney matters for clients who, for example, have suffered brain injuries as a result of a traffic collision. Trainees, we were told, field calls from clients who can have a whole host of requests and questions, which “makes every day different and keeps you on your toes.” Tax and trusts (unsurprisingly) deals with all the tax aspects of trusts. Trainees are responsible for drafting “every type of trust deed” and conducting research, as well as working out tax calculations. “There’s a fair bit of problem solving – it can get quite technical!” one source shared, but in an encouraging and satisfied way. Read about the third sub-team, trusts and probate, on our website.
“Sending something on solicitor-headed paper usually does the trick...”
Contentious trusts and probate is the largest litigation seat on offer at Wilson’s. “That team’s very strong,” said one proud trainee who’d sat here. The work almost exclusively centres on charities and covers two main strands. The first covers situations where relatives of the deceased contest wills that leave assets to charity. “Some have estates that are worth millions, and family members dispute it being given to charity,” explained one source. On these matters, trainees typically gather bundles for court, prepare for hearings and attend “meetings with the siblings or children contesting, which can be intense at times.” Lawyers here recently defended a leading UK charity during a dispute over a £1.9 million gift left to the charity in the will of the deceased (who had gifted the assets to prevent any of their estate going to their surviving spouse and stepchildren). Other clients include Help for Heroes, Macmillan Cancer Support and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
The second strand revolves around legacy recoveries, and it was here that trainees felt they got more responsibility. So what does it involve? “It’s when the executor in the will has spent the money that was supposed to be left to charity, and the charity instructs us to get that money.” As these tend to be relatively small claims of £5k or under, trainees “pretty much run the legacy recovery – it’s good to get used to running a file and having that responsibility.” This can involve calling will executors, though “sending a letter on solicitor-headed paper usually does the trick” of getting their attention. Overall, interviewees liked how this seat gave them exposure to trusts work in a way that’s “less emotionally draining. You feel better chasing these executors on behalf of a charity because even if it’s tough, it’s easier to justify.”
The property team is split into housing, commercial and farm matters, with a lot of crossover occurring between the latter two. Trainees can be based in one area but usually “get the opportunity to see all sides of it.” Commercial and farm work covers the buying and selling of freeholds and leaseholds on “anything from warehouses to shops, and any kind of farming building.” The team recently advised the Royal Marines Association (a charity) during the building of an £8 million facility to house Marines and their families. Residential work tends to be conducted for high net worth individuals: “We’ve got some lords and nobility as clients – we work on singular £4 million properties, but also with landlords who have 50 small flats.” Trainees typically draft Land Registry documents, leases, licences to assign and letters to clients.
The smaller size of the firm means that trainees “can just go up to the head of the team and get guidance when you need it” (in a polite way of course – not by just barging in on senior management, which we wouldn’t recommend...). Interviewees felt that partners “take a real interest in your development” and also praised managing partner Mike Parker for welcoming trainees: “He knows where I went to uni, the sports I play, my hobbies etc... and he could say similar things about anyone in the firm. You really feel he’s listening and is interested in what you have to say.” A mentor scheme pairs each trainee up with an associate who’s five years or less post-qualified. “You can ask them any questions and they’ll give you tips because, if you’re in a situation, they’ve likely been there not so long ago too,” reported one insider.
“It’s nice to go for a walk at lunch and imagine you’re time-travelling!”
Trainees generally credited Salisbury as a good city to work in. One commented: “It’s got an old-school vibe and almost feels like a medieval town architecturally. It’s nice to go for a walk at lunch and imagine you’re time-travelling!” Some championed Salisbury as a “busy, buzzing place,” while others felt it could be “a little boring for a 20-something. There’s not tons going on.” Those in the latter camp tended to commute in from nearby cities that are “a little livelier.” On the firm socials front, we heard that there isn’t much in the way of “big organised firm events, but people will casually go out for drinks if they feel like it.”
Mental health is “taken very seriously here,” said one trainee. “I feel completely comfortable and confident talking about mental health with my supervisor and HR.” The firm also got praise for its promotion of female partners, though interviewees noted: “We struggle with racial diversity – but that might be because we’re in the South West.” On the work/life balance front, most of the people we spoke to were adamant that they have the best hours in the legal industry: “You can do 9am to 5pm and people won’t give you a second look when you leave. In most seats, people get up at 5pm and leave.” No one we spoke to had left any later than 7pm, nor had they worked from home on the weekends or in the evenings.
We heard that the qualification process “isn’t particularly transparent – you only become aware of how the process works right towards the end of the second year.” By May, Wilsons sends around a list of job vacancies, which trainees then apply for. Despite the reportedly “sit and wait scenario” that follows applications, most of our interviewees had enjoyed their time at the firm and wanted to stay. One was very honest and admitted: “I thought I’d end up leaving Wilsons because of the location, but having worked in Salisbury I now never want to leave!” In 2020, three out of four qualifiers were kept on.
Where there's a will, they're away
While there is a small London office in gorgeous Lincoln’s Inn Fields, trainees tend to just visit when needed for court cases and meetings in the capital. There’s also the chance for one trainee per rotation to spend a seat there.
How to get a Wilsons' training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2021): 31 March 2021 (applications open)
Training contract deadline (2023): 30 June 2021 (applications open)
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.
Wilsons' trusts and probate work
The trusts and probate arm of private client is focused on the administering and execution of estates when someone dies. The clients are often high net worth individuals with “interesting assets,” according to our sources. We’re intrigued... Some work touches on the agriculture sector, which “puts a different spin on things.” There are also complicated tax matters tied to people with assets abroad, such as holiday homes. On those, trainees can find themselves liaising with local counsel in other countries, as well as completing “admin tasks like calling up banks and estate agents.” Interviewees were happy to get involved with “the whole probate cycle,” which involved documenting assets, drafting inheritance tax forms, “and even things like securing property valuations and getting house clearers in.” Trainees liked how “people-focused” the seat was but acknowledged that the work can be “quite sensitive,” requiring emotional intelligence as well as lawyerly skills. However, sources were often one step removed and highlighted this point: “Luckily, we’re shielded from that raw environment of bereavement as it’s not often you meet with the bereaved. There’s no morose atmosphere in the office.”
Training at Wilsons
Trainees also get training through Law South – a consortium of firms that deliver ‘introduction to’ courses for each seat. This sees trainees visiting London for the day and attending sessions that act as “a helpful refresher of the LPC”; the day also provides a good chance to network with fledgling lawyers from other local firms.
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, 2023: 30th June 2021
- Vacation scheme applications: Open now
- Vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 31st March 2021
- 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.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020
Southampton and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 2)
- Charities (Band 3)
- Education: Institutions (Schools) (Band 3)